Madeline Kay Sneed’s debut novel, The Golden Season, begins by describing the Texas heat as murderous. I’m not from Texas, but I am from the South, and her descriptions of the withered grass, heat waves “rolling” off the pavement, and of course, the mosquitos, made me feel right at home. And let’s not forget football. Community-wide obsession with high school and college football also feels uniquely Southern. And if you like a book with complicated family relationships and a good old-fashioned struggle with faith like I do, then this one’s a keeper.
It’s clear from the lush descriptions throughout the novel that the main character of this book, Emmy — and the writer of it, too — loves Texas, loves her home. But this deep connection falters when the folks in Emmy’s small town of mostly Southern Baptists and hardcore Republicans find out she’s queer. All of a sudden, the home she’s known and loved her whole life is closed off to her. Emmy feels not only cut off from her family, but the Southern Baptist faith — one she’s softened and made malleable, forming it around her own beliefs in right and wrong, love and kindness — that’s been so important to her. Her mother is heartbroken that Emmy is a lesbian, but her father tells her calmly, “That road leads to hell,” then locks her out of the house. This is when the novel really kicks it into gear.
Though Emmy’s point of view centers the novel — her experience is the true heart of the book — her father, Steve, narrates every other section. He’s a high school football coach who finally has a chance to lead his team to state finals. His sections provide momentum, a storyline about the race to the championship, and offers some insight into his backward views on homosexuality. Having lived in the South my whole life, I’m used to these types of men, their beliefs, and the handpicked Bible quotes they use to argue their point. Familiarity didn’t make it any easier to swallow, but in Steve, Sneed shows a man who deeply loves his daughter, one who wants to understand, even if it takes him a while to realize it. After kicking her out of the home, he feels guilty as a father that he didn’t let her “give life to the truth by letting it live in the air.” He heads to the Pastor’s house with this weighing on him, but the preacher convinces Steve that he was right in banishing his daughter. Steeped in the cultural and religious social life of West Texas, his point of view provides a somewhat nuanced portrait of a man struggling to respond to his daughter’s queerness having been told his entire life that it’s evil.
When Emmy returns to her small religious college to finish her senior year in the wake of her parents’ abandonment, her friend Jake sets her up with a charming and quirky woman in grad school, Cameron. Emmy’s never had a real relationship except for a high school friendship that turned romantic. However, the girl she loved — the preacher’s daughter — pulled back in horror during their first make out session because they were going against God. But Cameron embraces her queerness and is abrasive enough and wild enough that the reader knows she brings trouble. Abandoned by her family, her sorority and most of her friends, Emmy becomes “lost in Cameron completely. In that relinquishing of control, Emmy felt for the first time in her life, finally, fully alive.” Things begin quickly between them — and are far too good to last.
Watching Emmy navigate this first relationship and learn to protect herself, create boundaries, and love herself, without depending on the love of others is one of the joys of this novel. And it’s not just Emmy. The characters here are constantly reckoning with their prior selves, prior beliefs, prior understandings of home and faith. Emmy, her father Steve, her mother Lucy, and even Cameron — who turns out to be a bit of a control freak — work throughout the book to move on from their pasts, trying so hard to grow, to grapple with past misdeeds or judgments. They learn how to make amends, how to forgive. It made this reader at least feel like people can change — not unrealistically, but sometimes minutely, gradually. With Florida’s Ron DeSantis signing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and other threats to LGBTQ lives, especially in Southern states, this book makes one believe in true conversions of the heart. They take time, can be disturbingly incremental, but living in the South, it sometimes feels that’s all you can hope for.
The Golden Season
By Madeline Kay Sneed
Published May 31, 2022