cover image THE CALLING


Cathryn Clinton, . . Candlewick, $15.99 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-7636-1387-7

This promising if uneven first novel starts out sounding like farce, but ends up treating questions of religious faith and practice with wisdom, humor and affection. Set in a small South Carolina town in the early '60s and narrated by 12-year-old Esta Lea, the story begins as Esta Lea—who is descended from a long line of preachers—has a miraculous vision of Jesus, lays hands on her deaf grandmother and restores her hearing. She is promptly launched on a healing crusade, accompanied by her older sister and her uncle, Peter Earl (newly reformed from a lifetime of shifty practices) and she effects miraculous cures in places like the Lukewarm No More Church. But is Peter Earl stealing the offerings in the collection plates? At first the author uses such broad strokes of color—from thick applications of metaphor (Esta Lea and a friend are "tighter than Aunt Phoebe's girdle") to excerpts from fire-and-brimstone-type sermons—that it's hard to know what to make of Esta Lea's extraordinary powers or her prophetic dreams. But as readers enter Esta Lea's world, Clinton provides moving insights into the nature of faith and prayer. While these are weighty underpinnings, they neither slow nor overshadow a taut story line. The audience does not need to share Esta Lea's religious beliefs in order to appreciate her conflicts and to become engrossed in her concerns. Ages 10-up. (Sept.)