Born Again
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Born Again

by Kelly Kerney

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What happens when a Bible Quiz Champion takes on Darwin? Mel, a faith-filled Pentecostal, has the chance to escape Slow Rapids, Indiana, by attending academic summer camp. The only catch? She has to read forbidden tomes like The Origin of Species . So she forges the permission slip, promising God she’ll bring him a lost soul in exchange.


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What happens when a Bible Quiz Champion takes on Darwin? Mel, a faith-filled Pentecostal, has the chance to escape Slow Rapids, Indiana, by attending academic summer camp. The only catch? She has to read forbidden tomes like The Origin of Species . So she forges the permission slip, promising God she’ll bring him a lost soul in exchange.

Mel conscientiously uses her Biblical expertise to argue Darwin’s theories, but meanwhile begins to realize that her parents, her pastor, and her church aren’t what she thought. She zealously battles demons every day—lascivious heathens at school, the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog, her backsliding brother and sister. But now, suddenly, she must also conquer the doubts of her own heart.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


"Kelly Kerney is one of the freshest and most original new voices of her generation. Her debut novel is an amazing investigation of evangelical America's family values. This blue-collar tale of life's many travails by a golden voiced young author leaves an indelible impression on both the heart and the mind."
-- William O'Rourke, University of Notre Dame professor and Chicago Sun-Times columnist

"Kelly Kerney's smart first novel takes on evolution, fundamentalism, and one very appealing girl caught between them. Melanie really is born again, and her readers will find themselves transformed too."--Valerie Sayers, author of Brain Fever and Due East

Richard Russo

"BORN AGAIN is a harrowing and frequently hilarious insider's examination of Christian fundamentalism. It's enough to make an atheist pray--that this is not America's future."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Entertaining. From the first chapter of her novel, Kerney woos us with tongue-in-cheek humor. As an adolescent first-person protagonist, Mel is extremely likable. Kerney's descriptions of the world as seen and experienced by a teenage girl often seem spot-on (after carefully studying a Frederick's of Hollywood catalog, Mel and Beth cut their underwear into thongs). Also particularly fine is Kerney's portrayal of Mel's burgeoning sexuality. She believably depicts her preoccupation with sex and the hormones raging within her without Mel ever seeming aware of it. Mel thinks about her classmates having sex, her parents having sex, her sister having sex -- even the abstinence rally leads to thinking about her beloved Pastor Lyle having (in his words) "awesome" sex with his wife. Kerney even gently edges this theme beyond Mel herself, showing in a scene of exorcism charged with brutal sexuality how religion is, at times, used to sublimate sexual passion.Throughout, Kerney successfully reveals the manifold contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in adult life. Ironically, the contradictions that at first seem so glaring -- those between Darwin and the Bible -- are easily addressed by Mel with suitable Bible verses and theories about "God-years," allowing the two to coexist peacefully. And though the novel's witty humor keeps it from turning into either a rant or a sermon, it also keeps it firmly on the lighter side -- expect no portentous exploration of dealing with challenges to religious faith here. Instead "Born Again" is a humorous portrait of an adolescent awakening from the blind faith of childhood and learning to see, think and believe with adult awareness." -- San Francisco Chronicle
Entertainment Weekly

"[Mel] is charmingly real and sympathetic. Grade: B."
Publishers Weekly
Like yin and yang, zealotry and doubt animate this intriguing debut by self-proclaimed "recovering born-again Christian" Kerney, featuring 14-year-old Melanie , a Pentecostal Revivalist (which, according to Mel, "means a lot of jumping up and down, speaking in tongues, and falling over, in that order") who wants to be a "Warrior for Christ"-but who also wants to attend academic summer camp. But the camp's required reading includes the verboten On the Origin of Species, and Mel, who is a Bible trivia quiz-kid champ, decides to read Darwin in order to disprove him. Alternately precocious and na ve (her discussion of Darwin is deep, yet her world is rocked by the revelation that her parents engaged in premarital sex), Mel is a terrific character: curious, smart and funny. The supporting cast-Mel's obsessive-compulsive, demon-seeing mother; her sexy pastor; and her occasionally repentant older sister who moves back into the house with her out-of-wedlock daughter to escape an abusive boyfriend-is less wonderful. And in the final third, when the family takes a trip to the underground caves of Kentucky and Mel seeks the scientific evidence for her Darwinian investigation, the story advances entirely inside Mel's head. A dark, fantastic finale earns some redemption. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
"Charming and insightful."
Publishers weekly
"Like yin and yang, zealotry and doubt ainmate this intriguing debut. Mel is a terrific character: curious, smart, and funny."
Library Journal
First novelist Kerney's premise is almost too convenient (read: difficult) for fiction. Her born-again teen protagonist, Mel, gifted in both Bible and secular studies, wins a place in an elite summer academic camp. After accepting, she goes home only to discover she must read a who's who of church blasphemers: Sagan, Vonnegut, Shakespeare, and the father of them all, Darwin. The Origin of Species fuels a good deal of Mel's surreptitious first-person observations; she will, as a daughter of Christ, take down his theory about people coming from monkeys. In between, she limply navigates her fractured family and plans to save her Methodist best friend at a play recital. While Kerney wisely refrains from pushing Mel to extremes she neither praises Darwin nor buries him Mel merely treads a muddled middle ground that fails to illuminate her character. This reviewer closed the book not knowing what Mel wanted or if she learned anything from her brave juxtaposing of faith and science. She oscillates between eager sponge and dumb stone, leaving readers no choice but to throw up their hands at such an impenetrable creature. Not recommended. Heather McCormack, Library Journal Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-When the 14-year-old born-again narrator of this book was a baby, her pastor prophesied that she was destined to do great works for God. Now that Melanie is older, those "great works" appear to be discovering the truth about this pastor, her family, and herself. Melanie looks at her world and sees that there is something wrong with the picture. Her unmarried teen sister has a baby, her brother listens to devil music, and their mother sees demons walking through the house in the night. Melanie tries to decipher the signs God is sending her. She decides that disproving Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is her duty, and that this will help her save her best friend and then the rest of the world. As Melanie examines Darwin's work, however, she also traces the origin and evolution of her family and learns why her mother obsessively cleans and that her father is not the saint she thinks he is. Melanie finds herself moving away from what her pastor and her parents believe. Readers will appreciate how difficult it is for the protagonist to be understood, and to understand. This is a sympathetic story about the search for true faith in the modern world.-Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In Kerney's debut, a sanctimonious evangelical teen reads Darwin and begins to question her beliefs. As an abstinence-devoted, church-going Bible Quiz Champion in Slow Rapids, Ind., 14-year-old Mel seems like the ideal evangelical Christian girl-particularly compared with her heathen siblings. Her older sister, Kyle, has an abusive boyfriend, a child out of wedlock and another one possibly on the way. Her brother Jared failed an Air Force drug test and now lives in Mel's parents' basement and works at a local factory, forgoing church altogether. But even Mel has her vices: Though she papers her school with pro-abstinence flyers and punches a girl on the school bus for showcasing her make-out sessions, she also is eager to cut out the sides of her cotton underwear to mimic the thongs that her (unsaved) friend Beth shows her in a contraband Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue. Mel's virtues are further tested when she wins a scholarship to an academic summer camp and finds the forbidden Darwin on her reading list. Curiosity gets the best of her, and promising herself that she will "save" Beth by taking her to the annual church conversion play, she snags a copy of The Origin of Species from Beth's living room. As she reads, she finds to her surprise that Darwin's words make sense to her-perhaps even more sense than her sin-obsessed parents and the charming Pastor Lyle at the church. And when Mel uncovers hard evidence that even her parents aren't quite as pious as she had thought, she begins to understand that both her family and her church are entrenched in deep hypocrisy. Much to Kerney's credit, there is no overblown happy ending-Mel's ability to come to terms with her family, herupbringing and her religion is authentically complicated and clumsy. A seamless blend of snark and sincerity.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)
920L (what's this?)
Age Range:
14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Choose Life,
Your Mother Did
The “Morality Check” abstinence rally was silent, everyone waiting for me to finish my pledge, but somehow I had forgotten the words. I had practiced for weeks these three simple sentences, but now, squinting in the spotlight at the crowded gymnasium, the last one escaped me. Something about intimacy and God. I improvised.
“And in pledging my purity, I promise to be intimate with no one but God.”
Silence. And then applause. Pastor Lyle ushered me away from the microphone and to the side of the stage. Squinting out into the audience, I tried to locate my parents, but it was impossible to see individuals. These hundreds of people blended together into a vague gray mass that reminded me of a sleeping animal— a twitch somewhere, a noise every now and then, but still a single entity.
I stood in the shadows of the stage, watching Tessa Goodman make her pledge. She said it flawlessly, and she annunciated the last sentence like the punch line of some joke: “And in pledging my purity, I promise to be intimate with no one until I am joined with my husband in holy matrimony by God.”
She took Pastor Lyle’s arm, and I watched them walk over to me. She was smiling and her eyes were set about an inch to the left of my head. Bitch, I said to myself, but immediately repented. Pastor Lyle gave me a disappointed look as if he’d heard my thoughts. Why, I wondered, did that word pop into my head just now? I repented again, biting the inside of my cheek until it bled, to show God I meant it.
I had no idea how I had forgotten that last sentence, but I figured I got it close enough. I just forgot the marriage part, but everyone knew that anyway. Still, I was baffled. My memory was impeccable. I was the county Bible Quiz Champion. I could recite entire chapters of the Bible on command. And Tessa Goodman was no better than an idiot.
I watched all eleven of the girls recite their pledges. I had been first, for some reason that Pastor Lyle never made clear, although I had a good guess. He knew I was special, that I, above all these silly girls, would take a pledge to God seriously. When I was a baby, Pastor Lyle had prophesied over me, had told my parents that I was destined to do great works for God. These other girls just wanted to prance around onstage in pretty dresses.
They all looked elegant in the spotlight, and I watched Pastor Lyle escort each of them to a line next to me. It was like a beauty pageant, watching them in their new dresses. But I knew I didn’t look like this. I was wearing a dress that was too big in the chest, that fell at an awkward length above my ankles. I ended up in one of my sister’s old dresses, which had been white and puffy on her years ago, but on me was dingy and deflated, like old curtains. I looked down at myself, realizing for the first time that abstinence for me was not a choice but my destiny.
After we were all lined up, the spotlight found Pastor Lyle, leaving us in darkness. He was standing behind the podium, looking out at the audience. I could see the back of his body and his profile. Millions of dust particles swirled through the light that surrounded him, as if his intention to speak were enough to disrupt the tranquillity of things. He didn’t even clear his throat before he started.
“Our nation’s youth are under attack,” he said in a somber voice that was just loud enough to reach the people in the back. “Our youth”— he thrust an accusing finger backwards at us girls without looking— “are precious to God. God has a plan for them. And I can tell you that plan does not involve AIDS, pregnancy, sterility, poverty, alcohol abuse, cervical cancer, and death.” The audience jumped to life, clapping and yelling as Pastor Lyle put his hands out, as if to say he was just getting started. “Satan has infiltrated our culture and overtaken the media.” He stopped to let this one sink in.
“Before a child in this country turns eighteen, she will have seen ninety thousand instances of premarital relations without consequences. This,” he yelled, banging a fist on the podium, “this is what I mean when I say our youth are under attack.”
There was more cheering. I was fourteen years old. How much premarital sex had I been exposed to already? The math quickly jumbled in my head. I tried to recall the last instance of premarital sex I had seen on television. Last week at my best friend Beth’s house, I had seen a movie where two unmarried real-estate agents had sex. They were horizontal and rolling around in someone else’s bed, yelling each other’s names like curse words. Then he bit her shoulder. Afterward they lay there, the sheets pulled up to their armpits, talking about the tricks they used to sell houses. Essential oils on the lightbulbs, a baseball mitt left on the porch. There were no consequences at all. They seemed pretty pleased with themselves. I stared at the back of Pastor Lyle, watching his knees bobbing in excitement as he wound himself up for whatever he was going to say next. It was incredible to watch the Spirit move through him— his legs were working like crazy, but the upper half of him didn’t move.
“God’s plan for our children does not involve suicide and abortion. God’s plan involves a man and woman, brought together under Him, to be made into one flesh. God made sex,” he said, letting that word come out of his mouth like a puff of smoke. He paused to savor it, and I thought I would fall over right there onstage. I had never heard Pastor Lyle say that word before, and now it lingered there, in the air in front of me, just asking me to breathe. I resisted the urge and began picking at a hangnail that I had worked almost all the way down to my knuckle.
“Man and woman were created by God to complement each other. They were made to be together. Men need sexual fulfillment, recreation, physical attraction, admiration, and domestic support. Women need affection, conversation, honesty, financial support, and family commitment. Men and women,” he said again, “are meant to be together.” He scanned the audience, as if daring anyone to oppose him. “And so God created sex, but He created it with boundaries. When it occurs within these boundaries, sex is”— he paused to choose his word— “awesome.”
I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and let it out with a small sigh as I tried to imagine Pastor Lyle having awesome sex with his wife. They were horizontal, wrapped up in sheets, biting each other’s shoulders. I wondered if it was a sin to picture married people having sex. I repeated my pledge over in my head, just to make sure God knew I was sincere.
“But sex outside the boundary of marriage is terribly, terribly destructive.”

I imagined the roof falling in on those sexy TV real-estate agents, their feet sticking out from under the rubble on the bed.
“But these girls,” he said, pointing again at us. “These girls have been educated in resisting temptation. They have learned that the only way to resist the attack of the enemy is through Bible study, participating in the Church, and reading wholesome books that strengthen their faith.” The crowd loved this one. As they clapped, I thought about Wuthering Heights, if Pastor Lyle would consider that one wholesome.
“These girls have made a commitment to preserve their bodies in the name of Christ. They have signed a contract with Him.”
Copyright © 2006 by Kelly Kerney
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Meet the Author

KELLY KERNEY received a BA from Bowdoin College and an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, where she was awarded the Nicholas Sparks postgraduate fellowship. Raised in a Pentecostal church, she is twenty-six years old and lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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