Culture > Books

Books: Black hats, white hats

Books | Oprah picks a trite, bigoted, badly written book

Issue: "Putting Kyoto on ice," Aug. 8, 1998

Here's another episode in the ongoing Christianity-as-pathology series, this one a bestseller from Oprah's Book Club. Like A Virtuous Woman, another Oprah Club book reviewed here (see WORLD, April 11), The Rapture of Canaan is set down South in tobacco country. But in this one, nobody smokes, chews, or dips. Why? Because they're all good Christians, selling corruption but hypocritically not indulging. About 10 years ago commentator Mark Helprin complained about all the tedious, predictable writing-school novels featuring pubescent girls. The Rapture of Canaan is narrated by protagonist Ninah Huff, and guess what? She's a pubescent girl! Then, on page one (you can almost hear the drum roll) comes The Big Metaphor: Ninah is a weaver, that all-purpose symbol of the Free Woman who takes things from ordinary life and makes Art of them-just like Miri the weaver in Jim Crace's Quarantine (see WORLD, July 25). In both, the message is the same: Men are bad, women are good, and Christianity is a sham. Ninah is part of the fanatical Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind, a poor and isolated community of mostly relatives ruled by a deranged old man, Grandpa Herman. Next Big Metaphor: Grandpa stands for repressive, oppressive male authority, legitimized and empowered by pathological Christianity. Here's a list of the evil things done by Grandpa Herman/male patriarchy/the church: He dictates insane laws; he forces children to memorize rules and obey them; he shouts sermons; He puts psychological pressure on people to repent; he makes children sleep on thorns for disobeying rules; he forces penitent men to spend a night in a grave; he enforces child labor; he spanks women; and he tortures an unrepentant Ninah with dunking. Get it? There's more. Through all this wretchedness runs the other Big Metaphor: religion as sex. Ninah describes heavy breathing during prayers. She and her boyfriend James fornicate in the choir loft while pretending God is speaking to them each through the other. There is one truly blasphemous scene involving an erotic fantasy of kissing the wounds of the crucified Christ. Ninah of course gets pregnant. Boyfriend James, of course, panics and kills himself. Somehow, Ninah expresses no grief over her lover's death. Why should she? She's completely wrapped up in herself. But through her punishment and trials, precocious Ninah through her only outside friend, a Hindu schoolmate named Ajita, discovers Eastern thought. Eventually, the church members stand up to Grandpa and he loses power. And this forms the largest literary problem in the book: its ending. After the old man/antagonist falls apart, the book falls apart, coming unraveled like the rugs Ninah is perpetually weaving.Without a patriarchal male to react against, the budding feminist has no identity. This is truly a bad book in both the moral and literary sense. Surely Oprah and her millions of obedient bookbuyers can do better than this.

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