- By Monica West
- Simon & Schuster
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Beth Mowbray
- May 15, 2022
A Bible Belt family grapples with faith and fealty in this stunning debut.
Each year brings a new round of writers releasing their work into the world for the very first time, yet it remains relatively rare for one of them to produce a novel so profoundly well written that it fills a hole readers didn’t even know existed in the canon. Monica West, however, has managed to do just that with a tale so authentic it will crack your heart right open.
Revival Season is the story of the Hortons, a devout family of Texas Baptists who spend their summers traveling through small Southern towns in hope of delivering souls to God. At 15, Miriam Horton has a pure, unquestioning devotion — a faith some might call blind — to both the Lord and her father, a reverend known as “the Faith Healer of East Mansfield.”
She is not completely naive, though. When the family sets out for their first revival of the year, she knows how important this particular revival season is for her father’s reputation. Especially after the events which transpired the previous year — events she tries not to think too much about. The first few revivals are a success, allowing the family to breathe a bit and sink into their familiar summer routine. But one night, an act of pure violence changes everything…and everyone.
The narrative unfolds from here, as the family retreats home at the end of the season, each member hoping life will return to “normal.” But being home doesn’t fix anything. In fact, it only makes things harder — especially for Miriam, as she begins to consider where the line of truth lies between how she has been raised and what she has uncovered. And in the midst of all this, she finds that she just might have the same gift of healing as her father, an ability which must remain hidden because women are not allowed to wield such power.
As expected from the title and plot, Revival Season delves into matters of faith and belief, religion and the church establishment, along with the attendant strengths and flaws. But this story is also so much more. Its success hinges on the execution of Miriam’s self-examination, the inward journey she takes to reconcile the different versions of her father and to, subsequently, form her own beliefs about herself and the world. Without question, West shines here.
It is a shocking loss of innocence to learn someone isn’t the person you thought they were. Miriam’s revelation is inked on the page in a few perfect words:
“We had lived under the canopy of that belief my whole life, eating and drinking faith in God first and Papa second, never questioning Papa’s healing abilities, the same way we never questioned the existence of the sun, even when it was hidden behind clouds. Our belief left no directives about what to do if our faith in Papa faltered.”
West skillfully mines the dissonance between a child’s instinct to love their parent unconditionally and the need to question that parent, setting the reader adrift just like Miriam. Still, Miriam isn’t the only Horton who faces trials. West leads each character through the type of seemingly impossible challenges we all face. Miriam’s Ma, for example, is confronted with the stark reality of how people change over time as she comes to acknowledge her husband is not the same man she married. Miriam begins to understand the difficult position her mother is in because of how Ma met Papa:
“The boy who came to town wearing a suit that was two sizes too big happened to be in the right place at the right time and distorted her sudden love for God into a love for him. For a moment, all the power that she let him wield in the house made sense — she had never known Papa without God and never known God without Papa.”
Yet it is Papa himself who is the most mired of all, attempting to trudge forward when the very thing that defines him — his status as a healer and church leader — is threatened. Even as Miriam tries to talk with him, to repair the crack she sees forming in their family’s foundation, Papa’s pride is his downfall: “I’ve been doing this work longer than you’ve been alive,” he says. “So don’t you dare question me. I have nothing to explain to you. Nothing.”
Exploring the deep-rooted beliefs of the Horton family in the context of the larger Black church community they reside within, Revival Season is sure to appeal to those raised in the Bible Belt as much as at will to those who’ve looked curiously in from the outside. West has so carefully crafted the dynamics of family relationships that readers will feel as if they’re riding along down the highway in the Hortons’ packed van or sitting next to Miriam under the revival tent on a hot summer evening.
There is something captivating and beautifully painful about this story, as well as West’s writing. A bit of the magic of storytelling, perhaps, that just cannot be put into words. Readers must experience it for themselves.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]
Beth Mowbray is a social worker by day and an avid reader/book blogger/book reviewer by night. She loves to find books, read books, talk about books, smell books…you get the picture. She also has a passion for interviewing writers and book nerds. Beth’s other great loves include her son and husband, live music, black coffee, and sharing a bottle of wine with friends. You can also find Beth on Instagram, Goodreads, and as a regular contributor for The Nerd Daily.