Cotton and deceit are the currency of rural life in Mary Elizabeth Pope’s debut novel, The Gods of Green County. It is a Southern gothic novel that examines a woman who finds herself with nothing left to lose and the town that helped strip it all away. The book begins in 1926 when Coralee Harper divorces her first husband and returns home to her mama’s house in Green County, Arkansas. Being back home quickly turns into a test of faith for Coralee, despite the opportunity to reconnect with her brother, Buddy. Their time together is cut short when Buddy is murdered by the county sheriff shortly after Coralee’s return. The novel is powered by the unraveling mystery behind Buddy’s murder, which moves through the novel like a runaway locomotive — the true cost isn’t known until it stops dead center in the town of Paradise.
As Buddy’s bloodstain fades from the pavement of Main Street, so too does the memory of him — for everyone except Coralee, that is. She starts catching glimpses of Buddy all over town. “… I was headed to town to grocery shop, and suddenly, there he was again, standing in front of Miss Jane’s Finery, looking at a dress in the store window.” Coralee can’t help but wonder if it’s God bringing Buddy back to her, but it is her faith that makes her an easy target for Brother Jeremiah and the snake-handling Church of Divine Holiness. At first, no one else in the town notices the strangeness surrounding Coralee, but when she starts asking if anyone else has seen Buddy, they start wondering if something ain’t quite right.
As Coralee’s behavior becomes more erratic, no one questions her state of mind more than her second husband, Big Earl. Out of desperation, Earl files paperwork to have Coralee declared insane. When the court date finally arrives, Earl starts to wonder if he’s made a terrible mistake. Through it all, Coralee knows she will never look at Earl the same way again. Only her faith, and Judge Leroy, can save her now. But, when Coralee is sentenced to stay in a state-run asylum, everyone in town has to learn to live with the far-reaching consequences.
At the core of this story are the people — the people of Paradise; Coralee’s family; the people of the South at a time in American history when jobs were scarce and hope was even harder to come by. Though the plot points could be considered too convenient at times, such as the way sources to prove Buddy’s murder keep falling into Leroy’s lap, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable story. Coralee is such a compelling character that any unintentional misdeed is easily forgiven by any audience. She defines herself as a dutiful wife, mother, and to the best of her ability, a faithful servant of God. Coralee is just as dedicated to the church before she is sent to the asylum as she is after her stay. It is this idea of self-suppression and sacrifice for the betterment of others (that is also embraced by the church) that compels Coralee and makes her such a believable character. This becomes apparent when Coralee gives her grocery money to the church for a new roof despite knowing that doing so would mean her family goes hungry. The relationship between Coralee and the church becomes symbiotic, Coralee keeps giving because she is thankful to see her brother, thinking it’s a gift from God, and the church keeps asking Coralee for more. She even goes so far as to handle the snake in an effort to prove her faith when she has nothing else of material value left to give, a choice that would often leave women like Coralee dead in a ditch. It is this level of dedication that defines her character even as she learns from her time at the asylum what it’s like not just to be God-fearing, but man-fearing. Her dedication borders on obsession even after her treatments, and allows her to justify the fierceness she witnessed at the Church of Divine Holiness as the power of God. Coralee directly compares the feelings she experienced at the Church of Divine Holiness before treatment and the church she attends after returning from the asylum:
I did not know that God could feel so calm. I thought God was fierce. I thought you had to shout when the Holy Spirit moved you. I thought you had to let Him roll you. But in this church nobody rolled, and I have to admit that I was glad of that, because after getting the shock, I did not want nothing to run through my body again.
Knowing how her view of God is shifting helps the reader see the changes in Coralee more clearly. At moments her fear and confusion become palpable. The way the town avoids and mocks Coralee is true to the times and is an exemplification of the strength of Pope’s writing. Coralee is a lifelike depiction of a depression-era Southern woman coming to terms with how little control she has over her existence. Mary Elizabeth Pope pushes readers to face the stigma of mental illness at a pace faster than a bullet in a place where things are slow to change. The novel is well written, a solid debut. Pope’s love for the South and dedication to the female experience shines through, adding a level of authenticity the reading experience would have otherwise lacked. Coralee’s story is a gripping testament to what it was like to live in the South in a time when faith, illiteracy, and men controlled the county.
The Gods of Green County
By Mary Elizabeth Pope
Published October 5, 2021