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Joyce Hinnefeld's "Stranger Here Below," reviewed by Carolyn See

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By Carolyn See
Friday, October 8, 2010

STRANGER HERE BELOW

By Joyce Hinnefeld

Unbridled. 268 pp. $24.95

"Stranger Here Below" is a novel about civil rights in the '60s, the onset of the Vietnam War and the legacy of various American religions -- religions that may have died out but still influence how we live. The author, having made that first, ambitious set of choices, sometimes lives up to her material and sometimes does not.

"Stranger Here Below" is about Original Sin -- whatever it is that made us awful to begin with. The book takes its title from the grand old hymn: "I am a stranger here below,/And what I am 'tis hard to know;/I am so vile, so prone to sin,/I fear that I'm not born again." The story is about good people trapped in a world that really is vile, really is prone to sin. The ability to recognize what is good, and then to identify with that goodness, is all too often far harder than it seems.

In 1961, two girls enroll in Berea, a small liberal arts college in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. The campus is close to what's left of Pleasant Hill, a Shaker community. The Shakers have all died except for one very late-coming convert, Sister Georgia, who lives alone in the deserted buildings, still worshiping in her own unique way -- whirling, dancing, shaking. Over on campus, the two freshman girls gaze warily on an academic civilization that is entirely new to them.

Mary Elizabeth Cox, a naive African American, is not the first black student to have enrolled at Berea, but she is still one of only a few dozen. Her father is a strict Christian preacher; her mother has always been strange. Mary Elizabeth is the first person in her family to go to college.

Her roommate, a good-natured, rawboned blonde named Maze, short for "Amazing Grace," is also the first of her family to go to college, but she comes from a very different world. She's a mountain girl whose mother, Vista, grew up in a bleak little place. Vista was seduced by a Swedish coal miner who deserted her the day after their wedding. Vista has been forced to fend for herself and her child through the years.

Mary Elizabeth and Maze are both scholarship girls. Mary Elizabeth is a brilliant pianist, coddled by faculty and administration alike. Maze's strong suit is traditional weaving; the college maintains a "weaving cabin" where students churn out artifacts that generate income for the institution. But both girls carry disturbing subconscious inheritances. Maze's mother has worked hard for years, but has finally been rescued by the mysterious Sister Georgia, who announces that she needs a caretaker.

Mary Elizabeth's situation is more problematic. Her mother still carries the memory of a lynching that causes her to experience increasingly severe nervous breakdowns.

The author, Joyce Hinnefeld, seems to be suggesting that it's all very well to say that our national wounds are well on the way to being healed, that the races are finally getting along, but if atrocities have happened to you or someone you know, they're hard to get over. The suffering is simply too much.

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War is sneaking up on everyone. The undergraduates argue about it, but the war isn't real to them. Maze, by this time, has been turned on to the possibility of a different life. She's seen crumbling Shaker journals that list the sect's secret herbal remedies, and she realizes that if the Shakers lived off the land, the same thing is possible for herself and her classmates. She becomes conversant with Sister Georgia's spiritual beliefs -- beliefs that have kept her spiritually safe and comforted all these years. But the thing that kept the Shakers from surviving was a strictly enforced mandate against sexual activity. Maze's friends consciously and subconsciously consider that. Will their nascent back-to-the-land movement be corrupted by sex?


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