Reviewed by Sara Hodon
Beulah’s House of Prayer
by Cynthia A Graham
Brick Mantel Books
July 12, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1941799338
Barmy, Oklahoma, in 1934 wouldn’t fit anyone’s definition of paradise. The small prairie town doesn’t seem to have much of anything—business, nightlife, or promise. But it does have an abundance of dust, worry, and grim prospects. And an admittedly small, though tight-knit, community of folks who look out for each other, although sometimes with a weary or disapproving eye. Beulah Clinton, a Holy Ghost preacher, finds the small community hanging on to hope by a very thin thread but is determined to make the best of it and stays where the Lord sends her in Cynthia A. Graham’s latest novel, Beulah’s House of Prayer. Beulah’s business is miracles, and Barmy could certainly use a few.
Although the title would naturally make one think that the book is indeed about Beulah, it’s less about her and more about the other characters she encounters in Barmy. Beulah’s “house of prayer” in question is more of a haven for those who may have nowhere else to go, literally or figuratively. Beulah is a mother figure, spiritual adviser, teacher, and confidante all rolled into one, yet she remains elusive—always just slightly out of reach of those who she brings under her roof. Graham only spends a small portion of the first few chapters talking about her—throughout the rest of the book, the other characters mention her and there are some references made to her, but really, we don’t know much more about her at the end of the book than we did at the beginning.
Instead, Graham focuses on Beulah’s boarders. Readers meet Sugar Watson, a former trapeze artist who is unceremoniously dumped in Barmy but plans to escape the dusty little town as soon as she can. Sugar slowly develops a friendship with Homer Guppy, a “boy trouble follows like dust after a wind”, according to the book’s cover. Beulah takes Sugar in, along with Marigold Lawford, a young, naïve widow whose marriage to her much-older husband, Ensign, who happened to be the richest man in town raises more than a few questions—“Was it legal?” is near the top of the list for many residents. Marigold’s stepson, Holcombe Lawford, disputes the legality of her marriage to his father and refuses to let her stay in the family home, thus her temporary residence with Beulah. As if Marigold didn’t have enough on her mind, her husband left her with a parting gift of sorts…one that she can expect in about nine months or so. Normally, an unemployed, technically homeless, unmarried mother-to-be is viewed as something of a liability, but in Marigold’s case, the town’s sheriff, Joe Brownfield, has more than her civic interests in mind. She’s viewed as damaged goods by many—Joe disagrees.
Sugar’s daughter is the story’s narrator, although her name is never mentioned and we don’t learn that much about her. The story is really her parents’ and how Beulah served as the catalyst for how they got together. Each chapter begins with the daughter talking about her adult parents and their enduring love, although they seem about as opposite as two people could be, then quickly segues back to the significant years of 1934 and ’35 and how their love began when they were adolescents in Barmy. The way Homer and Sugar are written, they couldn’t be less alike. Homer suffers regular abuse from his father, and as is usually the case, the more a person is abused and treated as though they are less than nothing, they start to believe it. But Sugar sees through that—she sees him as the little boy who only has the best of intentions, and does the best he can with the chances he’s given. Part of her falls in love with that boy. It’s kind of hard not to root for Homer, whose growing affection for Sugar and desire to do the right thing are both obvious. This is the first clue Graham gives us which says that maybe Sugar will accept her fate in Barmy. The second is when she does get the chance to leave, she hesitates—another sure sign that she is rethinking her stance.
Graham paints a vivid picture of life in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma—in fact, the dust itself takes on a life of its own as the book progresses, almost becoming a secondary character. The storms become more frequent and intense, the dust invading every corner of residents’ homes. Graham writes: “Now, most days had dust. It was like an abysmal spirit, dark and unfathomable, that haunted the souls of Barmy…Folks were on edge and nervous…They would go about their business, wringing their hands, looking to the sky, and hoping the blackness wouldn’t eat them alive” (153). The constant dust takes its toll on the health and well-being of Barmy’s residents. Joe uses a mask when he is out completing his rounds, but it’s little help—he develops a persistent cough that continues to get worse. Yet he refuses to do more to take care of himself (like not doing rounds and getting out of the dust every day).
I would categorize this book as historical fiction first and foremost, though it is touted as magical realism. I had this in the back of my mind as I read, but other than Beulah’s mysterious arrival in town and her omnipresence for most of the rest of the book, the “magical realism” elements weren’t obvious—until the end. This is where Graham’s gift of storytelling shines through. The dust storms that appear in different scenes are really more like omens—near the end, an unforgettable storm sweeps through Barmy that literally changes everything. It is during these scenes that Graham interjects the elements of magical realism. Her description of the storm itself is something epic: “A wall of thick, black dust was bearing down on Barmy at an amazing speed. It was rolling, boiling like a huge black wave, swallowing houses as though they were toys. They disappeared one by one…Everything in its path was devoured in an avalanche of suffocating blackness” (195). The storm scene is the turning point of the whole book—everything seems to be building to this moment. We know that something fairly major is going to happen—it’s not clear that it’s something catastrophic, but big all the same. Intentions become clearer, and decisions have to be made. Will Sugar chose Homer (and Barmy) forever? Marigold goes into labor during the storm, and Joe offers her shelter—both physically in the form of the rock-solid jailhouse that didn’t admit dust, and emotionally in the form of asking her to marry him. It’s an emotional time for everyone in town, but when the dust settles (literally), the answers these characters have waited for are clearer than ever.
And Beulah? In the true style of magical realism, Graham throws in a twist for readers. Her departure from Barmy is as mysterious as her arrival. After the storm, when her boarders return to her house to assess the damage and check on her whereabouts, they’re astonished at what they find (sorry, no spoiler alert here).
Beulah’s House of Prayer is reminiscent of a Steinbeck work with just a hint of Alice Hoffman or Sarah Addison Allen thrown in—a reminder that sometimes, miracles do occur in the strangest places. A short but satisfying read.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications.