Shelley Bates, the author of POCKETFUL OF PEARLS and GROUNDS TO BELIEVE, finishes her Elect Trilogy with A SOUNDING BRASS, a competent, enjoyable read. It wraps up the story of the legalistic lives of members of the Elect, a cultic Christian group in Oregon that requires its adherents to wear black, seek permission for any big life decisions, and stay away from anything “worldly.”
As the story opens, the Elect in Hamilton Falls, Washington, are in turmoil. Their leader, Phinehas, a former senior Shepherd of the flock, is in the county lockup awaiting trial for raping women who believed they were supposed to have sex with him in the name of their religion. Everything the Elect believed about its leadership is now in question.
Claire Montoya, a single bank employee who has just lost her job because of her association with the Elect, finds a new work home at the KGHM radio station as a bookkeeper. She’s ready to succumb to the charms of the charismatic Luke Fisher, an evangelist and popular disc jockey at the station, whose good looks and winning ways over the airwaves are taking the locals by storm. Luke is also ready to help the congregation of the Elect to embrace some modern ways of thinking and reach out to the unchurched through financing a new conference center.
As Luke whips up enthusiasm and support for the project -– and the radio station rakes in more and more cash --- investigator Raymond Harper of the Organized Crime Task Force smells something rotten. As Ray cozies up to Claire in order to find out about Luke, he realizes he’s interested in her for more than just her proximity to the boss. But after her change of job and the changes going on at church, Claire is reeling. “Between the teachings of the past and the changes in the present, she needed to find her balance. And that was turning out to be harder than she’d expected.” She’s attracted to both men. But Ray is an outsider --- and Luke is a member of the Elect. Or is he? And Ray is conflicted about his own lack of faith. “What he had was an emptiness he was trying to soothe with work and socializing and friends, covering it over with a cynical outlook on life so people wouldn’t see it.”
Claire is tired. Tired of letting others dictate where she lives. Tired of wearing black --– even down to her pajamas, which are black flannel. Bates gradually lets Claire come to grips with her disillusionment about her legalistic religion, while still keeping the core of her faith. Through Claire, Bates does a great job showing the perils of religion as practiced by those who love power and control, rather than embracing the true freedom of faith.
Readers of the earlier books in the series will be glad to catch up with Dinah Traynell and the resolution of her story. No particular earth-shaking plot twists or turns occur in the novel; the reader will have a good idea of where things are headed from the earliest pages. But that makes this story no less enjoyable. Bates is a good writer, and her characters are interesting ones who the reader will empathize with. (I would have enjoyed seeing even more about the bookseller and Claire’s landlady, Rebecca Quinn, who makes some cameo appearances throughout the book.) There’s some good discussable material here about the role of religion and choices in contemporary culture, and a reading group guide included in the back is a nice addition for book clubs.
Readers who enjoyed the Elect Trilogy will want to look for Bates’s next book, OVER MY HEAD, which will be published in May 2007.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on June 14, 2006