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Revival Season

A Novel

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The daughter of one of the South’s most famous Baptist preachers discovers a shocking secret about her father that puts her at odds with both her faith and her family in this “tender and wise” (Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth) debut novel.

Every summer, fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton and her family pack themselves tight in their old minivan and travel through small southern towns for revival season: the time when Miriam’s father—one of the South’s most famous preachers—holds massive healing services for people desperate to be cured of ailments and disease.This summer, the revival season doesn’t go as planned, and after one service in which Reverend Horton’s healing powers are tested like never before, Miriam witnesses a shocking act of violence that shakes her belief in her father—and in her faith.

When the Hortons return home, Miriam’s confusion only grows as she discovers she might have the power to heal—even though her father and the church have always made it clear that such power is denied to women. Over the course of the next year, Miriam must decide between her faith, her family, and her newfound power that might be able to save others, but, if discovered by her father, could destroy Miriam.

Celebrating both feminism and faith, Revival Season is a story of spiritual awakening and disillusionment in a Southern, black, Evangelical community. Monica West’s transporting coming-of-age novel explores complicated family and what it means to live among the community of the faithful.

This reading group guide for Revival Season includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

The daughter of one of the South’s most famous Baptist preachers discovers a shocking secret about her father that puts her at odds with both her faith and her family in this “tender and wise” (Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth) debut novel.

Every summer, fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton and her family pack themselves tight in their old minivan and travel through small southern towns for revival season: the time when Miriam’s father—one of the South’s most famous preachers—holds massive healing services for people desperate to be cured of ailments and disease. This summer, the revival season doesn’t go as planned, and after one service in which Reverend Horton’s healing powers are tested like never before, Miriam witnesses a shocking act of violence that shakes her belief in her father—and in her faith.

When the Hortons return home, Miriam’s confusion only grows as she discovers she might have the power to heal—even though her father and the church have always made it clear that such power is denied to women. Over the course of the next year, Miriam must decide between her faith, her family, and her newfound power that might be able to save others, but, if discovered by her father, could destroy Miriam.

Celebrating both feminism and faith, Revival Season is a story of spiritual awakening and disillusionment in a Southern, black, Evangelical community. Monica West’s transporting coming-of-age novel explores complicated family and what it means to live among the community of the faithful.

Topics & Questions for Discussion (12-15 Discussion Questions)

Note: Please make sure the numbers do not populate automatically.

1. Revival Season opens with the story of the first time Miriam painted her nails. What do we learn from this story? What are some the things classified as a sin or vanity in the Horton family? What does this tell us about the church and community that the Horton family operates within?

2. Miriam, Caleb, and Hannah (plus Isaiah and Isaac) are all Biblical names from the Old Testament. Read the stories of these Bible characters. What do these stories tell us about the children of Revival Season?

3. We learn early on that, in the Horton family, “doubt was a sin” (3). What is the function of doubt in faith? Who are the Horton children taught should never be doubted?

4. Miriam’s younger sister Hannah has cerebral palsy. What does Hannah’s disability represent to each member of the family?

5. Miriam explains Isaiah’s stillbirth by saying that though she knows “trials were a part of life,” she still can’t understand why an innocent child was allowed to die (12). What does this question reveal about her faith?

6. Discuss Papa’s physical violence. How does his past as a prize-winning boxer interact with how he wields his power in the church? What does he think his role is in the church and community? Why do you think the deacons, Ma, Caleb, and others are so passive in the face of Papa’s violence?

7. Part of Miriam’s spiritual awakening comes through culture: reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and seeing her mother dance to popular music. What does culture do for Miriam? How does it make her feel? How does it both separate her from, and connect her to, others?

8. Describe Miriam’s first healing. How does this shift her thinking on her faith, family, and what’s possible for herself? What’s the public reaction to Micah’s healing? And what changes after her relapse?

9. How does Ma decide it’s time to leave? Why do you think she chooses to stay?

10. Mrs. Cade becomes a confidante to Miriam and a caregiver to Ma. What perspective does she bring and how does she use that perspective to influence the course of events in the Horton family?

11. Discuss the different healings that occur throughout the book. What do those healings reveal about what types of sickness are acceptable to us in our culture? Are there differences between physical healing and spiritual healing? Do you think it’s important that Papa’s healings happen in public whereas Miriam’s occur in private?

12. After Miriam heals Ma, she feels betrayed that Ma won’t acknowledge her healing (227). Why do you think this bothers Miriam, especially in context of the other ways her mother has disappointed her?

13. Towards the end of the book, Miriam struggles with self-harm. What is she feeling during this time? Why do you think self-harm is her answer to these feelings?

14. What is Caleb’s dream job (245)? What does this tell us about the type of life he wants to have? How does this compare to the lives Miriam and Ma want to have?

15. What is the cost of Miriam’s final choice? What choice to do you believe she makes? Why?

Enhance Your Book Club (3-5 Enhance Your Book Club Suggestions)

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1. There are many excellent books about faith, religion, spirituality, and the church, like The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, and Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Choose one to read with your book club and discuss how the church and faith are represented in the book versus how they are depicted in Revival Season.

2. Revivals have a long history in American life. Read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards, The Great Duty of Family Religion by George Whitfield, or The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry by Gilbert Tennent and compare the words of these preachers with Pa’s teachings.

3. Connect with Monica West on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or her website, https://monicawestwrites.com.

A Conversation with Monica West (10 – 12 Questions)

Note: Please make sure that questions are boldfaced and not numbered.

Q: Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Revival Season! What inspired you to write this story? What was your writing process like?

Thank you! Revival Season came to me as an image in my head: I saw a picture of a van speeding down the highway and wondered who was in it and where it was headed. Then I thought it would be interesting to have these people spend a lot of time in a confined space; I also thought it would be interesting to have one of the people in the van be in conflict with another person in the van. The notion of inescapable claustrophobia was so intriguing to me. Then the idea of religion came to me because it’s something that I’ve grappled with personally for a while. Thus, I thought it would be fascinating to make this a book about religion and how the patriarchal structure of some forms of Christianity imprisons girls and women. Once that idea came into my head, the rest was history.

My writing process was to write scenes as they came to me, even if they weren’t in chronological order. The first chapter was the first thing I wrote, but the rest of the novel wasn’t necessarily written chronologically. In addition, I drafted a lot of the novel by hand because that’s the easiest way for me to access ideas during this early stage. As time went on, I typed things out, revising as I went. Later in the process than I should have, I did a physical outline of characters, plotlines, and events. It took about 3 years to complete a full draft, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve revised it since (it’s at least 15).

Q: Miriam is such a dynamic character. She’s driven by the duty that her faith requires, but she also makes increasingly difficult decisions to stay true to the faith that she knows to be real—even when it conflicts with others’ ideas of what her faith should look like. As a character, did she come to you fully formed? What parts of her personality were you most excited to explore?

Miriam didn’t come to me fully formed; she kept revealing herself to me as I wrote her. Some of the ideas about her personality that were true to her early on and are still there were her devotion to her family (particularly with Hannah and her mom), her dogged pursuit of answers to questions that are hard to ask, and her questioning (of her faith, her father, and her family). A lot changed about her, though. Early in the writing process, she needed more validation from her father, but that changed considerably as I revised. I was most excited to explore the part of her that steps into her power but is also terrified of what that could mean. In addition, I was eager to explore her growing defiance. Finally, I was really intrigued by the part of her that still found so much beauty in, and remained loyal to, a religion that continually harmed her.

Q: Much of the first half of the book takes place on the road. Have you been to any of the places you wrote about? How do you see travel in light of the other themes of this book (like faith, personal growth, family)? What do you think Miriam learns from her travels?

I have been to many of the states I wrote about: Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas. For Miriam, travel is a window outside of her claustrophobic world, and thus is the catalyst for her personal growth. In addition, when the family travels, she can see her father removed from the source of much of his power back in Texas. Therefore, travel is the conduit for many of the other themes in the book because it helps Miriam see her faith and family with new eyes. In her travels, Miriam learns about her father’s fallibility, and she gains a voice and a sense of independence that she can then actualize at home.

Q: There’s a wealth of information on revivals throughout American history. Did you do any research on the history of revivals in the United States? Did you find anything surprising? What prompted you to place revivals in a modern context?

I did a lot of research about revivals because they have such a rich history. I was always familiar with them in Pentecostal and Baptist settings, but what was surprising was how different faith traditions used them, including Mennonites. In terms of placing revivals in a modern context, I think of the Horton family as being intentionally separate from the current time because they hold onto many conservative traditions of dress, education of children, and other things that keep them separate from their more modern or progressive counterparts. So to recast revivals, an older tradition, in a modern sense seemed right for a family that clings to many older traditions.

Q: The Millions calls Revival Season “a precise geological picture of the Bible Belt and how faith shapes the community and the family.” How did you approach writing about the specific intersection of faith and the south? What did you think was important to include? What did you think was important to interrogate?

Having lived in the south for years, faith seems inextricable from life there in a way that feels different from other parts of the country. Faith is the shorthand of most conversations, and it is the unquestioned assumption of others. So I had to set this book in the south because I needed it to take place in a location where Miriam wouldn’t have to explain anything about revival services and healings. Furthermore, Samuel needed to be this larger-than-life figure in the family and in the towns where he visits and lives. I thought that it was important to include the isolation of this family that is nomadic in the summers and sheltered for the rest of the year in a secretive house. I also wanted to interrogate what power (and the loss of it) looks like in a vacuum and outside of it.

Q: Revival Season casts a clear eye on how women’s roles are prescribed in the evangelical church. They often are forced to make themselves small, but they also have a dignity and a solidarity that I think would surprise some who aren’t familiar with the inner workings of the church. How did you go about representing this dynamic?

Women are the backbone of the church, and yet they are the most overlooked. They share a tight bond with each other that comes from the shared experience of being at the bottom of the church hierarchy. I wanted to represent this dynamic by showing this group of proud people who works extremely hard to keep everything running. They take pride in their work—in their service to God, the church, and their families—and even if the men don’t see their worth, they see it in each other. I wanted to represent this dynamic to show that the women validated each other, even if they weren’t validated externally.

Q: You write very movingly about Papa’s struggle with pride and how it leads to many of the defining actions in the book. Was this fault of his interesting to explore on the page? Miriam could be said to have pride too, or maybe a quiet confidence—did you see any similarities between father and daughter while writing?

Pa was a fascinating and complicated character to write—I am someone who is pretty humble, so it was hard to imagine what it would feel like to have pride as a tragic flaw. He frustrated me and challenged me and forced me to stretch my understanding about how someone’s pride could be the downfall of their family. What was even more fascinating for me to write was Miriam’s pride. I absolutely saw connections between Miriam and her father while I was writing. Miriam starts to see them too toward the end, and it scares her.

Q: You currently teach high school English. What are your favorite books to teach? Did any books influence Revival Season? Any book recommendations that readers should revisit post-high school?

I love teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; I learn something new each time I reread them. People should absolutely revisit those books if they haven’t recently. In terms of influences for Revival Season, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers were crucial for me as I drafted, wrote, and revised.

Q: Often, religion is categorized as a taboo topic and something that isn’t appropriate to talk about, even with those we’re close to. Why do you think this is? Do you feel comfortable talking about religion with your friends and family? What conversations – spiritual or otherwise – would you hope readers have after reading Revival Season?

Part of it may have to do with the fact that everyone has had such different personal experiences with religion, so whenever it comes up, it is an ostensibly charged conversation. In addition, when you say that you are one thing, the label flattens you and lets other people think that’s all there is to know about you. In both instances, that’s a difficult way to begin any kind of open dialogue. I am comfortable talking about religion with people I know well, but much less comfortable doing so around strangers for the same reasons I just listed. I hope that Revival Season can begin a larger conversation about the role of women in religion in general and how faith and feminism can coexist. I also hope that people can start to talk about the damaging role of patriarchy in organized religion as a whole.

Q: Are you working on anything now? If so, can you tell us about it?

Right now, I’m writing a novel about a charismatic man who abuses his power and becomes a dangerous cult leader. I’m focusing on the narratives of three women who are his “wives” and how they watch him descend into madness. I’m thinking about how people align themselves with someone like him and why they stay.
Chickpea Photography

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Monica West received her BA from Duke University, her MA from New York University, and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was a Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow. She was a Southern Methodist University Kimbilio Fellow in 2014, and she will be a Hedgebrook Writer in Residence in 2021. Revival Season is her first novel. 

“Growing up, I returned to The Poisonwood Bible time and time again whenever I wanted to be transported far away from my own life. I’ve long been desperate to find a book that transported me that same way, so when I first read Revival Season, I was thrilled that I’d finally found it. Monica West’s debut takes the reader along dusty moonlit roads and to small-town churches as we join fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton and her family for the summer revival season. Monica’s lush, atmospheric descriptions bring the Southern setting to such vivid life on the page. But perhaps my favorite thing about Revival Season is how thoughtfully Monica writes about what it means to be a believer, and whether being a person of faith means simply adhering to tradition—or whether a true believer is someone who is not afraid to question said tradition.”

—Carina G., Senior Editor, on Revival Season

New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice 

“In “Revival Season,” her atmospheric, layered debut, Monica West probes that annual rite, when evangelicals are called to go forth and preach to all nations. West steeps her tale in a rich broth of religious ardor and personal betrayal… West creates a vivid, intimate world on the page, dramatizing the compromises evangelical women must make.”—New York Times 

"Spellbinding…. It is nearly impossible to avoid falling in love with Miriam and becoming entranced by this family’s story.... West’s debut marks the entry of a stalwart new voice in American fiction. James Baldwin famously said that his debut novel was “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” We can only hope that West’s literary launch will similarly be the first of many.”—Naomi Jackson, The Washington Post 

“A standout debut about spending summers on the road for revival season and learning that everything you’ve been told could be a lie, this is a smart novel about empowerment with a memorable character at its core.”—Boston Globe
 

"Readers trust her ability to lead us on this breath-stopping journey… this is a remarkable book for this season, astounding in its power to transport the reader to another universe. “Revival Season” assures that Monica West is a writer to watch.”Seattle Times

"Explosive.... West does a fantastic job illuminating the struggles faced by women and girls in the Southern Baptist evangelical movement, and the change in Miriam is palpable and moving. West's deep understanding of her characters and community makes for essential reading."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This propulsive story, narrated by a strong, young voice, is one of the most memorable and moving novels I have read in recent months.... [Miriam is] a fascinating character, and her transformation over the course of the story is impressive, especially as violence upends and reverberates throughout her world. The plot and characters of Revival Season are remarkably well rendered, but West’s language is especially compelling, pulling readers into Miriam’s most defining moments. The sentences are downright musical, and each chapter paints a picture, leaving the reader eager for all that awaits."—BookPage (starred review)

"Every year, the Horton family travels across the South for revival season, where the family patriarch, a prominent Baptist preacher, uses his healing powers. Young Miriam, his daughter, is thrown into crisis by something she witnesses on one of those trips in this intricate story of growing up."—NEWSWEEK

"The women of Baptist churches, tent revivals, and soul salvation are often relegated to silent, supporting roles, but in Revival Season, Monica West puts them at the center of her narrative... Walking with Miriam as she comes of age in Revival Season is a pleasure." —BUST

"West’s debut is a bold insight into traditional southern Christianity and its contradictions to contemporary perspectives on gender equality. She writes with a melodic cadence that is honest and often heartbreaking. Her characters are three-dimensional people who tug at readers' emotions. West's refreshing literary voice and thought-provoking perspective hint at a wealth of stories to come.—Booklist

"Tender and wise, Revival Season explores a girl's faith in both her family and in God. Monica West's formidable talent is matched by her generosity of spirit, making the most winning combination a reader could wish for."—Ann Patchett

"There's a REVIVAL SEASON size gap in our current literature. This moving portrait of an Evangelical black family is generous and compassionate (even as it critiques the Church to which they are so loyal) when so often writing about such people tends to the cynical and derisive. This novel is ultimately about complicated familial love, a young girl's coming into herself, and the price, and beauty, of being among the community of the faithful." —Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie 

"Monica West has given us a riveting tale full of deep wells of compassion even as it tangles with the complexities and flaws of this troubled Southern family. Compact, suspenseful, and written with incredible elegance, Revival Season is a highly rewarding, utterly original read -- one of my favorite debuts of the year." —Jami Attenberg, bestselling author of The Middlesteins

"REVIVAL SEASON  is a novel about faith that keeps faith with the best traditions of the novel. Immersive, insightful, warmly affecting, Monica West’s debut is one to cherish." —Peter Ho Davies, author of A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself

"In these wonderfully dramatic and gripping pages, fifteen-year-old Miriam finds herself fighting a duel with her powerful father.  The stakes couldn’t be higher: faith, family, money, power and the healing of a damaged child.  I love how complicated these characters are and how intelligently West writes about the mysteries of the church.  A brilliant debut."—Margot Livesey, author of The Boy in the Field

"A spectacular coming-of-age novel... Revival Season is not only an inner journey of the becoming of a young lady in the South, but also a precise geological picture of the Bible Belt and how faith shapes the community and the family."—The Millions