Teen Angst, Fundamental Style

lay-it-on-my-heart-250wA review of Lay It On My Heart by Angela Pneuman

Here is a voice we don’t hear often in contemporary fiction—Charmaine Peake is poor, female, adolescent, white, growing up in the rural South, where Bible quotes are dropped into everyday conversation and faith is not only to be worn on the sleeve, but broadcast loudly. I grew up not far from where author Angela Pneuman was born and raised, so the novel’s setting is familiar. But this intimate visit inside the mind of a 13-year-old fundamentalist Christian was a new and sometimes unsettling experience. What starts for Charmaine as a niggling suspicion of her church’s youth group leaders mushrooms into overwhelming personal confusion, until she can no longer ignore the contradictions between what she’s been taught to believe and the gritty circumstances of her falling-apart life revealed daily. Worse, the visionary dad she idolizes seems to be losing his grip on reality. A less capable author might have given us a sad and self-pitying victim of bad luck here. Instead, Charmaine Peake is a hybrid of surly teen and wannabe mystic, prickly and tender, guarded and utterly guileless, craving closeness with her never-available evangelist father, while pushing away the mother who desperately wants her affection. Prickly flesh-and-blood teens are quite capable of driving one mad; building a reader’s empathy for an acerbic protagonist requires patience by the bucketload. Pneuman accomplishes this through a slow and subtle rendering of Charmaine’s milieu, the hermetic environment of a deeply religious community. Tension builds as the adults she depends seem to fail her, one by one. Reaching the final chapters, I was nearly unable to put the book down. Fans of The Glass Castle and The Liars Club (and other memoirs and novels dealing with parental mental illness) will be rewarded with a similar empathy boost in Lay It on My Heart. As we root for a girl whose tenacity enables her to board the school bus with the other poor kids who live down by the river, Charmaine discovers compassion for the flawed adults around her—even the with burden of growing up.