The complexities of faith and family are what guide Monica West’s warm and perceptive debut novel, Revival Season.
West’s novel, told from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton, follows the young protagonist and her Black evangelical family as they travel through various small towns of the American South for the summer’s “revival season,” an annual time in which Miriam’s father, Rev. Samuel Horton, shines as one of the South’s most famous preachers — and healers.
Although Miriam’s younger brother, Caleb, oftentimes accompanies Rev. Horton for the revivals’ business and social gatherings, the rest of the Horton family, including Miriam, Miriam’s mother, Joanne, and Miriam’s sister who suffers from cerebral palsy, Hannah, quietly exist in the shadows, partaking in the respective religious services with the rest of the many gathered congregants.
Revival Season doesn’t take long to unveil its clearest source of tension as, after a nighttime revival, Miriam shockingly witnesses her father violently attack a man who questions her father’s healing powers. Consequently, Miriam finds herself struggling to remain silent. Instead, she has questions — questions about her father, her faith, and her relationship with the two. It’s these very things that she contemplates that guide Miriam’s developing self.
After her father’s violent outburst, Miriam instantly feels separation from him. Looking at him, she notes the “knuckles of his once-familiar hands.” We learn early on how Rev. Horton’s act of violence isn’t a singular experience either. Miriam tells us how he “hurt that girl last summer.” Miriam wants so badly to find justification for her father. She asks him, “You said that it’s not in God’s will to heal everyone. So it wasn’t God’s will to heal that man. Right? And you hit him because he lied about you. You were angry. I get that.” As she questions him — who he is, what he’s done, why he could have done it — we feel that confusion building into her relationship with her faith.
And Revival Season is very much a novel about faith. West makes this fact known early on. Miriam tells us, “In our house, God was more than the being that people blindly worshipped on Sundays and forgot about until they needed something else. To us, God was more flesh than spirit, more being than ghost. Each morning when I thanked Him for a new day, I didn’t just speak into an echo chamber. As I lay in an unfamiliar bedroom, I felt God right next to me, His breath in my ear like wind.” For Miriam, her faith in God is real, and it’s her guide. To see the very man who has preached about God and the fruits of faith betray her, she begins to struggle with the very foundation of her religious self.
One area in which this struggle comes across the most is in the oppressive behavior and opinions Rev. Horton places on the female members of his family — and especially Miriam. He refuses, for example, for Miriam to wear nail polish and forces her to remove it “under his watchful eye before anyone could lift a fork to their mouths.” But Rev. Horton is far more severe when Miriam begins to question her own ability to heal others, a gift that he insists only men possess: “According to First Corinthians, spiritual gifts were doled out to men and women equally, but according to Papa, women weren’t allowed to exercise those gifts over men.” He refuses to accept or even to believe that his daughter could have the same gifts as him, and he reacts harshly, cruelly as Miriam suggests otherwise. Even when she “heals” numerous people in her life, she doubts herself because of the limits he, her father, has instilled in her.
West writes with such an accessible, smooth prose that it’s easy to get lost inside Miriam’s world. This is a gentle novel, one that reveals itself rather delicately as it peels away the layers of our teenage protagonist and her take on the world and her place in it.
There’s plenty of pain and heartache throughout Revival Season, certainly, but there’s just as much love and warmth beneath the surface. It’s this balance that allows the book an earned sense of authenticity. We see this perhaps best of all in the characterization of the Horton family themselves. There is cruelty. There are hardships. There are tough realizations they must face. But there seems to be a hope for redemption — a hope that things can, maybe, be OK.
There are occasions where the novel might prove to be frustratingly quiet. For a novel so focused on faith, there is little time spent inside the actual religious services. We get glimpses, but there isn’t a full immersion. Also, we never know for sure the result of Miriam’s own abilities to heal. We must rely on our own faith — or lack thereof — in how we see this particular part of Miriam’s story playing out.
But maybe it’s this slight ambiguity that gives Revival Season its power — maybe we, like our young protagonist, just have to hope.
By Monica West
Simon & Schuster
Published May 25, 2021