One of the great pleasures of reviewing books is that of discovering rare jewels, especially those written by up-and-coming Mississippi writers.
One of 2017’s best will surely be “A Good Girl” by Ocean Springs author Johnnie Bernhard, who as much as any writer since Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, offers a breathtaking tour of the human heart in conflict with itself, desperately searching for grace and redemption in the face of unremitting loss.
Bernhard’s is a story of a troubled family of Irish descent, whose forebears survived centuries of British-enforced “servitude and ethnic cleansing,” only to endure a diseased “coffin ship” trip to America. But historical suffering only sets the stage for Bernhard’s modern tale seen through the eyes of Biloxi resident, Gracey Mueller Reiter, who feels the guilt of not having supported her deceased mother and father as she should have when they were living and dying.
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“My dad died last night,” Bernhard has Reiter say. “All I could think of is how much more I should have loved him,” and stayed with him to the end. “I left my father alone to die … in his shame and loneliness.”
Reiter knows she served her mother in much the same manner: “I saw her sitting alone and worried,” Reiter confesses. “I knew her pain and walked away from it.”
Sadly, this is a universal story, one that reminds us that we all suffer irredeemable loss and having no way to redeem ourselves with those we failed, we must seek redemption elsewhere.
Lest you think that reading this novel is a form of suffering in itself, or if you’re accustomed to thriller novels and believe this is very far from your thing, remember that few writers share this rising author’s capacity for living, breathing prose that oozes the very substance of humanity from every pore.
Bernhard’s sentences are filled with the stuff of what blues and country music singers refer to as “soul” and “high lonesome.” She begins this novel with the poignant phrase, “I am lost,” and soon notes that Reiter’s father was “the last of a chaotic gene pool, with one leg left and a body oozing with cancer.”
She even uses scene-setting description to further elucidate Reiter’s inner turmoil: “But as the sun climbed higher in the sky, the day with all its expectations and disappointments was rising around her as the traffic increased on the (Biloxi Bay) bridge.”
As with all novels painting our communal suffering on recognizable canvases, there is a silver lining to every well-drawn cloud — if we have the patience to discover it. As Reiter’s priest reminds her, “Confession is not a torture chamber. You should look at it as a second baptism.”
Even Bernhard’s choice of artists for her book’s cover art — oft-awarded Mississippi painter Grady Byrd of Ocean Springs —only serves to prepare the reader for a heart-warming story of redemption that he or she will remember long after Easter, St. Patrick’s Day and Passover have given way to the dog days of summer.
A Good Girl
By Johnnie Bernhard
Publisher: Texas Review Press (March 28, 2017)
Johnnie Bernhard Book Events
March 21: Book Signing, Faulkner House Books, www.faulknerhousebooks New Orleans, Louisiana
April 2: Book Signing at OLPH, St. Alphonsus, Sunday, after 9 and 11:30 mass
April 22: Florane Book Signing Event, private event
April 28-30: Houston Writers Guild Conference, www.houstonwritersguild.org Houston, Texas
May 4: Book Signing, Reading, Mobile Writer Guild, www.mobilewritersguild.weebly.com ,
St. Luke Society, Mary Jensen, Reading/Book Signing, private event