Category: Narrative/Verbal Art

Jesus in America and Other Stories from the Field

By Claudia Gould. 2009. Logan: Utah State University Press. 124 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-759-9 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Daniel P. Compora, University of Toledo

[Review length: 647 words • Review posted on May 5, 2010]


Anthropologist Claudia Gould’s Jesus in America and Other Stories from the Field is a collection of religious-themed stories based on ethnographic field research she conducted in North Carolina, her home state. The collection features six short, unrelated stories of various lengths that paint a picture of the inhabitants of the region and how fundamentalist religious beliefs help form their cultural identity.

The book begins with a foreword by Lee Haring that discusses the nature of ethnographic fiction and how it applies to this collection of stories. With the exception of the final story in the collection, “Jack at the Mercy Seat,” each tale is introduced with a passage from the Bible, which helps the reader grasp the theme of the story to come.

The first story in the collection, “Jesus in America,” focuses on a young boy named Jesse, whose name, his preachers tell him, is American for Jesus. Jesse’s home life is complicated by a father who comes and goes as he pleases. By the end of the story, Jesse has received a call from God, presumably setting him on the path to become a preacher of the gospel.

“The Red Crayon” relates a child’s guilt over stealing a red crayon, causing her to think she was destined for eternal damnation. The story captures the naïve innocence of the child, complicated by the dogma of organized religion. “The Mountains of Spices” focuses on the struggles of an interracial couple and their difficulty in finding social acceptance.

“Personal Storage” tells the story of a woman who stands to lose all of her possessions despite the efforts of others to help her. She is unwilling to help herself and is bound by her attachment to her earthly possessions. This story is my favorite piece in the collection because it illustrates the conundrum that people would rather have everything taken from them than make tough choices and willingly give up certain possessions.

“A Moment of Rapture” focuses on a man who can’t sleep because his neighbor’s dogs are barking. He makes a middle-of-the-night journey to get the man to quiet his pets, but his wife, seeing his pajamas strewn about, momentarily believes he has been called up to Heaven in the Rapture, and that she is left behind.

“Jack at the Mercy Seat” features two brothers born in the era of the Great Depression. This is a detailed piece that explores Jack’s tour of duty during World War II. Jack lives a life of sin and realizes after many years that he has thrown much of his life away. In the end, he reunites with his brother Dick, who agrees to bring him to his church.

Gould concludes the book with an afterword that discusses her field research and the origin of each story in the collection. This section is quite appealing, giving the reader a window not only into the stories themselves, but also into the author’s process and inspiration. Not only do the readers get an opportunity to enjoy the execution of the written works, but the text also provides a sufficient amount of meaningful analysis to allow scholars to examine them as legitimate, ethnographic portraits of the people from this region.

The organization of the text is excellent, moving quickly from its scholarly foreword into complete immersion in the texts themselves. Only at the end, once the stories are completed, does Gould provide the origin of the works. This strategy allows the reader to enjoy the stories as they are written, while providing the materials to reflect on them at the end.

Overall, the book’s stories are well-written and the text is well-organized. Gould captures not only the dialect of the inhabitants, but also the deep-seated nature of the religious beliefs as well. While the market for such a text would seem to be somewhat narrow, the stories themselves make for an entertaining reading experience.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.