Cover image for True believers : a novel
True believers : a novel
Dorrell, Linda.
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Publication Information:
Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, [2001]

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208 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Sometimes God chooses a child to atone for the sins of the parent, says the black preacher, Otha Lee, in this story of faith, heritage, and reconciliation. Set in the 1950\u2019s rural South, Dorrell\u2019s first novel will hook Southern fiction lovers of all ages. She masterfully presents authentic, well-rounded characters who are allowed to doubt and explore profound theological issues that don\u2019t have simple, pat answers. True Believers also keeps readers entranced with an unpredictable plot.Peggy Nickles, a cotton heiress, has bought a dilapidated church and weed-covered cemetery, much to the embarrassment of her sisters. As a further disgrace, she plans to squander her money on fixing it up and giving it to a local black congregation that has no building of its own. Facing opposition from their racist community, Peggy, Otha Lee, and an itinerant carpenter begin the restoration. Clues to deceitful secrets of the past are inadvertently revealed in the process, making a generation recovering from the sins of their predecessors more determined to stand for what is right. From the book: Elder Otha Lee Sturgis, pastor of the Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist Church, sat back on the front porch of his rundown tar-papered shack and reflected on the words of the previous Sunday\u2019s sermon. He pulled up his head to spot Miss Peggy Nickles\u2019 ice blue Cadillac convertible peeling down the dusty dirt road leading to his home. He stood, straightened his suspenders, and donned a tattered straw hat before ambling out to greet her. What brings y\u2019all way out here into no-man\u2019s-land? he said, tipping his hat and opening the car door for her.Peggy cleared her throat. To betruthful, Otha Lee, I came to make you a business proposition.Come on up here on the porch and sit, he said, gesturing to a faded rocking chair. Now what\u2019s on your mind, Miss Peggy?Peggy sat on the edge of the rocker, looking down at her skirt, then into Otha Lee\u2019s eyes.If you\u2019ll help me restore it, I will give you the deed to the church.Otha Lee thanked the Lord he was sitting. He fanned himself briskly. Bless your heart, Miss Peggy, but your daddy\u2019s turning over in his grave about now.

Author Notes

Linda Dorrell is a regular contributor to Pee Dee Magazine, a regional South Carolina publication, and has been featured in Southern Living. A former reporter, editor, and public relations writer, Dorrell resides in Effingham, South Carolina.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Dorrell's sweet, if somewhat predictable, first novel is a tale of three unlikely soulmates who find love, truth and redemption in smalltown South Carolina in the mid-1950s. The protagonist, textile heiress Peggy Nickles, enlists an elderly black minister and a handsome, itinerant stranger to help her renovate a dilapidated church and cemetery she has recently purchased. Bemusement becomes rage among the town folk, especially Peggy's sisters, when they learn that she plans to give the historically white church to a black congregation. The minister and the stranger also suffer alienation from family and friends, trials that bring the three closer together as they restore the property and face their brokenheartedness. As Peggy loses herself in the daily task of clearing brush and vines out of the cemetery, her labor becomes an apt metaphor for each main character's tentative, earnest search for truth about his or her own family history. Dorrell ably weaves these personal stories into the larger story of Southern racial strife, depicting interracial friendships as early, faltering attempts at repairing the breech rather than easy solutions to centuries of oppression. Although the novel's central romance is telegraphed from the beginning, Dorrell creates a believable bond between these characters as well as considerable sexual heat, despite the chastity of their premarital love affair. While most of her characters speak as if they were well educated, and occasionally as if they were living today rather than 50 years ago, they are emotionally authentic, and this in itself makes Dorrell's first effort a delight. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One     Daylilies grew wild in the ditches around Bonham, and Peggy Nickles thought the bright orange ones would add a festive air to the house. She stood at the bay window, absentmindedly arranging a few of them in her mother's antique crystal vase. It was a sunny Wednesday morning in June, and she was waiting for her three sisters to arrive for their twice-a-month brunch, this being her week to host the small affair.     Their mother had died three years before, just one year after their father had fallen dead at his desk in the textile mill. He had inherited the mill, like his father and grandfather, and served as its president after his father's death. One day, his secretary had walked in and found him with his head down on the desk, like a school child who had fallen asleep in class. A half hour later she realized he hadn't moved at all.     Brokenhearted and unused to coping alone, their mother had found a bottle of old sleeping pills and swallowed them deep in the night on the one-year anniversary of his death. Since then, Peggy and her sisters had made the brunches a ritual, a way to hang on to one another and keep themselves, if not close, at least acquainted.     Peggy had laid out the dining room table with a fresh damask tablecloth and white linen napkins. Crystal goblets sparkled at each place set with pale blue salad plates featuring a pattern of white roses. The centerpiece, like the window arrangement, featured orange daylilies. Peggy fretted that she couldn't get white roses to grow profusely, the way her mother had in that luxurious rose garden of hers. How fragrant it had been: tea roses, English roses clambering up trellises, perfuming the June air with their intoxicating fragrance. They were her mother's pride, her gift. Peggy longed for those roses--they would have accented the china well.     The oven timer buzzed, and Peggy darted in to check the biscuits. Eva, the eldest sister, always insisted on freshly baked tea biscuits at brunch, no matter who entertained. It did not matter if the cook had a knack for baking or not. Eva ate them whether they had the texture of school paste, the consistency of caramel candy, or the crumbly quality of wedding cake.     Today they were perfect. Peggy had worked long and hard to make the biscuits correctly. Doing anything correctly, whether it was baking, gardening, decorating, or hanging out the laundry, was essential and required in Peggy's family. She placed the hot pan on the kitchen table and styled the biscuits into a neat pyramid on an antique china platter that matched the table service. Hearing the front door creak, she whipped off her apron and stuffed it in the pie safe.     "It's me, Peggy," Eva called out, striding into the hallway.     "You're always early," Peggy complained, aiming a kiss at Eva's cheek but missing when her sister pulled up short.     "Punctuality is a virtue," Eva replied. Eva was a strict immersion Baptist, as were all the Nickles sisters. Another family tradition, like belonging to the Junior Welfare League and the Bonham Country Club, serving on the Library Committee, or volunteering with the Butler County Hospital's Ladies Auxiliary. "Can I help with anything?"     "No, I'm almost ready." Peggy retrieved a plate of chicken sandwiches and pimiento cheese sandwiches from the icebox. She placed them on the dining room table where she had already laid out a platter of chilled, sliced tomatoes, tomato aspic, and a jar of peach marmalade. She surveyed the table and remembered her manners. "How is Gail?"     "Dying to come stay with you." Eva plopped her purse on the corner of the table, rattling the dishes, and sat down heavily.     "So let her. I'd be glad to have her. It does get kind of lonesome out here sometimes." Peggy loved her niece, enjoyed spending time with her. Now that she was twelve, Gail was at that awkward age, between toys and boys, and often needed to confide in someone other than her mother, who could be judgmental and unyielding, or her friends, who were too immature to offer advice.     "Her summer needs to be spent more constructively than wasting time out here in the middle of nowhere." Eva sniffed.     Peggy stopped pouring tea. "I know I made it sound desolate, but it's not like I'm cut off from civilization."     The screen door slammed on the middle hallway. "Did you think we weren't coming?" Belva said, followed by Beatrice. Both were peeling off white gloves. Belva and Beatrice were twins, and even at the age of forty-two, they insisted on dressing identically. Today they wore red polka-dot dresses with broad, starched white collars, accessorized by red leather handbags and red and white spectator pumps.     "Nice outfits," Eva said, rolling her eyes.     "Thank you," they answered in unison.     "I just love your new car, Peggy," Beatrice drawled, pulling back the curtains and admiring the gleaming powder-blue Cadillac convertible. "Those fins are absolutely rakish!"     "Call me crazy," Peggy said, glancing around and feeling as if she had forgotten something. "I don't know what came over me. I'm usually not one to go in for fads. I suppose it just captivated me."     "Enough about the car," said Eva. "Let's eat."     They gathered around the table, sitting two on each side, always leaving the chairs at the ends empty, as if they were expecting their parents to arrive suddenly and find themselves displaced--unsituated, as it were.     "Say grace, Belva," Beatrice said. The sisters folded their hands on the edges of the table and bowed their heads.     "Dear heavenly Father, we thank you for your many blessings--the joys of family, the beatitude of heart, health, and home, the gift of your Son Jesus and his unselfish sacrifice on the cross for our mortal sins and souls...."     Eva sighed and opened her eyes, catching Peggy staring out the window, her hands still folded.     "We beseech you to protect our loved ones from harm and hazard, our souls from eternal damnation, our hearts from temptation, and our bodies from carnal lust...."     At this last, Beatrice opened her eyes and socked Belva solidly on the shoulder.     "Sister, God does not want to hear such talk at brunch."     Peggy, breaking her trance, began to giggle.     Belva looked around, casting a condemnatory eye on her sisters.     "Silence!"     The room went dead quiet. It was as if their mother had spoken from the grave.     "In all these things we beseech you, making our prayers and petitions known. We also ask that you bless this food of which we are about to partake for the sustenance and nourishment of our earthly bodies. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen."     "Amen!" the sisters echoed. Peggy tried to hide her smile. Belva had a way of getting wound up in a prayer and not being able to find her way out.     "What is with you, Peggy?" Eva said, daintily picking up one biscuit, then another. "You were staring out that window like you were seeing a ghost."     "Maybe I was," Peggy said, passing the dish of marmalade. She placed her napkin in her lap. "Isn't a woman allowed to daydream?"     "You are thirty-six years old. Your daydreaming days are over," Eva said, placing a chicken sandwich on her plate and cutting it diagonally with her knife.     "I knew nothing would come of this," Belva said, staring at the tomato aspic.     "I made that from your recipe," Peggy said, grabbing the plate and examining the congealed mass closely.     "Not that," Belva said, snatching it back and serving herself a slender slice. "This, this ... this place."     "What's wrong with it?"     Peggy looked around. She felt content in the cottage, cozy and safe. Built during the 1920s, it was well constructed, although she had replaced some plumbing already. For a small house, it had spacious rooms. She had decorated the long central hallway with family portraits inherited from her parents. Her sisters found the images facing out from the old tintypes stern and dour, but Peggy saw within them a sense of continuity, as if she could look at the faces and somehow divine their lives and thoughts. She hung the old frames carefully in family groups, according to ancestral line, creating a generational tableau that comforted her and fascinated Gail.     "I love this house," Peggy said, rising to look out the window.     "We are not talking about the house, Peggy," Belva said.     "We are talking about that spooky old boneyard," Beatrice added.     "Whatever possessed you to buy a graveyard?" Eva said, shaking her head and slathering marmalade on yet another biscuit.     "I didn't buy the cemetery," Peggy said, peering through the lace-covered window. "At least not all of it. The deeds belong to the plot owners."     "Who are all dead," Beatrice said.     "In perpetuity," Belva added.     "It came along with the church and the manse. I guess you could call it a package deal." Peggy had gone through this discussion with her sisters before. It always came around to the graveyard.     After their parents died, each sister received a sizeable inheritance. Since Belva, Beatrice, and Eva were all married, their money usually went into whatever their husbands thought they should put it, although Eva managed to make clear her preferences on investments and savings. Still, this was 1954, and the men were, in the end, in charge. Peggy, however, being single, was under no such constraint. She saw the money as a means to do something she had wanted to do all her life.     Peggy Nickles wanted to own a church.     She didn't have the urge to preach or start a wayward religious sect or defy God by turning one of his houses of worship into a honky tonk. She simply liked the idea of having her own spiritual haven, a place where she could be alone with God, tell him her thoughts and dreams and fears. Her own slice of heaven was how she liked to think of it.     The congregants' descendants had abandoned the building, the cemetery, and the accompanying parsonage years ago, after the last congregant died in 1939. The pastor who served the church left to join the Army just in time to minister to the burgeoning force about to wash over Europe. It had fallen into disrepair, like unoccupied dwellings do, deteriorating from lack of love and care, and maintenance. Buildings, like people, need sustenance to survive, and it had disheartened Peggy to watch the simple dwelling and old-fashioned chapel become a shambles.     She had been to the church a few times as a young child, with her parents, to homecomings and weddings and funerals. Some of her ancestors had founded the church, and her parents still felt their own spiritual connection. But the pull of society had lulled them away from the simple counted chapel, and the girls had grown up going to the big Baptist church in town.     Given to long hikes in the country, Peggy had run across the church one autumn day when leaves were cascading across the lonely dirt road that ran past it. Vines slithered up the sides of the edifice, and the trees and shrubs surrounding it had grown wild, nearly obliterating it from view. Often, Peggy would climb through an open window she had stumbled upon at the rear of the sanctuary. Inside, she would sit on a dusty pew, singing "In the Garden" or "Amazing Grace" aloud from a tattered hymnal and bathing in the pastel blue glow that emanated from the frosted windows. The chapel did not have stained glass--post-Civil War congregants could not afford such luxuries. Nevertheless, as Peggy sat there and sang, she imagined the windows replaced with soaring panes depicting glorious biblical tales in Technicolor, panes that would bathe her in rainbow light, the promise to Noah after the flood.     After indulging in her daydreams, Peggy usually wandered through the large, neglected cemetery, pushing back the weeds from time to time to read the old-fashioned inscriptions and epitaphs. She was particularly fond of, but saddened by, the children's graves. Bereaved parents had inscribed several of the tombstones "Budded on Earth to Bloom in Heaven." The tall, carved pillars placed there in honor of the more well-to-do members and their families also awed her. A few family crypts and plots dominated the section nearest the old sanctuary, while the more common folk were scattered between. Several monuments bore the designation CSA--Confederate States of America--in honor of the Civil War veterans interred beneath.     She couldn't stand to see the church fall into ruins. Milo Percy, the family attorney, checked the status of the property for her and found no reason she couldn't buy it. So she did.     "Peggy? Peggy?" Eva shook her arm. "Are you listening?"     "No, Eva, I'm not," Peggy said as she pushed back her chair. "To tell the truth, I've heard it all before. I am not getting rid of it." She began clearing the table.     "Well, no one is saying you have to get rid of the whole thing, dear," Belva said.     "Just the church and graveyard," said Beatrice.     "That's what I bought it for," Peggy said, sighing.     "Oh, nonsense," Eva exclaimed. "You are just doing this to disgrace Mother and Daddy's memory."     Peggy stopped on her way to the kitchen, her knuckles white as she gripped the treasured family china. "What gives you the right to accuse me of such a horrible thing? What in the world have I ever done to make you think I would do anything to dishonor their memory?" She began to shake and placed the dishes carefully on the buffet, resisting the temptation to hurl the stack at Eva.     "You never rebelled against them in life," Eva said matter-of-factly. "There was a lot of stuff pent up in you. It's coming out now."     "What's coming out?" asked Belva, puzzled.     "Her rebellious streak."     "I declare, she's been reading those awful psychology books again," Belva said. Beatrice nodded. "Pretty soon she'll be psychologizing us." Getting up from the table, she pulled at Eva's sleeve. "Come on, sister, let's go."     "I am not done yet." Eva grabbed the plate of biscuits.     "Yes, you are." Peggy leveled a raging stare at her eldest sister. "Go. Now. Stay out of my business. It is my church. It is my cemetery. And I intend to restore it all."     At this all three sisters stopped and regarded Peggy with apprehension.     "Peggy, you'll spend your entire inheritance resurrecting those old ruins," Beatrice said. "That is not what Daddy would have wanted."     "I don't know what Daddy would have wanted for me, and neither do you." Peggy smoothed her skirt and stood at the head of the table. "He never saw fit to tell me. He only told me what he didn't want for me. That was just about everything, and it almost worked out that way. But he's gone, I'm here, and I've got a church to restore." She resumed clearing the table.     "However will you do it?" Belva asked. "You're not used to that kind of labor. We're indoors people."     "I already have someone in mind," Peggy said.     "Who?" Eva stood and placed her hands on her hips. "I hope it's not that repulsive Yancy. He does fine work, but he stinks worse than a goat pen."     "No," said Peggy. "I've decided Otha Lee will help me."     Belva and Beatrice tittered. "That old colored preacher that used to work for Daddy?" Belva said. "He must be in his sixties by now."     "How in the world are you and one old man going to fix up a whole church?" Belva sat down again.     "Probably very slowly," Peggy said, "but it will all be for his benefit in the end."     "Whose benefit?" Beatrice asked, joining her twin at the table.     "Otha Lee's, of course."     "And why would that be?" Eva inquired, finally leaving the table and leaning against the doorpost.     "Because when I finish," Peggy said, turning to go into the kitchen, "I'm giving it to him." Belva and Beatrice gasped in unison.     Always the family skeptic, Eva rolled her eyes. "Giving it to him?"     "Yep. Graveyard and all."     Eva stalked into the hall, followed by the twins, who were arm-in-arm and whispering fiercely. "Call us when you've come to your senses!" Eva shouted, the screen door slamming behind her.     Peggy walked to the front door and watched her sisters get into their respective cars and zoom away on the dusty road. She stepped out onto the front porch and examined the church, which stood across the road.     "Dear Lord," she prayed. "I hope I'm doing the right thing. Although I have a feeling you'll let me know if I'm not."     Elder Otha Lee Sturgis, pastor of the Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist Church, sat back on the front porch of his rundown tar-papered shack and reflected on the words of the previous Sunday's sermon and pondered topics for next Saturday's evening service.     His small congregation was made up mostly of elderly ladies whose husbands had passed on long ago from the strain of sweltering summers in the tobacco, peanut, and cotton fields. Otha Lee himself bore the physical scars--the arthritic hands, the bent and bowed back. He could sense changes in the weather by his aching bones.     Otha Lee looked up from his Bible and thought about Paul's affliction, his "thorn," the messenger of Satan, and wondered if rheumatism qualified. His people had certainly suffered enough, but to have to deal with suffering as the result of other suffering nearly made him grieve and moan.     "`My grace is sufficient for thee,' saith the Lord," Otha Lee quoted aloud, his current congregation being the hens pecking peacefully in the front yard beneath the chinaberry tree. He pulled up his head to spot a blue Cadillac convertible peeling down the dirt road leading to his home. He stood, straightened his suspenders, and donned a tattered straw hat before ambling out to greet the driver.     "Why, Miss Peggy, what brings y'all way out here into no-man's-land?" he asked, tipping his hat and opening the car door for her.     "Visiting, Otha Lee," she replied brightly, brushing grit from her purse. "I was thinking about you and decided I'd just drive out and see how you're doing."     "I'm doing well, Miss Peggy, just fine. Even better now that Mr. Leonard Nickles' favorite child is here."     Peggy laughed. "Don't let my sisters hear you say that."     Otha Lee put his hand to his mouth as if turning a key.     Peggy cleared her throat. "To be truthful, Otha Lee, I came to make you a business proposition."     "Business with a preaching man?" Otha Lee scratched his head. "You ain't looking to make any deals with the Lord, are you now, 'cause he doesn't take bribes!"     At that, they both laughed. Otha Lee often made jokes with Peggy as she was growing up, a subtle way of poking fun at her father's propensity for making every encounter a potential opportunity to turn a profit.     "No deals with God. Or the devil, either, for that matter. Although that is what some people might say I'm fixing to do."     "Come on up here on the porch and sit," he said, gesturing to a faded rocking chair. "Now, what's on your mind, Miss Peggy?"     "You know I purchased the old church off Highway 6." Peggy settled into the creaky rocker. "It has turned out to be a little more than I expected work-wise."     "Yeah, I noticed that. Old cemetery's getting mighty sprangly."     "Yes, and it's not just that. It's the building itself. The floor's rotten, the windows are broken. It's full of dust, and birds are making nests in the hanging chandeliers."     "Mmmm, mmmm. Sounds like you got a real job ahead of you." Otha Lee took off his hat and fanned away a gnat. "Now, you mentioned something about a business proposition?"     "Hear me out before you give me an answer."     "I'm listening, Miss Peggy. Go on."     Peggy sat on the edge of the rocker, looking down at her skirt, then into Otha Lee's eyes.     "If you'll help me restore it, I'll give you the deed to the church."     Otha Lee thanked the Lord he was sitting. He fanned himself briskly.     "Bless your heart, Miss Peggy, but your daddy's turning over in his grave about now."     "Otha Lee, I know you don't have a proper church. You have a--what's it called--a brush arbor?"     "Yes, ma'am, and it works just fine."     "Unless it's raining or cold or snowing or 102 degrees. Am I right?"     "The Lord provides shelter from the heat and the cold and the driving rains in my flock's house."     "But wouldn't your flock be much more comfortable out of the weather?" Peggy studied the old man's face.     Otha Lee let out a deep sigh, then a booming laugh. "What you're saying is that you want a bunch of gospel-singing, drum-beating, foot-stomping, amening, hallelujahing, glory-be-to-God, holiness Negroes to move into a church that ain't held nothing but upstanding quiet white folks since Civil War times. A church that a Nickles--a white Nickles--owns." He stood and propped his leg on the sagging porch railing, resting his tattered black Bible on his knee.     "I can't look after it. I really don't know what I was thinking when I bought it." She grabbed Otha Lee's arm. "Please do not tell my sisters that."     Otha Lee knew Peggy's sisters well. He grinned broadly. "Don't you worry about that. Remember, I locked my lips up a few minutes ago. Your sisters won't hear it from me."     "I guess I was trying to preserve history, save the past. Maybe I thought that if I owned my own church I could go to whenever I wanted, I would find some real peace at last."     "Whatever your reasons were, it sounds like now you're looking to change history." Otha Lee glanced at her from the corner of his eye. "That is one way, I guess."     "Please tell me you'll think about it." Peggy picked up her purse and moved toward her car.     "I promise I won't be thinking about much else," he said, opening the door for her with a flourish.     "We'll talk again," Peggy said, backing up and raising another cloud of dust. "Pray about it!" she shouted.     Otha Lee wandered the yard, scattering the chickens. He had dreamed of his own church for years, ever since he had heard the call on the night lightning struck his parents' home, burning it to the ground. Of course Otha Lee knew in his heart it wasn't a lightning of the literal sort, but he always thought of it as lightning, nonetheless. His ma and pa, his three sisters, and his four brothers: all died. Otha Lee had been late returning home from his job tending the Nickles' tobacco curing barns and so was spared.     "`My grace is sufficient for thee,'" Otha Lee boomed over the hog pen. "`Amazing grace. How sweet the sound.'"     As Peggy drove away, her sisters' voices bounced around in her head. She wasn't sure if she had violated an unspoken protocol by going to Otha Lee's house, but she had felt confident the preacher would be attentive to her offer and would give it serious consideration. (Continues...) Excerpted from True Believers by Linda Dorrell. Copyright © 2001 by Linda Dorrell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.