Jessie van Eerden doesn’t write like anybody else whose work I’ve read or edited. I had the very good fortune to edit one of her essays for Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, and her prose stood out instantly. It makes you slow down as you read, not because you’re confused, but because the prose dwells in the slowed-down, zoomed-in moment, forcing you to pay attention, to sit down and place yourself in the presence of the story. To dwell, in this story, among heartbroken people whose hurts and hopes the big world has overlooked, is at once painful and life-giving. In Glorybound (WordFarm, 2012), van Eerden’s first novel, a broken-hearted pair of sisters come to life in the slow-moving town of Cuzzert, West Virginia. Cuzzert is so passed over by the world that even its main yearly event, the Coal Heritage Fair, crowns a Coal Queen imported from the bigger town down the road. Aimee and Crystal belong to Glorybound Holiness Tabernacle, a tiny church that’s barely still functioning after Cord, their pastor dad, disappeared when his predicted date for the apocalypse passed without event. Cord has turned up in the prison down the road, though his girls just can’t quite bring themselves — or their trailer-bound, depressed mother, Dotte — to visit. They are forgotten, overlooked people, “the least of these” — though they clearly don’t see themselves that way. Aimee and Crystal have vowed to become woman-prophets of the Lord.
The narrative perspective rotates among the main characters — Crystal, who’s taken a vow of silence; Aimee, who’s taken a vow of virginity but also, lately, to wearing skimpy dresses; and Aubrey, an AmeriCorps volunteer from Chicago teaching a writing class in the prison. Parents Cord and Dotte also take on a few chapters — Cord through his autobiographical writings in the prison class Aubrey’s teaching. Each character is trapped in his or her own sadness in one way or another. And even as they struggle to connect with each other, the narrative’s shifting perspective lets us into their heads, rendering their rich inner lives in prose that conveys their individuality while still bearing Van Eerden’s distinctive stamp.
When Crystal’s snake-handling ex-boyfriend rolls back into town during the Coal Heritage Fair, the unpredictable is let loose in a world where it seemed like nothing would ever change. The change that comes is not the miracle the faithful might have hoped for, but it’s transformative nonetheless. This is consistent with the world Van Eerden has created — a world where trouble isn’t magically washed away, but a world where we might, as Emily Dickinson puts it, “dwell in possibility” even in the midst of a harsh reality.
Hannah Faith Notess recently published her first full-length collection of poems, The Multitude, winner of the Michael Waters Poetry Prize from Southern Indiana Review Press. Nearly ten years ago, she published two poems in Ruminate’s very first issue! She lives in Seattle with her family.
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