Violent holy men are the cockroaches hiding under the church's collective rug. No one wants to think about them, or talk about them, but every once in a while they scuttle out, usually without warning. The response of the church has been to shoo them back under the rug and hope no one notices. We are horrified and disgusted but no one wants to squash it-- think of the mess. The abuse of vulnerable women by powerful men isn't unique to Christianity, but it's uglier in Christianity, because we're called to so much more. It's the pain of this contradiction-- that something so profoundly soul-killing can happen in a faith that is meant to be soul-liberating-- that makes us want to look away.
Fortunately, authors like Cindy Sproles aren't afraid to take the long look. Her novel, Mercy's Rain, is by turns riveting, disturbing, and hopeful as Mercy Roller, a bitter survivor of horrific abuse from her preacher-father, comes to open herself to love and redemption. She's dogged not only by the things her father did to her but by the things she herself has done in anger. What she thinks will be a temporary refuge with a family of believers becomes much, much more.....a chance at a new life, at healing, and at love.
Mercy's Rain is a compelling book that I ended up reading all in one sitting. The plot, like the river at the center of the story, moves swiftly and rarely falters. The sharp contrast between the darkness of Mercy's birth-family and the love of the family who comes to care for her is well-drawn and effective. The tone is understandably heavy, but there are flashes of joy and even humor that will be a wonderful surprise to the reader. The characters-- including Mercy herself-- are well drawn and believable. Sproles takes great pains to bring human moments even to her villains. The Pastor may be a sadistic monster but there are moments in which he knows it, and even moments in which he struggles to become something else. He is by no means a sympathetic character, but we are not allowed to dismiss him as a mere caricature of evil. He is worse than that. He is the unrestrained and unbridled reflection of the depravity Scripture tells us exists within each of us, and that is more terrifying than any of his brutality.
The complex, bittersweet relationship between Mercy and her mother is a focus of much of the novel, allowing Mercy a way to work out the slow changes that are taking place in her heart. Her persistent work to replace hatred with love-- despite the frustration and failures she finds along the way--- is beautiful to behold. The romantic relationship between her and the “good” pastor, Samuel, is well done.
For the most part, Mercy's Rain succeeds at immersing us in its mountain-side struggle between good and evil. The reader does wonder, at times, why the Pastor's sadism did not sooner meet vengeance, but it is certainly plausible that a rural pastor could hold that level of sway over his congregation, even with the threat of hell-fire at his disposal. And the sort of evil that the Pastor wielded-- that shameful, secret, soul-destroying evil-- was not the kind people were willing to talk about, even to destroy it. The only real faltering, in this reader's opinion, comes at the end of the novel.
So, spoiler alert. Skip this next paragraph if you don't like to hear about plot points in advance.
At least one of the characters-- Maddie-- seems superfluous to the plot at that point of the story, existing only to give Mercy one more tragedy to mourn. Of all the deaths in the story-- and there are many-- I regretted Maddie's the most because it seemed like such a waste of her character. Maddie's injury and untimely end doesn't add anything to Mercy's journey but the reader's empathy is depleted at a crucial point.
The other distraction was that I felt the book would have been better had the two chapters been deleted. In my opinion, the book reached its true conclusion when Mercy decided there was room in her heart to love the baby she'd been given and the man who'd been waiting for her. At that moment in the story, her past was put to rest and her future was ready to begin. It's the book's natural ending. But we're given two more chapters, in which Mercy decides God is moving her away from her new family and her potential husband, only to change her mind in the last paragraph. Perhaps the author felt she needed some final crisis, but as there was not enough time left in the story for proper pacing, both the crisis and its resolution felt hurried. But even with that mis-step, the final moment when Mercy at last sees herself as worth loving, is a triumph that the reader cannot help but cheer.
Cindy Sproles has told a first-rate tale with Mercy's Rain. Even though its mountain setting may seem remote in time and space from our modern church culture, the theme is more than relevant. One doesn't need to look far to hear stories of women and men who have suffered under modern-day incarnations of The Pastor, and who've suffered again under the church's refusal to acknowledge the wrong done to them. Novels like this are one way to encourage them to speak out, to give them the sense that they are not alone. Like a hike through the author's beloved Appalachian mountains, this reader's journey through this book is at times arduous but the view at the end is beautiful.
Or find out more about Cindy and her other books at her website