“The Red Dirt Hymnbook,” by Roxie Faulkner Kirk

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

The Red Dirt Hymnbook (Fine Dog Press 2019), by emerging author Roxie Faulkner Kirk, is a chilling story of an innocent young woman tangled in a snare of religiosity, domestic abuse, and her own claustrophobic fears. The writing and perceptions in this book are bold, tasteful, and exceptionally well done. The impact is powerful. Kirk displays sympathy and empathy for the main characters, even—or maybe especially—for the bad ones, as well as an authentic sense of the religious elements in the story. She does not patronize or satirize, nor does she step away from the harm the cultist adherence to a hellfire-and-brimstone dogma creates in two generations of a family.

Ruby Fae McKeever Jasper, the protagonist, drops out of college and marries JW, her high school sweetheart against her parents’ strong opposition. The boy—he never matures into a man—is charismatic, musically talented, and so good-looking women and girls practically swoon over him. He is also deeply disturbed by his own brutal childhood and his religiosity—and as Ruby Fae soon learns to her dismay, he takes out his own pain on his young wife. Ruby Fae is fooled by his good looks and charming persona, but despite their prior association she does not know him at all when they marry. In some ways, neither Ruby Fae nor JW know themselves either.

Ruby Fae sums up her dilemma on the eve of her wedding: “Because as much as I wanted to go with JW, to sing on stage in fancy clothes and live like some Gypsy for Jesus, I also wanted to stay right there in Oklahoma, raising kids as wild as bobcats and living my open range life.” This latter desire—especially raising “wild” children—is strictly at odds with the views of her in-laws.

In short order, the young couple has a baby, Susannah. They all live on a touring travel bus with his parents, the Reverend Lem Jasper and his wife Marrilee, who is always introduced as Mrs. Reverend Lemuel T. Jasper and never by her own name. But pay attention to Marrilee and her relationship with Ruby Fae because they are both going to surprise you.

The family tours Oklahoma and the southwest, producing religious shows at churches and revivals where Ruby Fae and JW sing, Marrilee plays the piano, and Rev. Jasper preaches. Rev. Jasper controls every aspect of the show, even punishing Ruby Fae for a slight deviation in presenting a hymn.

Rev. Jasper is caught up in his Old Testament religiosity nearly to the point of insanity. When his back story is at last revealed, readers can understand his torment and be almost sympathetic. Sadly, the man has ruined both his sons with his views of sin and redemption. He insists that women must be completely obedient to men, even to the point of not being allowed to speak unless directly asked to do so. Ruby Fae is too feisty to be rendered totally subservient, but JW and Rev. Jasper are about to wear her down.

The Jasper family does not allow Ruby to have any money of her own. She is reduced to petty thievery to get such things as sanitary products. They steal her mail, including letters to and from her mother, and they isolate her from others. Stealing a stamp and trying to get a letter to her mother is a harrowing ordeal. She is truly a prisoner in the touring bus.

Young Ruby misses her mother and her home deeply, and Rev. Jasper considers this a sin. So much so that Ruby is subjected to “healing” sessions on her knees until the physical discomfort makes her willing to pretend the homesickness is gone. But Ruby Fae’s desire to return to her home in Oklahoma remains a driving force in the story—as well as her desire to protect her infant daughter from the clutches of the Jaspers and their brutal concepts of child-rearing.

Ruby Fae’s multiple failed attempts to escape give the novel a thriller-like gloss and there is a certain Southern Gothic quality about the story, too, that adds to its fascination. Readers can spot the danger Ruby Fae is in far quicker than she can herself at times.

Often her own ambivalence is Ruby Fae’s enemy as much as Rev. Jasper is. She does love JW—or she wants to. She’s never 100 percent sure either way. But she wants the marriage to work. She is also genuinely religious herself. As a child, Ruby feared she would go to hell because she sassed her brother. This led to her being “saved” at a revival conducted by Rev. Jasper. Yet she will not subject her child to the Jaspers’ manipulations and abuse. The need to protect her daughter finally drives Ruby Fae to attempt escape repeatedly.

The story rings with authenticity, raises important questions, and showcases the power of a mother’s love. Ruby Fae’s distinctive voice throughout the story is honest, direct, and compelling. She also sprinkles downhome sayings throughout that add richness to the story, such as these: “I could get happy in the same high heels I got sad in,” and “Let’s just say I left town on a runaway horse and Dad didn’t lift a rope to stop it.”

There are some disturbing scenes in the book, but to the author’s credit, none of them involve graphic violence—which makes the story more chilling. The author has both the good taste and the talent to convey fear and torment without engaging in a blow-by-blow of the physical, but she digs deep into the mental and emotional mistreatment and that’s where the true power of this book lies. When claustrophobic Ruby Fae is trapped in a bathroom, with the door nailed shut to prevent her escape, she is so frightened she literally passes out. That segment alone is as harrowing as any graphically explained scene of abuse, yet it is remarkable in its control and careful delivery.

This is an intense book, with a surprising twist near the end. But it is also filled with beauty and grace, both in the substance and the writing itself. The author knows how to build suspense, how to break into wry comic relief just when it is all too grim, and how to show the depth of her characters’ inner turmoil. While there is no shortage of books about women trapped in abusive relationships or people driven to near madness by religious fervor, Roxie Faulkner Kirk makes both story lines alive and fresh and captivating. This is just really a very fine, well written, compelling book that rings true.

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