In this book's most mangled sentence --- on page 2, for shock value --- the main character says, "You know I have only went through the eighth grade." It's the voice of Esmeralda, the long-widowed, childless, past-retirement-age matron who narrates a spring and summer of her southern life --- seemingly in the year 2000, though the setting is reminiscent of an earlier decade, before instant communication and worries about bureaucracy and liability insurance. At the beginning of the book Esmeralda lives in Live Oaks, South Carolina, where the town's latest crime wave is "boys busting watermelons in a field."
In paragraph 1 of GOOD HEAVENS, a board member of Priscilla Home, a Christian halfway house for adult female addicts, asks Esmeralda to come on board as the resident manager, a "fancy name for housemother." By the end of chapter 1, Esmeralda is on the move --- driving her old Chevy toward her new responsibilities and home, on an isolated North Carolina hilltop. Why would anyone do this? Because God --- through Esmeralda's King James Bible bolstered by a "C. H. Splurgeon" motto and the fortuitous rental of her house --- has told her to trust and obey.
When she arrives at Priscilla Home, Esmeralda discovers it needs more than a housemother --- its bills are overdue, its larder is bare, and its young director, Ursula, is floundering, making little headway with donors or with the dozen residents in her care.
Plucky Esmeralda, armed with old-fashioned common sense, her marked-up King James Bible and a mind full of "Splurgeon" one-liners, comes to the rescue. As for that Bible, at one crisis point when Esmeralda, frustrated with Ursula, wonders if she herself has become the Ugly Christian, she turns to the Gospel of Matthew. "Good heavens," she says to herself, "there was so much in there that was hard to take. I had to get out of the Sermon on the Mount. Checking out the cross references, I turned to Ephesians. Well, lo and behold, the same kind of stuff was in Ephesians. At least the words weren't printed in red."
Margaret Graham lays out an engaging plot --- always one more hurdle to overcome --- reining in a host of characters. With little thanks to Ursula and her Group therapy sessions but, rather, through Esmeralda's one-on-one conversations and the larger context of her newly instituted Prayer and Praise sessions, we gradually get to know the driving "issues" in the lives of maybe six of the home residents; we meet local residents who are surprisingly supportive of a residential ministry in their neighborhood. And yes, toward the end, there's a romantic subplot.
This is Graham's second Esmeralda novel, but this book clearly stands on its own. Having not read the first book, MERCY ME, I did not feel at a disadvantage, though the cast of characters gets nearly out of hand when the home town women's group from the Apostolic Bible Church --- seemingly the focal characters of MERCY ME --- comes for a visit.
In this novel, I see shades of Jan Karon's Mitford series. But the voice and view is first person, not third; you see the world through Esmeralda's eyes only. And that worldview is not from a southern small-town main street (the origin of the phrase "mainline" churches), but from the back roads and fundamentalist rows. The Mitford series for the Bible Church set? Maybe that's what the Esmeralda series can be.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on November 13, 2011