This week, the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance is introducing The Spirit of Sweetgrass from Integrity/Thomas Nelson (March 6, 2007)by Nicole Seitz See my review below theirs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
NICOLE SEITZ is a South Carolina Lowcountry native and freelance writer/illustrator published in South Carolina Magazine, Charleston Magazine, House Calls, The Island Packet and The Bluffton Packet.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism, she also has a bachelor’s degree in illustration from Savannah College of Art & Design. Nicole is an exhibiting artist in the Charleston, South Carolina area where she owns a web design firm and lives with her husband and two small children.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Essie Mae Laveau Jenkins is a 78-year-old sweetgrass basket weaver who sits on the side of Hwy. 17 in the company of her dead husband, Daddy Jim.
Inspired by her Auntie Leona, Essie Mae finally discovers her calling in life and weaves powerful “love baskets,” praying fervently over them to affect the lives of those who visit her roadside stand.
Relations are strained with her daughter Henrietta, who thinks Essie belongs in a retirement center. If Essie can’t pay $10,000 in back taxes to save her home, she may have no choice. More tensions: her grandson EJ wants to marry a white girl, Essie discovers that a handsome man she’s trying to find a girl for is gay, and her daughter carries a hidden secret.
When she’s faced with losing her home and her stand and being put in a nursing home, Daddy Jim talks her into coming on up to Heaven to meet sweet Jesus-something she’s always wanted to do.
The Spirit of Sweetgrass shifts less successfully to the afterlife, where her Gullah-Creole ancestors surround her; but soon, her heavenly peace is disrupted, for she still has work to do. Now Essie Mae, who once felt powerless and invisible, must find the strength within her to keep her South Carolina family from falling apart. Together, with Daddy Jim, they team up to return to Earth and battle two spirits conjured up by Henrietta’s voodoo that threatens to ruin an attempt to save the sweetgrass basket weaving culture.
The Spirit of Sweetgrass is a brilliantly woven basket, but not all the grasses are necessarily sweet. First, she weaves this tale in first person, present tense, which makes sense considering her narrator apparently dies around where Psalms would be if this were the bible, and weaves in an interesting twist on the old “and then I woke up” ending. Some would think this two lethal strikes against her, but in truth, it’s a fine example of how two constructs often smeared as “amateurish” are actually PHD level course work, though over-ambitious young writers often do make the mistake of attempting it. But if first person present tense is PHD level, Seitz just earned her doctorate. Essie May’s voice is so strong, I almost missed what tense she was speaking in.
So this sweetgrass basket’s weaving itself is masterful, at least on earth. Heaven is a difficult, perhaps even impossible, setting to work in. Most attempts either fail the conflict test or the theology test. She handles conflict okay, but I can’t pass her on the theology test, though I’d probably give her an incomplete if this were school, as the primary problem is her heaven is too much like earth, the most memorable bloopers for me include a sole/wrap that looks just like what it is according to Essie–a dead animal. The problem is, the dead animal would be alive in Heaven. Likewise, in Heaven, Essie serves up southern goodies that require either the meat of the unavailable dead animal, or tofu, and I don’t think Essie would care much for even glorified Country Fried TofuSteak. I’ll just assume they threw the fish back after catching them, though.
And let’s just say if you believe by Jesus saying that in Heaven we are as the angels and neither marry nor are given in marriage, He meant people are celibate in Heaven, you will be down right scandalized.
On Earth, the potential ragweeds were admitted freely in the CFBA release. I imagine her intentions with including in the supporting cast a unbeliever in a flagrantly-presented unrepentant homosexual lifestyle was to confront the prejudices we sometimes carry. If you’re getting upset with me for just acknowledging that, here’s a good acid test of whether we have a problem: Do I treat a man living with his boyfriend, or a woman living with her girlfriend (in the sexual sense) differently than I do the unmarried heterosexual couple? Biblically, both are equally wrong, so there’s no biblical reason to treat the homosexual different than the heterosexual offender (though neither relationship should be treated as the moral equivalent of marriage. It’s not.) Most who do struggle here, though the real heart of the problem is loving their enemies (whether that perception is valid I won’t argue here)
The problem I see is that those who need it will just be offended and not learn anything, and those who fail to make the biblical distinction between immoral sexual relationship and biblical marriage will perceive it as justifying their mistaken belief that any long-term sexual relationship between consenting adults should be treated by loving persons as the moral equivalent of biblical marriage.
One last potential ragweed is found in the mixing of Christianity and african animism (voodoo), such as described above with the love baskets, and even the ghosts spring from this as well. It’s an accurate reflection of the polluted well some African-American Christians are drinking from, but too often the well is depicted as unadulterated truth.
In interest of fairness, the author does try, Essie discovers later her prayers had everything to do with anything she did, and the baskets nothing, and a discerning reader will realize the voodoo spirits are demons. I think Seitz primarily just missed the ancestor-worship pollutants in the well and that can be pretty easy to do. It’s also offset somewhat by the book theme that ultimately, our homeland or mother country is Heaven.
So if you have allergies to any of the above grasses, you might want to pass. Otherwise, enjoy.
Thank you for a very thorough and interesting review. I’m so pleased the book has been thought-provoking. I believe it’s my job as a writer to ask tough questions. God has all the answers. I hope the folks who read the The Spirit of Sweetgrass (those who love it and those who don’t) at least point their eyes toward heaven, ponder their own beliefs and examine their own hearts. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the time you took to not only read, but to examine.
Blessings to you,
You’re welcome. Thank you for stopping in, Nicole. Since I’m also an advice blog, I often highlight social/spiritual issues in the books I review for my readers and often take time to discuss any that cross over to the advice column (and there usually are).
BTW, I like to ask the tough questions, too, as a writer. I also have a tendency to write from a position of weakness. Writing fiction, in my teen years especially, was how I took to God the Big Questions I was struggling with (like theodicy.) Sometimes, those prayerful tales got pretty far out there, (I’ve done more rewrites on account of theology than I care to remember) but in the end, He honored the laments hidden behind the veil of fiction and answered me 🙂
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