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The daughter of one of the South’s most famous Baptist preachers discovers a shocking secret about her father that puts her at odds with both her faith and her family in this “tender and wise” (Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth) debut novel.

Every summer, fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton and her family pack themselves tight in their old minivan and travel through small southern towns for revival season: the time when Miriam’s father—one of the South’s most famous preachers—holds massive healing services for people desperate to be cured of ailments and disease.This summer, the revival season doesn’t go as planned, and after one service in which Reverend Horton’s healing powers are tested like never before, Miriam witnesses a shocking act of violence that shakes her belief in her father—and in her faith.

When the Hortons return home, Miriam’s confusion only grows as she discovers she might have the power to heal—even though her father and the church have always made it clear that such power is denied to women. Over the course of the next year, Miriam must decide between her faith, her family, and her newfound power that might be able to save others, but, if discovered by her father, could destroy Miriam.

Celebrating both feminism and faith, Revival Season is a story of spiritual awakening and disillusionment in a Southern, black, Evangelical community. Monica West’s transporting coming-of-age novel explores complicated family and what it means to live among the community of the faithful.

Chapter One ONE
We rumbled toward Georgia from the west, the direction from which all great and powerful things originated. “Except the sun,” Caleb said, feeling particularly feisty as the novelty of another revival season settled in. Ma turned and shot him the look where her dark eyes narrowed into slits. Then she spun back around, closed her eyes, and mumbled a prayer: “Lord, watch over these Your children. Use us to do Your will. Amen.”

Done praying, Ma refocused her attention to the map she was holding in the air; her finger landed on a bold black dot, far from the big star at the center of the state. We always went to smaller cities—tiny dots that surrounded the capital’s star like satellites. Her stubby, unmanicured nail tracing the winding path to Americus, Georgia, was nothing like the polished nails in the magazines that I snuck glimpses of in the library. Nails that we would never be able to have, since vanity was an unforgivable sin. I’d learned that lesson the hard way last spring when my best friend, Micah, and I had sat in the middle of her bedroom floor, an open bottle of nail polish between us. Micah lifted the wand and smoothed the shiny orb of light pink lacquer on my thumbnail. So faint no one will notice, she said. When I got home the next morning and linked my hand with Papa’s to pray for breakfast, he forced me to remove the polish under his watchful eye before anyone could lift a fork to their mouths.

I watched Ma in the rearview mirror as the minivan merged onto the Texas highway. Papa turned up the radio as our van became one of an anonymous throng of vehicles barreling beneath an overpass. But none of the other cars had the important task that we did: driving nine hundred miles to bring the word of God to people who needed to be saved from their sins. The exhilaration before the first revival of a new season meant I could barely sit still between the cracked windows whose building pressure buffeted my ears. We’d been doing this for years—twelve, to be exact—but somehow this first moment of revival season, when everything was possible, never got old.

We pulled into our ceremonial first stop—a tacky diner 281 miles away from our house in East Mansfield, Texas. Soon, conversation flowed as we pierced straws through plastic lids and drank the syrupy sweet soda we were only allowed to have during this inaugural revival season meal. With our hands curled around sweaty paper cups, Papa dreamed out loud.

“I might break the two-thousand-soul mark this year. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?”

It would be more than a blessing—it would be a miracle. The two-thousand-soul mark had been elusive for all of Papa’s years of leading revivals; it was three times more than last year’s soul count, and it would be even harder to accomplish this year.

“There will be lines around the tent waiting for me when I arrive. This is the year, Hortons.”

My eyes searched the table’s shiny surface as I took another deep sip. The caffeine made the lights extra bright as they bounced off the orange plastic tables, and it amplified the clink of ice coming from surrounding booths. The combined effect made Papa’s words seem slightly forced.

“Any naysayer would tell you that’s impossible, but they don’t know my God,” he said.

I wondered if a small part of Papa believed what those people said, especially after what happened at last year’s revival, but I pushed the doubts out of my mind. Doubt was a sin.

“Back to the van, Hortons!” Papa urged. I savored the last sips of my soda and stilled the jitter in my limbs as I took my half-eaten lunch to the trash. Each rotation of the tires brought us closer to Americus, and the promise of what this revival season might have in store came into focus as we slid beneath the mournful weeping willows of Louisiana. As Louisiana passed us off to Mississippi, a thick wall of humidity smacked us in the face. By the time Georgia’s plump peach welcomed us on the highway sign, the weight of this year’s revival season fell on the car like a lead blanket.

Papa cracked the front windows to let in the moist air. “You smell that? That’s the smell of pagan land.”

My little sister, Hannah, rocked next to me; clicking sounds rose from the back of her throat, and her elbows were frozen in acute angles in front of her chest.

“Can you make her be quiet?” Papa hissed toward us in the back seat. I patted Hannah’s knee and handed her the soft rubber ball that was reserved for moments like these. She reached out a clawlike hand and pulled it toward her chest, rolling the ball between her fingers and kneading it like dough. Her limbs slackened, and she loosened her jaw.

Ma and Papa never told me or my younger brother, Caleb, what was wrong with Hannah. At least not directly. Once, back in Texas, I woke up long after I thought everyone else was asleep. As I tiptoed past my parents’ bedroom on my way downstairs for a glass of water, I overheard Papa say that Hannah had cerebral palsy, but his accusatory tone sounded like Hannah’s disease was the result of some flaw in Ma’s faith. I hurried away before I could hear her response.

Papa pulled in front of a tiny brick building with only a narrow white steeple to identify it as a church. It was much smaller than the churches we were accustomed to visiting. He took a long glance at the parking lot with only a few dozen spaces and released a sigh that sounded like it had built up over the entire ride.

“Here we are,” Papa announced in a flat tone before getting out of the car.

Through the windows, we watched a large, dark-skinned man with a swollen belly that protruded over the top of his pants approach Papa. They embraced in an awkward hug; then the man looked over Papa’s shoulder and pointed to the car where we all sat. As he lifted his arms to beckon us, two oblong stains darkened the armpits of his dress shirt. We tumbled out of the van: first Caleb, then my mother, then eight-year-old Hannah, then me.

We followed Reverend Davenport into the claustrophobic sanctuary of the New Rock Baptist Church, where three rows of folding chairs faced a raised pulpit. Behind the altar, an ornate gold cross was situated between two paintings of the crucifixion.

“Thanks so much for inviting us.” Papa scanned his surroundings, probably comparing this sanctuary to the cavernous ones of last year’s circuit. “This is my wife, Joanne; my son, Caleb; and my daughters, Miriam and Hannah.”

Ma handed Hannah over to me—I folded my arms around Hannah’s chest and felt her fragile rib cage like so many bowed toothpicks, her rapid heartbeat, her body’s metronomic perpetual motion. Ma stepped in Papa’s long shadow to meet the reverend, but he looked past her to Caleb. Ma, Hannah, and I were barely a blip on his radar.

We followed the reverend to the fellowship hall, where a platter of fried chicken, a bowl of mashed potatoes, and a plate of crisp string beans were arranged on a long table. Reverend Davenport dipped his chin ever so slightly. I couldn’t even tell that he was praying until I heard his soft words. “Lord, bless these gifts that we receive for the nourishment of our bodies and the building of Your kingdom. Amen.”

We sat down to eat. The food was passed in silence, first to Papa and Caleb, then to the reverend. When my mother received the platter, she carefully selected a breast—not too small, not too big. When it was finally my turn, I selected a drumstick for Hannah before reaching back on the platter for my piece.

“Don’t take too much,” Ma whispered as I selected a thigh. She yanked the plate from me before I could get another piece and nodded at Papa. I gnawed on the crispy skin as Reverend Davenport pulled Papa aside during the meal. They walked to the far wall and stood below an oil painting of the Last Supper. I pretended to study the Apostles as I tried to hear what they were whispering. Reverend Davenport drew invisible shapes in the air with his index finger. He shielded his mouth with his hand as they talked, but snatches of the conversation about money and revenue and how to bring the most people to Christ rode the air back to me. Reverend Davenport was saying something about healing when his gaze found my face, and I hurried to shift my stare to the translucent grease spots that the chicken had left behind on my plate. But I was too late, my eyes too slow in their sockets to change course.

“You’re curious, aren’t ya?” He said it like a joke, but it wasn’t—the emphasis on curious made sure of that. I kept my eyes fixed on my plate; when I looked up, my mother’s eyes were once again narrowing, this time at me.

“We’ve had a long drive. Do you think that you could show us to the house? Then you and my husband could have some quiet time to talk. Alone.” My mother spoke up with a mouthful of partially chewed chicken. I thanked her with a sheepish glance that she didn’t return.

Before Reverend Davenport could respond, a thin, light-skinned woman appeared from the kitchen adjacent to the fellowship hall. She wiped her hands on an apron and offered to walk us back to where we would be staying for the weeklong revival.

“I’m Frieda Davenport,” she said when we got outside. She shook hands with Ma. As they walked beside each other, Ma’s short stride quickened to keep pace with Mrs. Davenport. With each step, Ma’s knee-highs slid farther down her calves and pooled around her ankles above the scuffed flats that she always wore on long trips. Hannah and I trudged through the grass several yards behind them.

For most revivals, they put us in a mobile home or a small house attached to the church, but Mrs. Davenport opened the door to a house so new that it still smelled like plywood and drywall. Hannah broke free of my grip and dropped to her knees, her knotted hands running along the hardwood floor in a back-and-forth motion, the corners of her mouth lifting into the closest thing to a smile she could manage.

“I’m glad someone noticed the floor we just had done,” Mrs. Davenport said. “Reverend Davenport ordered it all the way from Chattanooga.”

Chattanooga. The Sunday school kids back in Texas had likely never been to Chattanooga and probably couldn’t even point it out on a map, but we’d driven through it last summer on our way to a weeklong revival at City of Eternal Hope Baptist Church. I remembered how the heavy air seeped into the walls of the tent, and how Papa had converted 218 souls in that seven-day period, more than any other revival in the church’s history.

I unzipped my duffel bag in the room I would share with Hannah. Hannah’s clothes were always easy to fit into the top drawer—small T-shirts with logos of zoo animals, long skirts in earth tones, and knee socks that covered her leg braces. I placed her stuffed tiger on top of her pillow: it was the one thing that could bring her comfort during rough nights when she thrashed herself awake under the covers.

When I finished unpacking, I changed Hannah into her pajamas and helped her into bed before climbing in beside her. Her body grew still, and I leaned closer to the curved cartilage of her right ear to tell her my favorite bedtime story: Miriam and Moses. I invented details about the way Miriam’s mother’s fingers bled on the papyrus reeds as she wove a basket to save her newborn son, Moses, from Pharaoh’s proclamation that all baby boys should be drowned. As I spun words into the dark cove of her ear, I imagined my namesake watching over her baby brother in that basket, doing as her mother told her.

Hannah’s body grew heavy as it leaned into mine; her snoring, full and sonorous, cut off the end of my sentence. I nestled behind her with my arms around her expanding and contracting chest, playing the rest of the story out in my head, even as I kept the ending pressed behind stilled lips—about how Miriam’s actions saved her brother and how her bravery was overshadowed by Moses’s later success. I told Hannah the story the same way Ma had told it to me—with Miriam as the hero—even though Papa always emphasized Moses. When Hannah’s breathing was slow and steady, I slid out from behind her, careful not to wake her.

The cloistered room blocked out the noise from outside. I knelt beside the patchwork spread that Ma had given me five years ago for my tenth birthday. I brought it on every revival trip—it took up the most space in the single duffel bag that each of us was allowed to shove in the back of the van. It was the only quilt I had ever prayed on, and Papa had once told me that the best thing I could do for revival was to pray every night. There was so much that we didn’t have control over during these trips—summer thunderstorms, low turnout. So I took that charge seriously. When we had standing-room-only crowds that were packed inside the tent’s vinyl walls, I knew I had some role in it.

I ran my finger along the jagged seams where each memory shared borders with another. In the middle of the quilt was a heart patch where I placed my elbows—close enough to each other so my hands could make a steeple with the pads of my fingers pressed together. The narrow space between my palms was the perfect size for my nose. I closed my eyes and exhaled the day. I filled my lungs with air that I liked to imagine was purified by the Holy Spirit, even though it smelled just like the old air. Back out and then in. After the third exhale, it was time.

“?‘Our Father, who art in heaven,’?” I began. The words of the Lord’s Prayer spilled over the quilt. As I prayed, tension that I hadn’t even known had built up in my shoulders and back released. I stayed on my knees until I had covered everything—healing the world, watching over my family, blessing this revival season, making me obedient. Some of those requests seemed harder to grant than others, but I had to ask anyway. God didn’t ask us to limit His power, and when we only ask for things that feel achievable, we question Him. And questioning God is the root of evil.

“Amen.” I ended the prayer and rose from the side of the bed. My legs felt heavy when I stretched them, but the evening’s devotions had just gotten started. Climbing into bed, I opened the Bible and skimmed the chapter in Proverbs that I knew by heart before ending with a prayer of gratitude for arriving safely in Americus. I flipped open my prayer journal, past the scrawl from several years ago when I wondered if Jesus loved Baptists more since that’s what we were. Papa said that even though all Christian denominations were equal in God’s eyes, God looked on our family more favorably because we traveled around the South each summer, bringing the word of God like manna to the starving.

I closed my Bible and journal. For a few moments after I finished reading, a feeling of warmth settled over me. In our house, God was more than the being that people blindly worshipped on Sundays and forgot about until they needed something else. To us, God was more flesh than spirit, more being than ghost. Each morning when I thanked Him for a new day, I didn’t just speak into an echo chamber. As I lay in an unfamiliar bedroom, I felt God right next to me, His breath in my ear like wind.

Even though our God saved souls and healed bodies, He needed someone on earth to be his intermediary—that was where Papa came in. There were always doubters who shut doors in our faces as we tried to bring them into the light, but they didn’t know what we knew. That the “song and dance” that they swore was a performance for money was real. All across the South, Papa had touched people and removed incurable diseases from their bodies. And those people who swore God wasn’t real, who claimed that we were deluded Jesus freaks, had never set foot inside a revival tent and felt the spirit of God descend when Papa began to heal. And even though he hurt that girl last summer—something I could barely even admit to myself—that one failure didn’t negate the fact that countless people who had been wheeled into the tent had walked back outside after Papa had touched them. If the naysayers had seen him when he was on fire, he would have turned them from skeptics to believers in one service.

I woke up disoriented and bleary-eyed in the unfamiliar bedroom, its paisley wallpaper making patterns in the indigo dusk. Slowly, the walls came into focus, then the prayer quilt that sat on top of the comforter, and finally Hannah, who was stirring in the bed across the room. I snapped into action as the house came alive—the whistle of a teakettle, Ma milling around with her loud footfalls on the floorboards. There were a million things to do in the few hours before we were scheduled to arrive at the revival tent.

During revival trips, long before the sun could tint the horizon with waxy crayon shades of maize and rose, my first chore was always Hannah. I stumbled out of bed and filled the bathtub with lukewarm water just high enough to cover the nubby bottom. I eased Hannah into the tub, first by swinging her knees over the edge and then lowering her into the water. Her bent knees touched each other above the water’s surface, and I gently pressed them down. While I rinsed her lathered hair, I could hear Papa and Caleb through the thin walls—Papa’s loud voice speaking the words of Christ, the ones that were typed in red on the tissue pages as another reminder of His sacrifice for us. Caleb’s voice as he repeated Papa’s words was less confident.

“?‘They who wait upon the Lord,’?” Caleb began. Then he paused one beat too long.

“?‘Shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings of eagles. They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.’?” I whispered in the blanks where Caleb couldn’t finish Isaiah 40:31. Isaiah—the name of the baby Ma had two years ago. As the word stillborn had drifted to where I was standing, I wondered why people couldn’t be straightforward and say that Isaiah was born dead. And why they had named him after my favorite book in the Bible.

For months afterward, a ragged hole had ripped through all of the verses I had known and recited, burning everything in its proximity. I knew that trials were a part of life, but rationality seemed impossible in those days, especially because my mind kept floating back to the idea that the same God who had promised us a baby—another son for Papa to groom into ministry—had snatched him away from us before he had even taken a breath.

I straightened Hannah’s limbs and lifted them out of the water: first her arms and then her legs. Minuscule soapy beads formed on her skin as I glided the washcloth over one arm and then the next. She closed her eyes in delight as I cupped warm water in both hands and spilled it onto her back, so I did it a few extra times just to hear her squeal. She followed the squeal with a labored grunt—the doctors had told us that it was the closest that she would ever get to speech. When she was clean, I spread her towel on the floor by the tub and guided her out of the water—only then could I lift the lever on the drain. If I did it in the wrong order, she would shriek and only stop when I let her touch Tiger’s sightless plastic eyes with her forefinger.

When she was fully dressed, I loosened the Velcro straps from her thick plastic leg braces and fitted them around her calves. Lifting her from the floor, I slipped her forearms into her crutches. As she stood, her joints preferred to stay bent rather than straightening, so I ran my palm over her elbows and then down to her knees, stopping to massage the knobby joints with my thumb and forefinger. She liked when I made a whooshing sound as I did that, like I was the one who magically helped her walk a little taller.

I brought Hannah, clean and dressed, to the kitchen. Papa always waited until we got to the new revival site to tell the host pastor about Hannah. Maybe he thought it would ruin the reputation he’d worked so hard to perfect—the flocks of people who crowded into tents would never believe that a man with healing powers could have a daughter like Hannah.

Caleb bounded down the stairs last, already wearing his suit and tie. He flopped into the chair, right in front of the stack of pancakes. During revival season, I only got to see glimpses of Caleb in passing before Papa whisked him off to meet the elders or the deacons. He was fifteen, too—younger than me by ten months—yet it felt like years divided us when I had to watch him straighten his tie and leave with Papa to do “men’s work.”

“Let’s start breakfast with a prayer,” Ma said.

I knew the revival prayer by heart—it came from Matthew 28:19. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As Caleb scarfed down spongy triangles of pancake, I reached for the Bible in the middle of the table. It was Ma’s Bible—the one she carried with her everywhere. Ma’s and Papa’s names and their wedding date were written in cursive inside the front cover: Joanne Renée Taylor and Samuel David Horton, July 11, 2002. It was hard to imagine that they even existed a year before I was born—when Ma was just Joanne—but I’d unearthed the wedding picture from a shoebox in the attic while packing for this revival. In it was a faded photo of an eighteen-year-old Ma, her face a carbon copy of mine. Through the sheer cream-colored veil that partially hid her strained smile, the lonely, distant look in her eyes reached back to me.

Behind the only picture of their wedding was a black-and-white local newspaper clipping whose edges had started to curl. When I flattened it, there was a small, grainy photo of Papa with bushy eyebrows and a head full of hair—his lips protruded around his mouth guard in a grimace as he held boxing gloves in front of his chiseled abs. “Samuel Horton Prepares to Defend Title,” the headline read. I skimmed an article that may as well have been about someone else—someone with an 8-0-1 record with a right hook like a freight train and fast feet. I imagined Papa bouncing on the balls of his feet, moving from the ropes on one side of the ring to the other. I felt the anger that swelled in his body for his opponents before his glove made contact with their stomachs or ribs, heard the muffled sound of a glove striking flesh. I folded the article along its crease and placed it back with the other mementos—the cut hospital bracelet from Hannah’s birth, a yellowed gauzy square of veil, and an old picture of Ma sandwiched between her sisters. Her smile as she squatted in front of a pickup truck with Claudia and Yolanda was such a stark contrast to the wedding photo that now sat in front of it in the shoebox that the bride and the girl might as well have been two different people, even though the scrawled date on the Polaroid revealed that the photographs had been taken only four months apart.

A horn honked in the driveway, and Caleb shoved one final bite into his mouth before running outside to join Papa. I walked to the front window and slid my finger into the narrow opening between two metallic blinds. Through the visible diamond of dusty glass, Papa gripped Caleb’s shoulders in front of Reverend Davenport’s silver sedan, shaking him every few seconds as though to emphasize his words. I imagined what Papa was saying—What’s mine is yours or maybe One day this can be yours—as the warmth of his hand seeped through the shoulder of my dress instead of Caleb’s suit jacket. Even as I pretended, my imagination couldn’t wrap itself around such a frivolous fantasy.

With a piece of glass between us, it was easier to imagine Papa saying things to me that he never said when he was inches away. Whenever I had questions about the Bible after dinner, he excused himself to the study to prepare a sermon, letting me lob unanswered queries to the back of his retreating suit. When it was time for his nightly snack, I held the plate and knocked on the study door, requesting permission to come inside. The snack was always a ruse; I needed to be close enough to hear his words about disease and God’s healing so they would stir the Holy Spirit in me more than they did when I was in the fourth row of a church or a revival site. But rather than asking me to come inside, he spoke to me through the door, telling me to leave the plate outside.

“Another ninety-degree scorcher,” the radio announcer—Gus “Good News” Stevens on Heaven 1310 AM—broadcast from the kitchen. Then Papa’s booming voice came over the airwaves and filled the room, sending a shudder through me even though the commercial had been recorded weeks ago. I released the blinds before they snapped together like lips keeping a secret. It always shocked me to hear his voice in these far-off places—“Come all of you under the sound of my voice. Come to the well that never runs dry.” And with those words, revival officially began. Ma shushed me and Hannah even though we weren’t making any noise, as though our breathing would overshadow Papa’s voice, which could fill up any space it entered.

“Americus, this is Reverend Samuel Horton, the Faith Healer of East Mansfield. If you are hungry for a touch from the Lord, if your hearts are weary or heavy-laden, come to the big tent tonight. Take this step of faith and Jesus will be there to meet your needs and heal your bodies.”

It was the same message, the same confident tone, from city to city. Though I knew the words by heart, they reformed themselves as they filtered through the pin-size holes in the speaker of the plastic transistor radio, and suddenly all the people who might have been listening to him in their kitchens vanished—it was just me and him. His words of deliverance and new life took me back to the cold shock of the lake in East Mansfield when I was seven, my adult’s baptism robe getting soaked as I walked over to where he stood away from the shore with his arms stretched out from his sides. I wanted to run to him, but the lake dragged my sopping robe behind me like an anvil. When I finally stepped into his arms, he whispered the words of the Lord to me.

“Miriam Ruth, do you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to renounce the devil?” I nodded and folded my arms over my chest the way I had seen so many people do before me.

“Miriam Ruth Horton, child of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Sp—” Before he could finish the sentence, his strong forearm under my back dipped me into the lake. His words sounded loud and muffled under the water, but I could hear the congregation cheer. When I was upright again, Papa gave me a soaking hug and planted a kiss on my forehead. Though I should have been happy to have eternal life, I was happier to lean into the strength of his embrace and feel the prickle of his wiry forearm hairs as he squeezed me tighter.

His voice faded into a cereal commercial, but my heart still raced the way it did that day half a lifetime ago. I couldn’t wait to get to the revival tent—to see its majestic colors and watch Papa redeem himself from last summer’s scandal the way I’d been praying that he would.
This reading group guide for Revival Season includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

The daughter of one of the South’s most famous Baptist preachers discovers a shocking secret about her father that puts her at odds with both her faith and her family in this “tender and wise” (Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth) debut novel.

Every summer, fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton and her family pack themselves tight in their old minivan and travel through small southern towns for revival season: the time when Miriam’s father—one of the South’s most famous preachers—holds massive healing services for people desperate to be cured of ailments and disease. This summer, the revival season doesn’t go as planned, and after one service in which Reverend Horton’s healing powers are tested like never before, Miriam witnesses a shocking act of violence that shakes her belief in her father—and in her faith.

When the Hortons return home, Miriam’s confusion only grows as she discovers she might have the power to heal—even though her father and the church have always made it clear that such power is denied to women. Over the course of the next year, Miriam must decide between her faith, her family, and her newfound power that might be able to save others, but, if discovered by her father, could destroy Miriam.

Celebrating both feminism and faith, Revival Season is a story of spiritual awakening and disillusionment in a Southern, black, Evangelical community. Monica West’s transporting coming-of-age novel explores complicated family and what it means to live among the community of the faithful.

Topics & Questions for Discussion (12-15 Discussion Questions)

Note: Please make sure the numbers do not populate automatically.

1. Revival Season opens with the story of the first time Miriam painted her nails. What do we learn from this story? What are some the things classified as a sin or vanity in the Horton family? What does this tell us about the church and community that the Horton family operates within?

2. Miriam, Caleb, and Hannah (plus Isaiah and Isaac) are all Biblical names from the Old Testament. Read the stories of these Bible characters. What do these stories tell us about the children of Revival Season?

3. We learn early on that, in the Horton family, “doubt was a sin” (3). What is the function of doubt in faith? Who are the Horton children taught should never be doubted?

4. Miriam’s younger sister Hannah has cerebral palsy. What does Hannah’s disability represent to each member of the family?

5. Miriam explains Isaiah’s stillbirth by saying that though she knows “trials were a part of life,” she still can’t understand why an innocent child was allowed to die (12). What does this question reveal about her faith?

6. Discuss Papa’s physical violence. How does his past as a prize-winning boxer interact with how he wields his power in the church? What does he think his role is in the church and community? Why do you think the deacons, Ma, Caleb, and others are so passive in the face of Papa’s violence?

7. Part of Miriam’s spiritual awakening comes through culture: reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and seeing her mother dance to popular music. What does culture do for Miriam? How does it make her feel? How does it both separate her from, and connect her to, others?

8. Describe Miriam’s first healing. How does this shift her thinking on her faith, family, and what’s possible for herself? What’s the public reaction to Micah’s healing? And what changes after her relapse?

9. How does Ma decide it’s time to leave? Why do you think she chooses to stay?

10. Mrs. Cade becomes a confidante to Miriam and a caregiver to Ma. What perspective does she bring and how does she use that perspective to influence the course of events in the Horton family?

11. Discuss the different healings that occur throughout the book. What do those healings reveal about what types of sickness are acceptable to us in our culture? Are there differences between physical healing and spiritual healing? Do you think it’s important that Papa’s healings happen in public whereas Miriam’s occur in private?

12. After Miriam heals Ma, she feels betrayed that Ma won’t acknowledge her healing (227). Why do you think this bothers Miriam, especially in context of the other ways her mother has disappointed her?

13. Towards the end of the book, Miriam struggles with self-harm. What is she feeling during this time? Why do you think self-harm is her answer to these feelings?

14. What is Caleb’s dream job (245)? What does this tell us about the type of life he wants to have? How does this compare to the lives Miriam and Ma want to have?

15. What is the cost of Miriam’s final choice? What choice to do you believe she makes? Why?

Enhance Your Book Club (3-5 Enhance Your Book Club Suggestions)

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1. There are many excellent books about faith, religion, spirituality, and the church, like The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, and Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Choose one to read with your book club and discuss how the church and faith are represented in the book versus how they are depicted in Revival Season.

2. Revivals have a long history in American life. Read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards, The Great Duty of Family Religion by George Whitfield, or The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry by Gilbert Tennent and compare the words of these preachers with Pa’s teachings.

3. Connect with Monica West on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or her website, https://monicawestwrites.com.

A Conversation with Monica West (10 – 12 Questions)

Note: Please make sure that questions are boldfaced and not numbered.

Q: Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Revival Season! What inspired you to write this story? What was your writing process like?

Thank you! Revival Season came to me as an image in my head: I saw a picture of a van speeding down the highway and wondered who was in it and where it was headed. Then I thought it would be interesting to have these people spend a lot of time in a confined space; I also thought it would be interesting to have one of the people in the van be in conflict with another person in the van. The notion of inescapable claustrophobia was so intriguing to me. Then the idea of religion came to me because it’s something that I’ve grappled with personally for a while. Thus, I thought it would be fascinating to make this a book about religion and how the patriarchal structure of some forms of Christianity imprisons girls and women. Once that idea came into my head, the rest was history.

My writing process was to write scenes as they came to me, even if they weren’t in chronological order. The first chapter was the first thing I wrote, but the rest of the novel wasn’t necessarily written chronologically. In addition, I drafted a lot of the novel by hand because that’s the easiest way for me to access ideas during this early stage. As time went on, I typed things out, revising as I went. Later in the process than I should have, I did a physical outline of characters, plotlines, and events. It took about 3 years to complete a full draft, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve revised it since (it’s at least 15).

Q: Miriam is such a dynamic character. She’s driven by the duty that her faith requires, but she also makes increasingly difficult decisions to stay true to the faith that she knows to be real—even when it conflicts with others’ ideas of what her faith should look like. As a character, did she come to you fully formed? What parts of her personality were you most excited to explore?

Miriam didn’t come to me fully formed; she kept revealing herself to me as I wrote her. Some of the ideas about her personality that were true to her early on and are still there were her devotion to her family (particularly with Hannah and her mom), her dogged pursuit of answers to questions that are hard to ask, and her questioning (of her faith, her father, and her family). A lot changed about her, though. Early in the writing process, she needed more validation from her father, but that changed considerably as I revised. I was most excited to explore the part of her that steps into her power but is also terrified of what that could mean. In addition, I was eager to explore her growing defiance. Finally, I was really intrigued by the part of her that still found so much beauty in, and remained loyal to, a religion that continually harmed her.

Q: Much of the first half of the book takes place on the road. Have you been to any of the places you wrote about? How do you see travel in light of the other themes of this book (like faith, personal growth, family)? What do you think Miriam learns from her travels?

I have been to many of the states I wrote about: Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas. For Miriam, travel is a window outside of her claustrophobic world, and thus is the catalyst for her personal growth. In addition, when the family travels, she can see her father removed from the source of much of his power back in Texas. Therefore, travel is the conduit for many of the other themes in the book because it helps Miriam see her faith and family with new eyes. In her travels, Miriam learns about her father’s fallibility, and she gains a voice and a sense of independence that she can then actualize at home.

Q: There’s a wealth of information on revivals throughout American history. Did you do any research on the history of revivals in the United States? Did you find anything surprising? What prompted you to place revivals in a modern context?

I did a lot of research about revivals because they have such a rich history. I was always familiar with them in Pentecostal and Baptist settings, but what was surprising was how different faith traditions used them, including Mennonites. In terms of placing revivals in a modern context, I think of the Horton family as being intentionally separate from the current time because they hold onto many conservative traditions of dress, education of children, and other things that keep them separate from their more modern or progressive counterparts. So to recast revivals, an older tradition, in a modern sense seemed right for a family that clings to many older traditions.

Q: The Millions calls Revival Season “a precise geological picture of the Bible Belt and how faith shapes the community and the family.” How did you approach writing about the specific intersection of faith and the south? What did you think was important to include? What did you think was important to interrogate?

Having lived in the south for years, faith seems inextricable from life there in a way that feels different from other parts of the country. Faith is the shorthand of most conversations, and it is the unquestioned assumption of others. So I had to set this book in the south because I needed it to take place in a location where Miriam wouldn’t have to explain anything about revival services and healings. Furthermore, Samuel needed to be this larger-than-life figure in the family and in the towns where he visits and lives. I thought that it was important to include the isolation of this family that is nomadic in the summers and sheltered for the rest of the year in a secretive house. I also wanted to interrogate what power (and the loss of it) looks like in a vacuum and outside of it.

Q: Revival Season casts a clear eye on how women’s roles are prescribed in the evangelical church. They often are forced to make themselves small, but they also have a dignity and a solidarity that I think would surprise some who aren’t familiar with the inner workings of the church. How did you go about representing this dynamic?

Women are the backbone of the church, and yet they are the most overlooked. They share a tight bond with each other that comes from the shared experience of being at the bottom of the church hierarchy. I wanted to represent this dynamic by showing this group of proud people who works extremely hard to keep everything running. They take pride in their work—in their service to God, the church, and their families—and even if the men don’t see their worth, they see it in each other. I wanted to represent this dynamic to show that the women validated each other, even if they weren’t validated externally.

Q: You write very movingly about Papa’s struggle with pride and how it leads to many of the defining actions in the book. Was this fault of his interesting to explore on the page? Miriam could be said to have pride too, or maybe a quiet confidence—did you see any similarities between father and daughter while writing?

Pa was a fascinating and complicated character to write—I am someone who is pretty humble, so it was hard to imagine what it would feel like to have pride as a tragic flaw. He frustrated me and challenged me and forced me to stretch my understanding about how someone’s pride could be the downfall of their family. What was even more fascinating for me to write was Miriam’s pride. I absolutely saw connections between Miriam and her father while I was writing. Miriam starts to see them too toward the end, and it scares her.

Q: You currently teach high school English. What are your favorite books to teach? Did any books influence Revival Season? Any book recommendations that readers should revisit post-high school?

I love teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; I learn something new each time I reread them. People should absolutely revisit those books if they haven’t recently. In terms of influences for Revival Season, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers were crucial for me as I drafted, wrote, and revised.

Q: Often, religion is categorized as a taboo topic and something that isn’t appropriate to talk about, even with those we’re close to. Why do you think this is? Do you feel comfortable talking about religion with your friends and family? What conversations – spiritual or otherwise – would you hope readers have after reading Revival Season?

Part of it may have to do with the fact that everyone has had such different personal experiences with religion, so whenever it comes up, it is an ostensibly charged conversation. In addition, when you say that you are one thing, the label flattens you and lets other people think that’s all there is to know about you. In both instances, that’s a difficult way to begin any kind of open dialogue. I am comfortable talking about religion with people I know well, but much less comfortable doing so around strangers for the same reasons I just listed. I hope that Revival Season can begin a larger conversation about the role of women in religion in general and how faith and feminism can coexist. I also hope that people can start to talk about the damaging role of patriarchy in organized religion as a whole.

Q: Are you working on anything now? If so, can you tell us about it?

Right now, I’m writing a novel about a charismatic man who abuses his power and becomes a dangerous cult leader. I’m focusing on the narratives of three women who are his “wives” and how they watch him descend into madness. I’m thinking about how people align themselves with someone like him and why they stay.
Chickpea Photography

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Monica West received her BA from Duke University, her MA from New York University, and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was a Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow. She was a Southern Methodist University Kimbilio Fellow in 2014, and she will be a Hedgebrook Writer in Residence in 2021. Revival Season is her first novel.

“Growing up, I returned to The Poisonwood Bible time and time again whenever I wanted to be transported far away from my own life. I’ve long been desperate to find a book that transported me that same way, so when I first read Revival Season, I was thrilled that I’d finally found it. Monica West’s debut takes the reader along dusty moonlit roads and to small-town churches as we join fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton and her family for the summer revival season. Monica’s lush, atmospheric descriptions bring the Southern setting to such vivid life on the page. But perhaps my favorite thing about Revival Season is how thoughtfully Monica writes about what it means to be a believer, and whether being a person of faith means simply adhering to tradition—or whether a true believer is someone who is not afraid to question said tradition.”

—Carina G., Senior Editor, on Revival Season

New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice 

“In “Revival Season,” her atmospheric, layered debut, Monica West probes that annual rite, when evangelicals are called to go forth and preach to all nations. West steeps her tale in a rich broth of religious ardor and personal betrayal… West creates a vivid, intimate world on the page, dramatizing the compromises evangelical women must make.”—New York Times 

"Spellbinding…. It is nearly impossible to avoid falling in love with Miriam and becoming entranced by this family’s story.... West’s debut marks the entry of a stalwart new voice in American fiction. James Baldwin famously said that his debut novel was “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” We can only hope that West’s literary launch will similarly be the first of many.”—Naomi Jackson, The Washington Post 

“A standout debut about spending summers on the road for revival season and learning that everything you’ve been told could be a lie, this is a smart novel about empowerment with a memorable character at its core.”—Boston Globe
 

"Readers trust her ability to lead us on this breath-stopping journey… this is a remarkable book for this season, astounding in its power to transport the reader to another universe. “Revival Season” assures that Monica West is a writer to watch.”Seattle Times

"Explosive.... West does a fantastic job illuminating the struggles faced by women and girls in the Southern Baptist evangelical movement, and the change in Miriam is palpable and moving. West's deep understanding of her characters and community makes for essential reading."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This propulsive story, narrated by a strong, young voice, is one of the most memorable and moving novels I have read in recent months.... [Miriam is] a fascinating character, and her transformation over the course of the story is impressive, especially as violence upends and reverberates throughout her world. The plot and characters of Revival Season are remarkably well rendered, but West’s language is especially compelling, pulling readers into Miriam’s most defining moments. The sentences are downright musical, and each chapter paints a picture, leaving the reader eager for all that awaits."—BookPage (starred review)

"Every year, the Horton family travels across the South for revival season, where the family patriarch, a prominent Baptist preacher, uses his healing powers. Young Miriam, his daughter, is thrown into crisis by something she witnesses on one of those trips in this intricate story of growing up."—NEWSWEEK

"The women of Baptist churches, tent revivals, and soul salvation are often relegated to silent, supporting roles, but in Revival Season, Monica West puts them at the center of her narrative... Walking with Miriam as she comes of age in Revival Season is a pleasure." —BUST

"West’s debut is a bold insight into traditional southern Christianity and its contradictions to contemporary perspectives on gender equality. She writes with a melodic cadence that is honest and often heartbreaking. Her characters are three-dimensional people who tug at readers' emotions. West's refreshing literary voice and thought-provoking perspective hint at a wealth of stories to come.—Booklist

"Tender and wise, Revival Season explores a girl's faith in both her family and in God. Monica West's formidable talent is matched by her generosity of spirit, making the most winning combination a reader could wish for."—Ann Patchett

"There's a REVIVAL SEASON size gap in our current literature. This moving portrait of an Evangelical black family is generous and compassionate (even as it critiques the Church to which they are so loyal) when so often writing about such people tends to the cynical and derisive. This novel is ultimately about complicated familial love, a young girl's coming into herself, and the price, and beauty, of being among the community of the faithful." —Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie 

"Monica West has given us a riveting tale full of deep wells of compassion even as it tangles with the complexities and flaws of this troubled Southern family. Compact, suspenseful, and written with incredible elegance, Revival Season is a highly rewarding, utterly original read -- one of my favorite debuts of the year." —Jami Attenberg, bestselling author of The Middlesteins

"REVIVAL SEASON  is a novel about faith that keeps faith with the best traditions of the novel. Immersive, insightful, warmly affecting, Monica West’s debut is one to cherish." —Peter Ho Davies, author of A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself

"In these wonderfully dramatic and gripping pages, fifteen-year-old Miriam finds herself fighting a duel with her powerful father.  The stakes couldn’t be higher: faith, family, money, power and the healing of a damaged child.  I love how complicated these characters are and how intelligently West writes about the mysteries of the church.  A brilliant debut."—Margot Livesey, author of The Boy in the Field

"A spectacular coming-of-age novel... Revival Season is not only an inner journey of the becoming of a young lady in the South, but also a precise geological picture of the Bible Belt and how faith shapes the community and the family."—The Millions