The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire

It was funny how the world seemed smaller and less deliberately set on its pilings these days. How quickly things could change. One moment, Mom could be her old salt-of-the-earth self, Leontina Scales, running up potholders on her faithful Singer sewing machine with the treadle and the wheel to raise money for the Pentecostal missionaries in Ecuador or Peru or some other part of Africa. The next moment she was no better than a crazy Catholic lady escaped from the loony bin. How the world could shiver when it wanted. All the earthquakes weren’t on the West Coast. Linda Pearl put her faith in hair fashions but Tabitha was finding this wasn’t quite enough. Nothing was quite enough. (p. 203)

The year is 1999. The town of Thebes is faced with the new millennium and all that it may bring. But before they can embrace the new, they must face the pain of the old.

A cross between holiness and irreverence, this novel contains everything you may hope to expect in a depiction of family and all its dysfunctionality. (Or, is it today’s normalcy?) Mrs. Leontina Scales, while stealing milk from Our Lady for the coffee hour at her own church, The Radical Radiants Pentecostal, is bonked on the head from a falling statue of the Virgin Mary. She promptly loses the beginning of her words, which makes her dialogue an intriguing interpretation of one’s relationship with God. An example, from when she has returned to the Catholic church since her injury occurred:

Following, they found her on the floor beside the refrigerator, lying like a corpse, hands folded over her breast, eyes open. She was training her gaze on the top of the Kelvinator where, if Huyck had the story straight, a crappy old statue of Our Lady had been lurking, waiting for its victim. “Other of God, pray for us sinners,” said Mrs. Scales.

Her daughter, Tabitha, steps in as mother of the family. Pregnant herself, Tabitha’s baby and the Christmas pageant depicting the birth of Baby Jesus, are oddly aligned…as if she can name her baby Jesus, too. Or, Jesus Two.

It is abundantly clear that Gregory McGuire is familiar with scripture, with biblical story, and he is quite adept at interjecting verses in a compelling way. A way that makes us examine our faith be it Catholic, Protestant, or non-theistic.

Reasoning that if her mother’s thinking was skewed by a knock on the head, perhaps another hit from a rock will bring it back. After a particularly exasperating exchange with her mother, Tabitha is discovered carrying “a boulder the size of a Mrs. Chanrinjee Pyrex casserole” by Pastor Jakob Huyck.

“Where are you going with that thing?” said Pastor Huyck.

“It’s a long story.”

He looked as if he were ready for a long story. “Get in…And the rock?”

“I wanted to brain my mother and put her out of her misery.”

He laughed. “I like you, Tabitha, I like your style. If your son shall ask for bread, would you give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9)

If you don’t know much about scripture, the verses may be hidden from you; to me, they were a joy and delight to find even if they were found in an unusual context. (One of the things I remember most clearly about MaGuire’s book, Wicked, is the reference he made to the witch melting away when water was thrown on her because water is purification; a form of baptism if you will.)

The novel has much more than Tabitha and her mother. There are wonderful nuns, three gay men who long to perform for an AIDS benefit in Manhattan, and the interaction between them. There is a look at pastors and priests and parishioners, and the routines which we have established in church. There is fabulous dialogue, sarcasm and wit. At many times I felt like I was reading something which is akin to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors; The Next Queen of Heaven is quirky, it is comical, it throbs with irreverence bordering on the profane as it examines our roles and our journeys.

(More information can be found at TLC Book Tours here.)