The Rapture of Canaan
Ninah Huff is the granddaughter of the founder of the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind, an isolated southern religious community ruled by its patriarch. Ninah is fourteen and full of contradictory feelings. She sees the outside world only at school, where her long dresses and un-cut hair mark her odd and keep her apart from the other girls. She loves her family, but is never sure that she is truly "holy" enough. In particular, she worries about the sanctity of her feelings for James, her prayer partner, as they spend an hour a day together in prayer and meditation, "being Jesus to each other." She is determined not to sin with James - so determined that she's willing to fill her shoes with shells to keep her mind on Jesus' pain.
When Ninah is discovered to be pregnant, the community is outraged. But in the midst of tragedy and loneliness, Ninah continues to maintain that she is not guilty of the sin of fornication; she says that a holy child grows inside her. No amount of punishment can make her recant.
And in the end there is a miracle, though like most miracles, it takes an unpredictable form. Ninah must face with sudden clarity the things she must do for the sake of her own life, and her child's. She will come to understand at last that to embrace the life of the normal world can be a holy act.
Born and raised on a small farm outside of Conway, South Carolina, Sheri Reynolds started writing as a teenager and won just about every award in her high school. She attended Davidson College as an English major and went on to receive a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she was a student of Lee Smith. Sheri Reynolds lives in Richmond, Virginia and is a visiting assistant professor of English and the College of William and Mary. Her debut novel, Bitteroot Landing was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. The Rapture of Canaan was published in 1996 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.
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- Ninah struggles to understand the difference between "good whores" and "women with passion," as well as the ways in which society views them. At the novel's conclusion, what has she learned about being a good woman and about the nature of good and evil in general?
- As Ninah matures, she comes to see Fire and Brimstone "like an island sinking from the weight of fearful hearts" (p. 17). Why is is so difficult for an isolated community to maintain its strength and vision? What is the role of such a group's leader, and do you consider Herman an effective leader?
- The empathy shared by Ninah and her grandmother touches every aspect of the girl's life. What is the significance of Ninah projecting her thoughts and feelings onto the stories Nanna tells about her own past? Given the relative weakness of her parents' personalities, what do you think would have happened to Ninah without the gift of Nanna's presence in her life?
- How does the creation of Ninah's rugs mirror the process of storytelling in the novel?
- Why would young people find it difficult to embrace a religion like Fire and Brimstone that focuses on severe discipline and the end of life on earth? By the end of the novel, has Ninah completely rejected religion? If she chooses to stay in the community, accepting some of the religion's tenets while disregarding others, can she be considered a true member of her Church? Do you feel a person can be a member of any religion without adhering to all of its beliefs?
- In what ways can the beginning of Ninah's menstrual flow be considered the "inciting moment" of the novel (that is, the circumstance that sets the book's events in motion)? How does the author use the symbolism of blood to achieve impact at various points in the story? Why is it fitting for Ninah to include blood in her materials for weaving rugs?
- How do the harsh punishments administered by Grandpa Herman and the Church lead to Ninah's mortifying her own flesh? What does the group hope that severe punishment will accomplish, and what does it achieve in actuality? What is the significance of Ninah's not bothering to sleep on nettles when she discovers she is pregnant?
- What is the role of Ninah's friendships with Ajita and Corinthian in her coming-of-age? How would Ninah and the Fire and Brimstone community have been different if the group's children were tutored at home rather than taught at public school?
- How does the character of Ninah's grandmother humanize and add to the reader's understanding ofthe novel's other characters, especially Herman? How has Nanna survived so long within the community despite being skeptical of its beliefs, and why doesn't she take an active role in changing them?
- Why does ninah ironically feel lonely in a community that emphasizes sameness? Why do cults encourage the loss of separate identities among their followers, and why are these followers willing to give them up? How does Ninah's special status as Canaan's mother disturb the balance of the Fire and Brimstone community?
- In your opinion, what should be the role of religion in shaping the morals of children? Is intilling guilt the best way to promote ethical behavior? What, if anything, can be the alternative? Do you think James and Ninah were adequately prepared by their religion to face temptation and deal with its consequences? Why or why not?
- Why does the conferred status of "the New Messiah" paradoxically strip Canaan of his dignity? How does Ninah's final act in the novel restore it? How does the author utilize acts of cutting throughout the book as metaphors for Ninah's severing the bonds of her childhood and her religion?
"Folksy lyricism...a colorful supporting cast...a fresh story. As they say in church, 'Hallelujah.'"
— Los Angeles Times Book Review "Assured...devastating."
"The story compels...Reynolds has an imagination that takes the reader into what feels like the world of a teen-age girl trying to make peace with the world and with God."
— Richmond Style Weekly
"Reynolds is the newest and most exciting voice to emerge in contemporary Southern fiction."
— San Francisco Bay Guardian