Saving Grace is novel set in the desperately poor town of Scrabble Creek in North Carolina and is told by a girl as she recounts her experiences living with her family who are desperately trying to scrounge a living out of the soil. It examines the relationship between Florida Grace Shepherd who is the main character and narrator of the book with her father, a snake controlling evangelist preacher and her mother who is a rather submissive personality. It is interesting to note how both coped with their lives particularly Florida Grace who was also abused by her father and this can said to be the kernel of the whole book.
Relationships in the family
Florida Grace’s family is a pretty dysfunctional one in the sense that her father is the all dominant character. As a preacher who is constantly interacting with women over which he has a complete dominance, the male Shepherd turns to severely abusing both his wife and daughter. Florida Grace accepts this situation at first but in the end she rebels and leaves the place for a period of soul searching. Naturally, the atmosphere and sheer poverty of the place in which she grows up has a severe effect on her outlook to life. She is completely dominated by her father Virgil who continues to haunt her throughout her adolescent life and creates uncomfortable situations for her in all aspects. This contrasts with her mother’s attitude to life where she argues with her husband and attempts to create a wedge between him and his daughter whom he attempts to totally dominate.
Virgil also has a number of relationships with other women and there is even a child from a previous union which is brought into the house. The mother accepts all this with a certain stoicism and fatality yet one can observe that she is deeply hurt by all these goings on and attempts to castigate Virgil in a sense yet he is completely oblivious to all that is going on around him. That also contrasts with Florida Grace who is rebellious initially on the religion question but in the end she also accepts the situation with a certain reluctance.
Florida Grace’s relationship with religion
Religion, albeit a rather strange and flawed one dominates the book from first page to last. We can observe Virgil’s total dominance over his family and Florida Grace’s submission to certain abusive practices in this regard. She becomes obsessed by religious mores and occasionally she feels glorified by the sense of liberation that she gets from it. However, the poor and hard environment in which she lives make her question several aspects of this religion and at times she finds herself faced with questions about life which remains unanswered. She also loves her parents deeply although the relationship is certainly not an ideal one and is deeply flawed in several respects. Religion also plays an important role in Florida Grace’s fantasy world where she continually creates images and situations which may not always be achievable but such is her hard life that she must resort to some escapism to alleviate her pain and suffering.
Scrabble Creek, North Carolina
The name of the town undoubtedly brings back memories of some godforsaken place with absolutely no hop for the future. The town which is located in the Appalachian mountains is a rather inhospitable place It is a town dominated by superstition, ignorance and desperate poverty, although religion is very strong in the area. In fact Virgil the father uses his considerable influence as a preacher to make the most out of a bad situation and even manages to get the other townsfolk to assist his family. His snake handling lends him a certain mysticism and aura and all these aspects affect Florida Grace quite substantially. Her mother is a rather gentle soul but at times she can also get angry and confront Virgil who however is oblivious to her reprimands and castigations.
Further aspects of the family
Florida Grace seems to accept her situation without much ado although there are times when she asks herself why her father is abusing her and why she is neglected. She lives in an almost surreal world of terrible unhappiness and grinding poverty yet she seems to find solace in religion. She also accepts her father’s gruff and rather strange ways and is at times completely enveloped by his aura. Even in the episode when his lovers and illegitimate child come back to haunt him, she does not castigate him and yet continues to take his side even in this difficult situation.
Florida’s relationship with her mother is different as it takes on certain aspects of love and compassion which are almost completely absent from the relationship with her father. She endures and empathises with her mother’s stoical suffering and finds solace and compassion in her religion. There are moments when the two seem to clash yet everything is patched up quite well at the end of the day and life continues as normal. Undoubtedly the hard experience of the family’s living conditions in 1950’s North Carolina is of crucial importance to understand as this has an effect on the general outlook to life as well as on the pain and suffering that these people endured in their quest to live as normal a life as possible, something which was not always easy in such terrible conditions.
Conclusion – the aftermath
Obviously, this book has to be seen within the context of when it was written, as a memoir of life in a desperately poor and superstitious North Carolina town. The relationships in Florida Grace’s family are flawed and intricately dysfunctional and the whole situation is a rather desperate one. In the end Florida Grace leaves her hometown to find new experiences but she eventually returns to rediscover herself and her religion at Scrabble Creek. She is forgiving of her father although she was treated so badly by him and actually returns to her religion in an effort to find solace and acceptance.
Some interpretations on the book’s ending indicate that Florida Grcae commits suicide in some ritualistic form but there are contrasting interpretations on this too. What is clear however is that this book is a highly charged and really emotional rollercoaster, full of intricacy and deep personal relationships. The contrast with Florida Grace and her mother cannot be so striking as it actually is at times.
Naturally it is crucial to note that the book is a sort of fictional account so one has to take certain aspects of it with a pinch of salt sometimes. However it is a highly intriguing read in all its entirety and is hugely revealing on what life must have been in this hard scrabble North Carolina town in those heady days of the 1950’s. It is a brilliant espousal of the American dream turned sour yet also with a form of redemption also.
Smith, Lee. Saving Grace. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.Print