It's summer in Kentucky, the low ceiling of August pressing down on Charmaine Peake and the town of East Winder. Charmaine and her mother get along better with a room between them, but they've been forced by circumstances to relocate to a tiny trailer by the river. The last of a line of local holy men, Charmaine's father has turned from prophet to patient, his revelation lost in the clarifying haze of medication. Her sure-minded grandmother has suffered a stroke. At church, where she has always felt most certain, Charmaine is tested when she uncovers that her archrival, a sanctimonious missionary kid, carries a dark, confusing secret. Suddenly her life can be sorted into what she wishes she knew and what she wishes she didn't.
A moving, hilarious portrait of mothers and daughters, Lay It on My Heart brings us into the heart of a family weathering the toughest patch of their lives. But most of all, it marks out the seemingly unbearable realities of growing up, the strength that comes from finding real friendship, and the power of discovering—and accepting—who you are.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
ANGELA PNEUMAN, raised in Kentucky, is a former Stegner Fellow and teaches fiction writing at Stanford University. Her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her widely praised story collection, Home Remedies, was hailed as “call[ing] to mind Alice Munro” by the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Chicago and in the Bay Area of California.
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My mother and I get along better with a room or two between us. The way she's humming now, to herself, is the kind of thing that would make me crazy up close: but there's something separate and free about the fact that she doesn't know I'm listening. Like she'd be doing this same thing if I didn't exist, or if I was someone else's daughter she knew only from church or the IGA. She breaks into a soft, nervous soprano. "My Favorite Things." The words lilt over the opening and closing of her dresser drawers, over the sound of Mayor James's lawnmower next door approaching and retreating like something that can't make up its mind.
It's August, hot, and I'm waiting in the foyer on the bottommost stair, trying to catch the breeze from the window.
"Charmaine?" my mother calls now from the bedroom, breaking off the song. She likes to exaggerate the French pronunciation of my name, for fun, in a way that pains me: Shah-hah-mehnn. "Come help me dress," she says. "I have something to share with you."
In the bedroom I find her pulling her beige half-slip over her head, letter from my father in one hand. The international mail was so slow that it didn't arrive until just this afternoon, as we're about to head out to collect him from the Bluegrass Airport.
"We're not French," I say.
"We're a little bit French," she says, speaking through the thin polyester fabric. "Maybe."
She shrugs the slip down past her shoulders and bra, settles the elastic at her waist, and flaps the letter at the bed, where our black cat, Titus, sniffs at the airmail envelope. "Your father's had a new revelation," she says.
I perch on the bed and study the Jerusalem postmark. God's own city. Where my father, a man after God's own heart, a prophet, has spent the past month. Prophecy is one of the rarest spiritual gifts. Usually it involves God telling my father what kinds of things to bring to people's attention, but sometimes it involves God telling him what to do. Like visit the Holy Land. Or before that, take a year's leave from The Good Word Press, where he writes up his prophecy, so that we can live, as we've been doing since last summer, on faith alone.
"What kind of revelation?" I say carefully.
My mother is frowning into the grainy mirror over the dresser, eyeing the tiny roll of loose skin that spills over the waistband of her slip.
"Phoebe," I say. "A revelation like to live on faith alone?"
"Let's hope not," she says. "Charmaine. I think we're done living on faith alone. It's exhausting. Look here. Never forget to draw in the muscles, see? See?" She waves her arms until I look, then sucks in her stomach, pointing at the way the loose skin disappears. "Then you'll never need a girdle. A project, he calls it, which sounds practical. If I had to guess, I'd say your father's starting a new series of articles. About our year, maybe, or his trip. Maybe he'll even write a book." She steps into the bottom half of a cornflower blue suit she sewed herself. Bespoke is what she calls it, if anyone asks.
Inside the airmail envelope is a postcard made out to me. It shows a tall, thin boulder rising from a faded landscape of rock, standing craggy and pale against blue, blue sky above an even deeper blue sea below. The Dead Sea. Which is really a lake, my father explains on the back, underneath which, quite possibly, lie the ruined, sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The boulder is supposed to be Lot's disobedient, unfortunate wife. That's all the note says. I flip the card back over and study the picture, wondering if this particular choice has anything to do with his revelation. Lot's wife. One way you can look at the boulder makes her seem stuck in mid-motion, like she's trying to move forward and turn back all at the same time. The other way makes her look like she's hunched into herself, maybe under a shawl, watching her home disappear under a merciless rain of fire.
Phoebe adjusts the skirt and squares her shoulders. She studies me with a serious, confiding tilt to her head, which usually means she's about to share something she'll want to stay just between us. Like her secret tailoring jobs that have kept us in peanut butter for the past year, which my father never thinks to question. Or how she has it on good authority that my grandmother, Daze, thinks my father married down. Since my father's been away, I'm beginning to wonder if all information can be sorted into what I wish I knew and what I wish I didn't.
"Listen," Phoebe begins, but I don't want to. I scoop up Titus and jiggle him in Phoebe's direction until he relaxes into my arms and starts to purr.
"I'm a fat black kitty," I say from behind his soft head.
Phoebe sighs and pinches the pads of Titus's foot. She loves him almost as much as I do. "Look at these little black beans," she says in her half-scornful, half-babyish cat-talking voice. By the time I let him down and stand up, she's already on to something else, giving me the once-over. "What's that you're wearing?"
It's a brown dress, one that Daze bought me.
"Where's the pretty white one I made for summer?" Phoebe says, pouting.
I shrug. I'm not about to tell her how tight it's gotten in the chest, how the roomier brown one does a better job hiding the bulky evidence of my first period, too — the awful belt, the safety pins, the cotton pad thick as my forearm. In 1989 you can't even buy pads for a belt anymore, but Phoebe found a year's supply at a closeout sale. Fifty cents a box. And if I reminded her of any of this now, I'd have to hear the words your breasts again, and your flow, whispered at me in her best private voice.
Outside, the sky is a low, humid ceiling. Everything under it is muddled with heat. We head north out of town, past the campus of the East Winder Seminary, past the retirement home named after my grandfather, the famous evangelist Custer Peake. Daze, his widow, lives there now. We pass the tree streets — Elm, Maple, Walnut — that dead-end at the seminary's neglected athletic field. On a hill in that field stands our huge water tower with the light-up electric cross on top. Underneath that tower, before I was born, Custer Peake led more than four hundred people to the Lord in one of the world's largest spontaneous revivals. It went on for two weeks. People stood or sat or camped, even, listening to my grandfather over the PA system someone rigged up on day three. They came from all over, even from other states, once the word got out. It made the papers. It made the television news in Lexington and Louisville, both. On day six, my father came home from college in Ohio to see what all the fuss was about, and on day ten, as the sun set, my grandfather sent him to meet a delivery truck from Clay's Corner carrying two hundred loaves of Wonder Bread for communion. That's when my father spotted her. A petite girl, standing at the edge of the crowd wearing a sun hat and cutoff dungaree shorts and the kind of halter top frowned upon in East Winder. She raised an eyebrow at him like she was waiting for something, like he'd already spoken to her and she hadn't quite caught it all. Right then and there, before he even knew her name, the Lord laid Phoebe on my father's heart as the woman he was supposed to marry.
There's a back road from East Winder to the Bluegrass Airport, two lanes that twist and turn their way out of Rowland County. Phoebe drives with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, or sometimes the clutch, the knuckles of both hands turning white on the steering wheel. Shifting gears is a crisis, with a lurching that nearly sends me through the windshield. In the airport parking garage, she takes a moment to close her eyes, collect herself, and thank the Lord that we've arrived. She feels around for my hands, which I tuck securely into my armpits. I can't help it. But then I feel sorry, which is the kind of thing that happens when you're born again. First you have your original reactions and feelings from your fallen, sinful nature. Then the Holy Ghost kicks in and shows you what to feel bad about. After Phoebe says, "Amen" and opens her eyes, I give her a tiny smile and pray again, a short, invisible prayer of apology.
Unfortunately, where prayer is concerned, I do not have either my father's gift of hearing the voice of God, or my grandfather's gift of sensing God's presence. They say God was so close to Custer Peake that everyone standing in the room could feel the spirit when he prayed. When I pray, all I feel is my voice spilling into a dark, silent space, a space with its own force of gravity that could pull me right in after it. Like what happens at the edges of the black holes we studied in science. But even though they're called "holes," they're not empty. They are really full of very dense matter. And my father says that with God, there is no real emptiness, either. When we worry that we are forsaken, we should search our thoughts and behavior for anything that might be preventing us from closer contact. There is always something to find.
At the airport gate, Phoebe and I take a seat in a low row of chairs. People like to say we are the spitting image of each other. We are both five feet tall, though Phoebe has stopped growing, of course, and I am on my way up. We are both brunettes. Until a month ago we both had simple, short, bob haircuts that Phoebe kept up herself on Saturday nights in the kitchen after giving my father his trim. Now I'm trying to let mine grow so I can wear it in a ponytail, even though Phoebe warns that this will do nothing for my appearance. I have the Peake face, is what my grandmother says. A set of squared-off bones and prominent features that can be a little severe in youth but that she has seen approach classic beauty by middle age. Phoebe's face is rounder, sweeter looking. She has her own grandmother's chin, which comes to a pretty, dimpled point and makes her look worried even when she's not. Which is not very often. Daze says this kind of face looks young for a long time, right up until the day it doesn't.
Now Phoebe stands up and nudges my calf with the toe of her blue-dyed satin pump.
"Stand up with me, Charmaine. Look alive." Then she remembers about my period. "How're you feeling?"
I look around to make sure no one is listening. "I don't think so."
"Nothing bothering you in your middle? In your womanhood?" She whispers the word womanhood and waggles her eyebrows. Phoebe has a hard time keeping her face still, is another thing Daze says. She doesn't just have her feelings on the inside like the rest of us; she stretches her face around them as if everyone needs a demonstration.
I concentrate on my stomach. Or right below it, a spot I haven't been aware of before recently. Now I can feel it, I guess, but nothing really hurts. Womb. Womanhood. "No," I say.
"Good," she says. Then she forgets she told me to stand up and sits down again herself. Then she thinks better of it and stands up again. "Are you nervous?" she asks.
"Good," she says. "Me neither. Excited?"
The flight's in already, just arrived from Chicago and getting ready to go on its way to Atlanta. The huge, parked plane stretches across all the airport windows, like a sea creature in the world's largest aquarium. I am excited. I have missed my father, and even though Phoebe says he's a difficult man, and she's been happy for the break, the truth is that when he's not keeping her occupied, she doesn't know what to do with herself. Or with me either. And I don't know what to do with her. Left to ourselves, we have not exactly brought out the best in each other.
When the people start trickling through the gate, they're blinking like they've been deep underwater instead of up in the air. One tanned, elderly couple passes through the doorway whispering and glancing behind them at a skinny man with a wild beard. He's dressed like an illustration from the Bible, in a brown robe and rope sandals, and for just a moment I think that's why he looks familiar. Then Phoebe's hand on my shoulder gets so heavy it hurts.
"Oh," she says, and suddenly, beneath the beard, I recognize my father. His lips are moving like he's talking quietly to himself, which means he's probably receiving prophecy. It can come upon him any time, like a spell.
"David," Phoebe says. She waves her arms until he sees and heads in our direction. His legs work slowly against the heavy robe, like he's wading through water. I'm used to thinking of him as a prophet, which some people consider unusual even in a town as full of churches as East Winder. But until now he's always kept his hair short and his face shaved, and he's always worn the regular clothes Phoebe picks out or sews for him. Still, you never know what you're getting with my father on any given day. "The prophet," he has said in the past, "is different from the man."
Now he stands in front of Phoebe with his hands on her upper arms. His lips stop moving, and he smiles his warm, sad prophet smile and says her name. Then he turns to me and palms the top of my head the way he did when I was little, and that's when I smell him. Not exactly a bad smell. Kind of sweet and rotten at the same time, like fruit that's gone by. The people from the plane stare or look away, but they all give us a wide berth.
"Dad," I say, and he gives me the same smile he gave Phoebe, his I-love-the-world-and-you're-part-of-the-world smile, which means that right now he is more prophet than regular person. My stomach drops the way it does in the elevator at the retirement home. All of a sudden I do feel a pain there, a slow squeezing.
We turn and make our way back through the airport, me trailing them by two steps. On the escalator down to baggage claim, my father ducks his bearded head and tells Phoebe that he is not quite himself because he is full of the spirit of the Apostle Paul.
Phoebe waits, a rare blankness on her face.
"I have been given a vision much like his," says my father. "You may find that the Lord calls upon you to adjust your expectations."
"My ex-pec-ta-tions," Phoebe says, tasting each syllable like she's unfamiliar with the word.
"Isn't it interesting that the biblical Phoebe was a special helper to the Apostle Paul?"
"My expectations," Phoebe says again. "My expectations." It's like she's doing what I used to do when I was little, repeating a word but emphasizing a different syllable each time just to see what it sounds like. It's not a good sign, but my father doesn't notice.
"I stood where they all stood," he says. "I traced their steps. It was profound. It was real. It worked on my spirit until I was open in a new way, and you can't believe, you can't believe what's possible when we let go of the limits we place on God." He speaks in a hoarse voice that is also loud, and getting faster, and people gliding past us on the up escalator stare openly.
Phoebe nods once and bites her lips. She shoots me a worried glance, and part of me feels sorry for her. But a bigger part of me feels impatient, because she's the one always reminding me that mere humans can't imagine in advance what the Lord has in store, and she has gone ahead and tried to imagine it anyway, hoped for it, and it's her own fault if she is disappointed.
At baggage claim my father's lips start working again. I don't want to stare at him, and I don't want to see other people staring at him either, if they are, so I train my eyes on the suitcases snaking by on the rubber mat. One right after another, with a secret message for me: whatever's coming is going to come.
"Here it is," says my father, and reaches down for his deflated canvas duffle.
"What about the rest?" says Phoebe.
My father hoists the bag over one shoulder, which lifts the robe and exposes a constellation of small brown scabs on his ankle. "I divested myself of anything that wouldn't fit into a single bag," he says. "And anyway, I've been wearing this robe for two weeks now."
"I see," says Phoebe, and I know she's thinking of the trip organizer's list of suggestions we followed to the letter. The loose linen clothes that were supposed to withstand the heat of the Holy Land. The search in Lexington for the appropriate walking shoes, for the hat that would protect his face and neck from the Middle Eastern sun. The list had been specific. And expensive. And Phoebe said she felt humiliated to go around raising support for the trip from hardworking people while we ourselves were forgoing work in order to live on faith alone. Which my father said was her pride talking.
"I have shed many things," he says now, as if he's thinking of the list, too. "But I didn't come home empty-handed." He winks at me and pats part of the duffle that looks flat, like maybe it contains a shoebox.
Excerpted from "Lay It on My Heart"
Copyright © 2014 Angela Pneuman.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
A Conversation with Angela Pneuman, Author of Lay It On My Heart
Setting in LAY IT ON MY HEARTthe rigidly evangelical, rural Kentucky town of East Winderplays a big part in how it affects the lives of the characters within it. Is East Winder based on a real town?
East Winder does have a lot in common with my own hometown in Kentucky. Some landmarks are clearly borrowedlike the electric cross on the water tower, the seminary, the many churches, the proximity to the Kentucky Riverbut I wanted the freedom to add and subtract details to make the setting for the made-up story better. I think I was most interested in trying to puzzle out on the page what it felt like to grow up in a place narrowly and absolutely defined by a particular strand of religiona place that was also somewhat isolated, geographically. I remember a time for myself when evangelical Christianity was my entire frame of reference, and when anything outside of it was regarded as sinful, worldly, etcand with a kind of fear. When I go home now the town doesn't seem nearly as isolated as my memory makes it. But I remember how powerful glimpses of the larger world were. I got my hands on a Glamour magazine in the 1980s and saved it forever. At the time it felt like my own private manual to life on another planeta planet I felt guilty for being curious about.
The main characters in your novel are evangelical Christians. Do you have an evangelical background and why did you choose to write a story about an evangelical family? Do you still consider yourself a religious person?
I do have an evangelical background. I come from three generations of ministersbut no prophets! These days, after years on the West Coast, I'd consider myself spiritual. In my hometown, that word marks me as "from California." What it means to me is that I have a healthy respect for the mystery of what we can't know, which I'm convinced is all a lot bigger than I can imagine. When I left home, I also left evangelical Christianity. But I'm still curious about this belief system and the kind of people who choose it. This culture has become an easy target, brought about by not a few of its disgraced ambassadors. But as with most easy targets, things strike me as more complicated than they appear. I think it's a complex and sometimes troubled culture, with many well-intentionedand often very kindindividuals. People doing the best they can in spite of their mistakes and blind spots. Which actually sounds like a lot of other cultures, too.
The novel focuses heavily on the mother-daughter relationship between Phoebe and Charmaine. Were you inspired by your relationship with your own mother while writing this relationship?
I actually started writing the first draft of this book from more than one point of view, including Phoebe's. Ultimately I decided on just Charmaine's, but I really wanted to suggest Phoebe's trajectory, too. Her life, her outlook, is changing. She's angry, hurt and more than a little outraged. I like to think she wants something very different for Charmaine and is, in her own way, getting that message across. Generally I'm trying to honor something real about the way these characters interact. To get at some of the intense, messy little moments between people who are close to one another. With the other characters, too. There's all the comfort and discomfort of bodies in physical proximityin a trailer, say, or sharing a bus seatthat affects our need to connect or resist, or both. And for all the mess there are those moments when another person breaks open a bit and you see something that touches you unexpectedly. Literal parallels? Well, my mom was a teacher. She wasand still isvery petite, like Phoebe. She was always much smaller than me, growing up, so there's some of that in the book. We are close. As an only child it was a struggle for me to feel good about leaving home. So there are some true emotions in the book, for sure, but the events didn't happen.
Were there any other experiences from your real life that shaped the writing of your novel?
The priorities in this novel are very important to me: the closeness of the mother-daughter bond, female friendships, the behavior of boys and girls, men and women, around sex in a restrictive environment. Sincere intentions and their painful results. And the setting, of course, is a lot like one of the important settings of my past. And the reasons these things are important to me are rooted in my own life. Some of the details are realthe cross on the water tower, the "tuna wiggle" dinnerbut the events just didn't happen. It's probably significant that I believe they could easily have happened, to me or to lots of families in my town, and I certainly observed patterns of behavior that informed the book. I heard rumors of kids climbing the water tower, but not me, no way! My dad wasn't mentally ill, or a prophet, or even on the extreme edge of evangelical circles. He left the family and stopped being a minister when I was very young. Some of the sadness of his leaving informs the book, but the situation could not have been more differentor more mundane, I might add.
You can't get away from the experience that formed your sensibility, and you shouldn't try. But for me, at my stage of writing, invention goes deeper to the heart of my experience than any of my attempts at accurate reporting or representation.
What are you working on now?
I'm in the very early stages of a novel about a woman whose daughter is a child movie star. It takes place in Kentucky, Los Angeles, and on up the West Coast.
Who have you discovered lately?
Philip Roth probably can't be called a discovery, but until last year I'd only read "Goodbye, Columbus"the novella, not the whole collection. I'm into the later Zuckerman books, now, have just started The Human Stain. I'm reading them all one right after the other like they might evaporate before I get to them! I've also just recently caught on to Ross MacDonald, with detective Lew Archer and those haunting Southern California landscapes. As far as new writers, I really enjoyed Girl Trouble from Holly Goddard Jones.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It was a good story, yet, not one of the best I have read this summer. Just ok, for me. I was really expecting something a little different, even though I read reviews before buying it. I am sorry I can't say definitely "read it". It would depend on a readers interests, when looking for a book. It made me feel really sorry for the teenage girl because her mother treated her as a friend, instead of child & the grandmother did not help the girl. The father figure was just too crazy for anyone to want to follow..
I came upon this gem of a novel based on a recommendation from a store team member and I am glad I listened to her advice. This novel takes place in an almost cloistered evangelical community in Kentucky. The story revolves around the challenges faced by the 13 year old protagonist Charmaine and the struggles she faces dealing with her mentally ill father, her emotionally needy mother, and the drama all of us face enduring the special hell that is middle school. Over the course of one month in her life Charmaine navigates through the trials and tribulations of struggles with her faith, the complexity of the mother/daughter relationship, and the challenges inherent in her physical maturation and consciousness of her own sexuality. Charmaine's story doesn't have a pat, simplistic ending as she comes to a realization that her ideas of her faith, family, and herself have all changed in the course of 4 weeks. The novel is also populated by some memorable characters--the creepy Dr. Osborne, the frightening but ultimately vulnerable Cecil Grimes, and Charmaine's exasperated grandmother Daze. The story brought me back to the fear and confusion of middle school and the moment in time when I realized my parents were "just people" in addition to the central role they had in my life. The story is a quick read--I read it in one sitting--and was thoroughly enjoyable. I recommend it.
A wonderful, tender story! I loved it
Did not like this book at all