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Stories from the dead

In the small Southern community where she lives, Finch Nobles, the narrator of A Gracious Plenty, easily qualifies as a “quare woman.” Disfigured by a household accident at the age of 4 (a pot of boiling water), Finch finds that the townspeople commonly regarded her ruined face with pity or revulsion.

As a consequence, she leads a lonely life with her aging parents. By the time she is an adult, she has acquired her father’s skills as a caretaker and has replaced him as the manager for the local cemetery. Now, her days are spent cutting grass, tending her garden and providing for the needs of her only companions, a multitude of stray cats.

But, wait! In actual fact, the cats are not Finch’s only companions. Finch talks to the dead. Gradually, as the years pass and the lonely (but spunky) woman ponders the fate of the deceased as she plants flowers, cleans tombstones and pulls weeds, she begins to hear faint whispers — her own parents included. In time, the voices grow more audible and more individualized. Finch finds that the dead are talkative and inquisitive. Contrary to common belief, the dead are also quite active since they have a multitude of chores to perform each day, including the regulation of weather, seasonal cycles and the timely crowing of roosters every morning.

Eventually, the dead relate their stories. Finch learns that Lucy Armour, the high school beauty queen, who, according to the local newspaper, had been murdered while she was pursuing a career in Hollywood, has a different story. Lucy tells Finch that she actually committed suicide. William Blott, a homeless alcoholic who turned out to be the son of a millionaire, tells Finch that he used to be a secret cross-dresser who kept a stash of feminine apparel in abandoned trailers in the woods. Finally, there is Baby Marcus, who can’t seem to stop crying. The rest of the dead (who maintain an active social life), begin to complain about Marcus and enlist Finch to find a solution. Make him hush!

Major problems develop when Finch attempts to reveal the truth about the dead to their living relatives. Lucy’s mother is so outraged by the idea that her daughter may have killed herself she has Finch arrested for slander. Then, a fanatical group of Christians who had attempted to save William Blott are so offended by the revelation that the alcoholic was a homosexual that they form a vigilante committee and burn all the hidden trailers along with Blott’s stash of feminine apparel. They even deface William’s tomb. Then, they decide to make Finch their next project for salvation. As for Baby Marcus, the reason for his mournful wailing proves to be a fact that would destroy the child’s parents if it were revealed.

Finch also learns that the dead eventually become indifferent to their past life (shades of “Our Town”!) and, according to the mysterious Mediator who supervises the daily activities of the dead, they “lighten” to the point that they “ascend to the next sphere.”

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After her arrest, Finch finds that she has an admirer. Leonard, an inept cop (and the mayor’s son), has a crush on Finch. He becomes a frequent visitor to the cemetery, and the spunky little caretaker finds that she is not altogether indifferent to Leonard’s attention. She even steals a tube of lipstick from William Blott’s makeup kit.

However, Finch’s greatest revelation has to do with the nature of truth. In essence, she learns that to reveal the truth can sometimes be an unacceptable cruelty. When Finch finally emerges from the community turmoil that she has created with her determination to reveal all, she realizes that the truth about Lucy’s suicide would destroy her mother – a woman who had devoted her life to promoting her daughter’s career. The truth about poor William Blott and the grieving Baby Marcus also creates painful consequences. Yet, oddly enough, the most dramatic event in this perverse little novel (a devastating hurricane) owes its origin to Baby Marcus’ outrage about the secret surrounding his death.

A Gracious Plenty, like its protagonist, is an eccentric concoction. Reynolds has a knack for capturing Southern Gothic characters, and her use of original metaphors makes her crisp narrative appealing. Although I tend to be skeptical of writers who have been anointed by Oprah (in 1995 it was The Rapture of Canaan), I will reluctantly concede that this third novel is well written and entertaining (although a bit contrived). Reynolds’ fourth novel, Firefly Cloak, has just been published. Looks like she’s on a roll.

A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds. Harmony Books, 2006. 205 pages.

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