I met Natashia Deón at the 2018 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spoke to a standing-room-only conference room on how to deal authentically with faith issues in a post-modern, pluralistic society.
Deón said much that was both practical and inspiring. But the overwhelming impression left by her presentation and my brief personal interaction with her is respect. It was the value with which Deón, a devout Christian, advised writers to handle all faiths. It was the ethic with which she invariably treated her listeners and fellow speakers. And it was the sentiment inspired by her humility, integrity, and clear thinking.
I began reading Grace on the flight home. The writing was riveting, but, had Deón and her presentation not impressed me so highly, a number of factors would likely have induced me to put down the book.
I have read few works that deal directly with slavery. I find them deeply disturbing, and Deón’s opening scene suggested Grace would be no exception. It depicts the violent death of an escaped slave who, throughout the remainder of the book, narrates from the grave. Naomi, our narrator, flicks back and forth between her own story in the past and, going forward, that of her daughter, which Naomi witnesses posthumously. The result is a sort of circular retelling that brings the two stories together in the final pages. Naomi relives the moments leading up to her death and at last takes leave of her daughter, as her spirit goes its way in peace.
Paranormal narration aside, Deón employs unflinching realism in depicting the Civil War-era setting. Her pages are peopled with callus slaveowners, crass white folk, and people of mixed race who do what they must to survive. Her narrative is also starkly frank about sexuality; one cannot avoid the truth that what should be intimate and sacred was exploited and desecrated to a hideous decree under the institution of slavery.
Neither is Deón circumspectly PC. She doesn’t impose a twenty-first century sheen over sympathetic characters so we can recognize them. They swear, swagger, make foolish choices, and are blatantly racist. They are multifaceted and consistent with their era. But with a word here, an action there, they reveal their souls, allowing us to judge them by what we find there, not merely what they display on the surface.
So why, given all the foregoing acknowledgments, do I endorse Grace? Foremost, perhaps, for the very reason that I appreciated the opportunity to rub shoulders with people who don’t look, sound, or even always think like me. One of my favorite threads involves the religious odyssey of Cynthia, the racist Jewish madam of the brothel where Naomi washes up after running away from her plantation. My life and Cynthia’s evidence very little overlap, at least on the surface. But, like other characters, Cynthia ultimately earns my respect.
As an aside, I grow rather passionate talking or even thinking about the power of narrative. Exposition can convince our rational minds of propositional truths. But Story offers an immersive experience with equal–or perhaps even greater–transformative potential.
For more on that topic, see my review, “Once Upon a River, Part II: Reading for the Dark Season.” For more about the manifestations of grace in Deón’s novel, come back soon for “The Workings of Grace, (or Grace, Part II).”