Evangelical Christianity as Fantasy (?) in Emily Carpenter’s Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters
The not-quite sequel to Emily Carpenter’s positively received Burying the Honey Suckle Girls, Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters promises the harrowing drama of a Southern gothic, complete with murder, family secrets, and atmospheric intrigue.
Eve Candler, the granddaughter of famed faith healer Dove Jarrod, not only keeps up Dove’s philanthropic foundation but also her grandmother’s “legacy” after Dove’s death. While Eve’s mother and brother wholeheartedly believe in Dove’s spiritual gifts, Dove confessed her lies and deceits to Eve years ago. The young swindler merely used audience members swept up in their spiritual journey to falsely confirm her talents.
Toward the end of a documentary shoot in Florence, Alabama, commemorating Dove and the Pritchard Foundation, Eve is threatened and attacked by a stranger. He threatens to unravel Eve’s life if she cannot procure a Flowing Hair coin stolen by Dove in the 1930s.
With Griff – the documentary cameraman – and Althea – one of her grandmother’s superfans – by her side, Eve dissects her sordid ancestral history to preserve Dove’s reputation and her family’s ignorant bliss.
Running alongside Eve’s present-day perspective, Dove’s (known at this time as Ruth) narrative from 1930 to 1934 makes an appearance every other chapter. After Dove’s mother, a patient at the Pritchard Psychiatric Hospital, dies Dove flees to Florence, Alabama. She becomes an in-house maid for the Coe family, bonding with his granddaughter Bruna. After finding success in faith healing and evangelical preaching, the two young women adopt a stage name – the Hawthorn Sisters – and tour Alabama as dark secrets reveal themselves.
Carpenter, also known for her three thrillers – Every Single Secret, The Weight of Lies, and Until the Day I Die – pieces together the unsettling gloom of a Southern Gothic with the steady plotline of a slow burn thriller. The flipping timeline only enhances this hybrid: 1934 Dove often unveils a timely secret immediately explored by present-day Eve, and vice versa. While this means many of the chapters end in an audible “gasp” moment – “She didn’t slow to look behind her until she was all the way past the animal pavilion. And by then, he’d vanished” – the twinned timelines steadily build the narrative rather than stop, start, and rewind with every perspective change.
Faith and evangelical Christianity bolster the novel; snippets of hymns, spirituals, prayers, and testimony often bear witness to the reader. Characters, both present-day and past, sing religious verse and quote scripture with little humility: “We could use it for the good, like the Lord promises. Romans 8, All things work together for good.”
Christianity’s function, however, shifts continuously, leaving a perhaps unintentional gap between the reader’s understanding and Carpenter’s intention. Ember, Eve’s cousin and Bruna’s granddaughter, is a medium and psychic with suggestions of pseudo-witch influence. She’s referred to as “Sabrina-the-witch,” decorates her yard with “glittery pentagrams, skulls, and goat heads cut from cardboard,” and deals in human bones. Yet, Ember readily believes in the holy, God-given force connecting her, Eve, Dove, and Bruna.
Here lies the enigma: Does Carpenter’s world use Christianity as a religion or a magic system? At some moments, the characters’ faith and the way it’s spoken about is consistent with faith-based miracles, but in other moments, religion takes on an almost fantastical quality. The way Dove and Eve describe their respective abilities – Dove’s healing and Eve’s arm tingles in the face of danger or need – is more akin to the powers found in fantasy genre magic. When searching for the Flowing Hair coin, Eve says, “But as much as I wanted to believe it, I didn’t. I didn’t feel it, in my gut or my heart...or—and I couldn’t believe I was thinking this—my arm.” Not only does she acknowledge her arm’s abilities, which later connect to Ruth and her faith healing, but Eve readily challenges their validity. Questioning one’s faith, miracles, and God-given natural powers surfaces throughout the novel, but how does Carpenter intend Christianity’s reading? Simply, are we parsing out the rules of a magical world, or are we being taken to church?
This unresolved question may be what pushes Carpenter’s novel into the women’s fiction genre rather than a religious or Christian fiction genre. The book is, as mentioned, heavy-handed on the liturgy and, at times, feels like a front-row seat to a spiritual awakening.
Despite the confusion (novelty?) around the book’s use of evangelical Christianity, Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters is an enticing thriller for the fall. The novel begs to be read in one sitting, preferably surrounded by a velvety throw blanket and a muggéd hot drink to combat the plot’s eerie chill. While some characters overlap between Burying the Honey Suckle Girls and Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters, the latter reads as a standalone novel without issue. Be prepared, however, to parse through many names and familial connections – a family tree may prove useful. Carpenter’s newest novel is entertaining, quick, and a needed escape from reality.
TW: violence against women, murder, ideations of rape
Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters
By Emily Carpenter
332 pages. 2020.