Every Good and Perfect Gift: A Novelby Brenda Jernigan
In the tradition of Kaye Gibbons, Sheri Reynolds, and Dorothy Allison, Brenda Jernigan is an exciting and original Southern voice. This novel concerns a miraculous event with a contemporary spin that sets in motion a profoundly moving and often warmly human coming-of-age story. This is beautifully crafted writing, rich with unforgettable characters.
Every Good and Perfect Gift is set in a small town in North Carolina, a place that is comfortable with tradition, including the traditional image of God. On a sultry Sunday morning when ten-year-old Maggie Davidson swoons from the heat and sees God and God is a woman people are quick to ascribe her vision to the fantasies of an overheated girl. But when Maggie begins to demonstrate a gift of healing, people's attitudes change.
This is a story of a family of three strong women grandmother, mother, and daughter who live by the laws of love, loss, and pride. It is also the story of a community of good people gone wrong and bad people who find good in themselves. It is a knowingly detailed account of a particular part of America and of the wide landscape of human hearts and souls.
- Crown Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1ST. ED
- Product dimensions:
- 5.80(w) x 8.58(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
As I sat in Sunday school with my crinoline pricking my skin like a holly bush, God revealed Herself to me as a woman. I was ten. The combination of the hard wooden chair, the crinoline about to draw blood, and Mr. Paul Lovingood telling the story of Jonah and the whale for at least the fortieth time in my years of church attendance caused my eyes to stray from the picture placed before us: Jonah in the cavernous belly of a whale.
I looked around the ring of Sunday-school faithful, wondering if Granny would allow me to sit with Annie Hudson during service later. Mr. Lovingood shook his head to emphasize a point of particular wickedness, and I thought how much the shape of his head reminded me of a cantaloupe. Off to the side, a circle of light drew my attention. Coming in through the window, the light looked like it was so thick you could touch it, sunbeams that had weight. Beyond the window lay fields of tobacco yellowing in the sun and the farmhouse, still and white, where my mama and my granny and I lived.
In the light hovering by the window was a woman. She was dressed like Mary in the Christmas program, only the top piece of her outfit that covered her dark hair, the one that we made out of a linen dresser cloth for our Mary, that top piece shone with every color of the rainbow and yet it was white. I cannot say how I knew She was God.
She spoke. “Feed my sheep.”
The light became brighter and brighter until I thought She would surely burn up in its intensity. Love poured up around me and in me like the milk going down my throat when it came warm from the cow. The light encircled me, thick and heavy as the pile of quilts Iused for cover in the front bedroom. Under those quilts, I imagined myself back in my mama’s womb. The sounds of the house were muffled in that hollow warm spot I carved out in the bed.
That’s how the light made me feel.
I suppose I said, “Pardon?” then because all my classmates said Mr. Lovingood repeated something to me about the evils of Nineveh right before I slid away.
Next I remember, Mr. Paul Lovingood was bent over me, wiping the sweat rolling under his chin with his handkerchief, his good Sunday one that had his initials on it, and yelling my name.
“Maggie. Maggie. Can you hear me, Maggie?”
Right over his shoulder I saw the faces of my fellow Sunday-school pilgrims wearing a mixture of concern for my limp body and relief at having been rescued from hearing about Jonah one more time. Will Atkinson predicted there would be a run on fainting now that it was known that a faint was capable of grinding the forward progress of a Sunday-school lesson to a halt.
As sure as the cool concrete beneath my head, I knew the woman of the light was God.
“Mr. Lovingood, I saw her. I saw God. He’s a woman.”
Mr. Lovingood wiped a stray drop of sweat. “Will, run fetch Miss Naomi. Maggie’s hit her head and got a concussion.”
The other faces behind his shoulder drew back. Afraid, I suppose, of catching it from me. Mr. Lovingood held up two fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up, Maggie?”
“Two. She talked to me, you know, standing right off the left side of your head.”
A high-pitched giggle, the same kind Miss Sally Owens made every time an eligible bachelor was within three feet of her, came from behind Mr. Lovingood’s shoulder. I was sure it had to be one of the Matthews twins; Granny called them a couple of Mexican jumping beans. Mr. Lovingood turned his head; the spot with no hair shined at me. The giggle stopped and feet shuffled.
“Maggie needs air. You children, go to the sanctuary and sit quietly. I’ll be there shortly.”
I pushed down the light blue skirt of my flounced dress and started to sit up. “I feel fine. Better than ever. I’m sure God talking to me direct and everything is what caused the blood to leave my head.”
Mr. Lovingood shrieked, “Lie down! You mustn’t move until Miss Naomi has a chance to look at you.” As Granny would say, he was terrible worked up now, and the sweat rolled off his face so fast, his handkerchief was hard pressed to keep up with it. I put my head back down. He turned to the group behind him. “Be of some use, James Williams; go find something to put under her head. I thought I told you children to go to the sanctuary.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw black patent-leather shoes capped with anklets and neatly pressed pants’ legs shuffle into one line and move for the door. And still Mr. Lovingood watched me as if I might sprout two heads. I almost wished I could at that moment, only so as to see the look on his face. Granny would say that’s the Lily in me coming out. Make no mistake, whenever there was a devilish thought in me, they all attributed it to my mama, who I sometimes thought must have come out of the Cape Fear River fully formed like one of those ancient pagan goddesses. That she was my granny’s flesh and blood was as strange to me as if Abraham and Isaac, the two yard dogs my granny kept, were to take wing and start flying.
Maybe that’s what started me thinking about God. If the devil could be a woman, then surely God could be the same. I suppose I’d been thinking on that for a time in the way you do some things. Ideas buzz around your head and never stay still long enough to really take form, and then something happens and they sting you. My crinoline that day was the idea of God being a woman stinging me.
“Lord have mercy, what have you done now?” Granny’s voice preceded her black oxfords into the room. The ankles atop the black oxfords were thick and sturdy. A lot of women around Canaan had ankles like young dogwood trees; Granny had ankles like stately oaks.
Mr. Lovingood stood up. “Miss Naomi, I think she got too hot and fainted away. Must have hit her head on the floor; she seems confused.”
Her head appeared above me, the hair pulled straight back from her face and gathered at her neck in a bun. At night when she brushed and plaited her hair, it fell past her waist in a wave of black with streaks of gray that grew wider every year. “Maggie, do you know who I am?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“In the Canaan Free Will Church, Canaan, North Carolina.”
Granny eyed Mr. Lovingood suspiciously. “She seems all right to me, but I’ll take her on home and let Lily watch her whilst I come back for service.”
Mr. Lovingood coughed and jerked his head in the direction of the door. Granny didn’t get the hint or chose to ignore it.
From down below, I could half see and the rest guess that Granny looked down her nose at him, a habit usually reserved for Mama, farmhands, and occasionally me when I strayed from the straight and narrow. I worked hard not to be a recipient of that gaze; it was most always followed by a weeping-willow switch on my behind. Granny felt that she and Granddaddy Eli had been too easy on Mama, which resulted in her lack of character, and if I was going to have anything in this world, I was surely going to have character.
“Granny — ”
“Hush, child, I’m talking with Mr. Lovingood.”
“Granny, I saw God.”
Mr. Lovingood mumbled something into his handkerchief. Granny knelt beside me and started feeling my head for knots. Over her shoulder, I could see Will Atkinson by the door. He was standing back so Granny and Mr. Lovingood couldn’t see him.
“Granny, God is a woman.”
Her grip on my head loosened. “Nonsense. I might expect that of some heathen child, but not from a young woman who has seven perfect attendance pins on her dress.”
Convinced I had suffered no head injuries, Granny stood and looked Mr. Lovingood in the eye. “Ten-year-old foolishness.”
I felt the name Lily pass between them. And I got angry. My mama was not exactly like I would have asked God to make her, but there were plenty worse and Granny and Mr. Lovingood knew it.
Mr. Lovingood began to gather up his Bible and lesson materials. “Well, Miss Naomi, I’ll be getting on to the sanctuary to find my class.”
I jumped up from my concrete sickbed and stomped my foot.
“I did see her. She was over Mr. Lovingood’s left shoulder and she talked to me the same as I’m talking to you.”
Granny looked down her nose at me. “I’ve got a weeping-willow switch that will talk to you after service if you don’t hold your tongue.”
My mouth opened, but instead of my voice there was a cry of pain. We looked around us for the source of the noise. Will Atkinson had closed the door on his finger trying to move out of the way before Mr. Lovingood found him out of place. By the time we got to him, the finger was slightly swelled and bent. Granny examined the finger the way she had my head. She turned it this way and that, which caused Will’s face to turn red, connecting his many small freckles into one big one.
The feeling of warmth that had flooded through me earlier returned. With it came a voice as clear as my granny’s: “Take the hand and pray for it.”
I looked behind me, but only the empty seats of the Sunday-school room were there. Granny and Mr. Lovingood didn’t pay any mind to me or the voice. Granny continued her examination of the finger. “I don’t know as what you shouldn’t have your mama take you to see Dr. Kincaid with this finger. You can’t ever tell, it might need setting.”
“Granny, let’s pray for it.” I reached out my hands and took Will’s hand between them. He wrinkled his nose when I touched the finger. Granny and Mr. Lovingood looked surprised. Mr. Lovingood turned to Granny and then back to me. “I don’t suppose it could hurt.”
They bowed their heads. “God, our Mother and our Father, restore to us the faith of our childhoods. . . .” I could hear Granny and Mr. Lovingood’s prayers beginning to move up from their bellies and out of their mouths, adding harmony to my own. “Take the pain from Will’s finger and use his hands to glorify your name.” The warmth that filled my body moved up and into my hand and through to Will’s finger like electric current. I opened my eyes, but the room dropped from my sight; only Will’s hand remained, surrounded by the light. “Heal his finger according to your promise—‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Amen.”
The warmth left and I felt weak. My muscles ached like I had gotten out of the bed after a week of the fever and tried to take my first step.
Will looked at me as I dropped his hand. Where his face had been red moments before, now there was no color, to the point where you couldn’t see his freckles at all. He stretched out his hand, his bent finger straightened. “It don’t hurt anymore.”
“Doesn’t,” Mr. Lovingood corrected him. Granny reached up and took Will’s hand. I walked back to my chair to gather up my Bible and the black patent-leather pocketbook Mama bought me for Easter.
“Granny, fainting tired me and I’m going to walk on back to the house. I can’t sit through service today.”
Granny acknowledged I had spoken with a nod of her head, and Mr. Lovingood offered to drive me home. The house sat so close to church that Granny and I often walked, but I gladly accepted Mr. Lovingood’s offer of a ride.
During the short ride home, we were silent. As I stepped from the car, Mr. Lovingood tipped his hat. “I hope your head gets to feeling better. Maybe I’ll see about bringing a fan next Sunday. Keep the room a little cooler.”
“Thank you. And thank you for the ride,” I said as I shut the car door.
At home, the screen door was unhooked and Mama lounged on one end of the couch, reading a True Detective magazine.
“I got too hot at church and I’m going to lay down.”
“Why, Magdalena, you have no color. Do you want some water?”
“No, ma’am. I’ll be okay.”
I said nothing of my vision, knowing that if I told her, Mama would find my revelation a fascinating thing and want to talk about it for hours. I stripped off my clothes and put on my cotton summer gown, white with hand-crocheted lace, which was a hand-me-down from my cousin Norma. When the side of my face met the feather ticking, I slept. Neither Mama nor Granny woke me for dinner. It was close to suppertime before I got out of the bed. I heard them talking, but when I opened the bedroom door, they quit and both were busily reading by the time I walked into the kitchen. Granny read the Bible and Mama read her magazine.
Over a supper of cold fried chicken, peas, and new potatoes, Granny told me that Will’s finger had completely healed by the time the church service was over. He told everybody that I did it.
I bit a new potato and felt it give beneath my teeth.
“Of course you didn’t,” sniffed Granny, and she was right.
It was that Woman in the light. Her presence brought comfort and healing that Sunday morning.
What People are Saying About This
Lee Smith, author of Fair and Tender Ladies
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"Brenda Jernigan has perfect pitch and a wildly original mind. This novel is compelling -- a real page-turner!"
-- Lee Smith, author of Fair and Tender Ladies
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Brenda Journigan's EVERY GOOD AND PERFECT GIFT replaced Lee Smith's FAIR AND TENDER LADIES as my all time favorite book, a position held for 13 years. Ms. Journigan has masterfully woven a multilayered and textured story with a theme of healing running throughout. She has done so portraying characters from the Bible Belt, specicifically Ms. Journigan's own North Carolina. These characters are likable everyday people trying to go about everyday life the best they can. She examines church people and their variance of commitment and their variance of motive. Through the main charachter, Maggie, who is given the powers of healer, the reader is able to explore with much creativity and originality on the writer's part such subjects as the characteristics of God, the nature of healing, the powers in the church, a very touching family life among granddaughter, grandmother and mother, and a quite touching love story between Maggie and an Intern Divinity student. Love in its many forms is woven into this story of Maggie, her unexpected gift and the unexpected testings it brings. This book places Brenda Journigan in an exclusive club of outstanding NC writers and to do it with her first novel was a sure triumph!
From the first chapter I was hooked on this book. The story was brilliantly orchestrated,remarkably realistic, with indelibly characterized men and women. This was truly and imaginative page turner. I was so impressed with this book, I passed it on to a friend and relative.....who had the same feelings for this book as I did. I intend to read this book again, and am looking for other literature by author Brenda Jernigan.
Maggie is a likeable character struggling to understand how she fits into the world and how to use the gifts that God has given her. As she matures she comes to terms with some of her own life's and her society's influences (a father who abandoned her,various prejudices) and becomes more at ease with herself. She finds a way to use her gifts rather than feeling used by her gifts. Brenda Jernigan has written this book with a wonderful premise and lots of good ideas - too many good ideas perhaps, as many of them don't get a chance to be fully developed. There are so many characters, she could write future books from their perspectives as this one book cannot contain it all. The result is a good but although a bit overfull and disjointed at times.
This work is descriptively written and poeticlly told. You can see, hear, and feel tha action. It's characters are multi-dimensional and the story is compelling, heart warming, and spirited. It is written with tone and rhythm. The plot is fluid and worthy of exploration. Definitely worth the read.