Towns don’t come more stifling than Hyde Bend, circa 1941. Sealed off from the world, the fictional setting for Brett Ellen Butler’s debut novel is enveloped in its own timeless misery. Aside from the steel mill that blackens the town’s sky and the few rusted cars that sit idle on the dead lawns of its more affluent citizens, there’s nothing to situate Hyde Park in the 20th century. It’s more like the backdrop for a particularly Grimm fairy tale, minus the magic. The town is even terrorized by a wicked witch, a landlady named Swatka Pani who rules over Third Street, a decrepit row of clapboard shacks.
It’s a place of unremitting bleakness, and we’re ensconced — or trapped — in it for some time before the story truly begins. Our guide through Hyde Park is an unnamed narrator, now a grown woman who has managed to make a life for herself far from Hyde Park’s gloom. We see the place through her childhood recollections, and the resulting portrait is earnest and without nuance. Only the wretchedness of life in Hyde Park has impressed itself upon her memory, and she expresses it baldly. Hyde Bend’s air is thick and dark with the soot from the mill, ensuring that the town “would never be anything but dirty.” Like that filth, despair permeates everything in the community, and there’s no escape. Children rush at crows for the chance “to touch something that had the ability to leave that place, to leave and never return.”
Life in Hyde Park is about survival, which is why the narrator’s mother cherishes her painting of Matka Boska, the Black Madonna. The original Matka Boska, said to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, supposedly resided in a church that was burned by unbelievers. Miraculously, the painting was not consumed in the fire. The robes of the baby Jesus and the Madonna were still vibrant, although their skin was now charcoal. Tarnished but unharmed, the painting inspires the narrator’s mother, who gazes at it with a devotion she does not bestow upon her two children.
When the Black Madonna disappears from her home, the narrator assumes that her father has pawned the painting for a round of drinks at the Silver Slipper. She decides to buy back the icon, hoping “that if I could return the Black Madonna to my mother, then she might look at me the way she looked at it.” After a schoolmate injures himself making deliveries for a butcher, she sees her opportunity, at a penny per delivery. Meanwhile, Swatka Pani, the wicked witch of Third Street, washes up on the riverbank. As the narrator runs through the town making her deliveries — disguised as a boy to avoid shaming her mother — she learns the identity of Pani’s murderer and discovers a dark secret her mother has been hiding for 12 years.
Superficially, The Grave of God’s Daughter appears to bear little resemblance to Block’s collection of short stories, Destination Known. Those stories, which were praised as being reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s writing, are spare contemporary tales, rooted firmly in the present. Here, Block takes on an oddly timeless historical setting and is far more explicit in her writing, often laying bare what would have been subtext in that earlier work. What the two works have in common, however, is a fascination with average, “good” people caught in acts of transgression; breaking outside of the quotidian, her characters are faced with previously unseen aspects of themselves and their world.
The transgression in The Grave of God’s Daughter is not nearly as grand as those in Destination Known, which included “borrowing” a car, stealing a bed, and slashing tires. The narrator of The Grave of God’s Daughter lies. But for a 12-year-old Catholic girl, that sin proves life-changing. She seethes inside as she misleads her mother about where she’s been after school and involves her brother in her deception. What she finds most traumatic is how easy it is to lie, and how absolution never comes. There is no penance in the beating she receives from a nun or the burns she accidentally suffers on her hands. The guilt she feels does not ebb, even as she feels herself drifting away from the religion that taught her that to lie is a sin. As she journeys through Hyde Park for her deliveries, increasingly hobbled by pain and shame, she eventually discovers that her very life is based on a lie, born out of the hypocrisies of the church.
The Grave of God’s Daughter improves as its narrator’s dilemma deepens and her simplistic understanding of the world broadens. The writing becomes more confident, with fewer comments from the narrator superfluously spelling out exactly how she’s feeling; we know, because we’re experiencing it with her. The novel also gains momentum as it progresses, taking on the shape and pacing of a murder mystery in its later acts. The narrator unwittingly acts as detective, investigating the death of Swatka Pani. But, like a murder mystery, the novel ends when the crime is solved. Much of The Grave of God’s Daughter is a careful study of a girl’s terrifying awakening to the amorality of the world, yet when she confronts the most shocking revelation of all, the book abruptly ends rather than exploring the consequences of her knowledge. The conclusion lacks the emotional boldness that the book demonstrates elsewhere.
Nevertheless, as millions flock to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and President Bush promises more government funding for religious initiatives, a book like The Grave of God’s Daughter offers a necessary voice of dissent. It offers a darker view of religion, highlighting the dangers of an all-powerful church that binds its adherents to their suffering rather than offering them genuine solutions. It’s an obvious point that’s been made before, but sadly, it seems to need to be made again.