“Camp Redemption: A Novel”
Author: Raymond L. Atkins
Publisher: Mercer University Press
Price: $25.00 (Cloth)
Raymond Atkins, an English instructor at Georgia Northwestern Technical College, has a nice little career going.
“The Front Porch Prophet” (2008) won Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel.
His second, “Sorrow Wood” (2009), has won The Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction, given by Mercer University. Sams’ best-known novels are “Run with the Horsemen” (1982) and “The Whisper of the River” (1984).
“Camp Redemption” indeed feels like a Sams novel: witty, with small town, off-beat characters who hold traditional beliefs but are tolerant and questioning.
Set in 1985 in fictional Sand Valley, Alabama, near Fort Payne, “Sorrow Wood” was the story of a religious “cult” that held meetings in a cave and practiced free love. The sheriff in that novel is married to Reva, the probate judge, who believes in reincarnation and is sure she and Wendell have been married many times in the past. Wendell provides the wry stream-of- consciousness for “Sorrow Wood.” He is an acute observer and commentator and finds much of what goes on around him absurd, but he doesn’t mind.
“Camp Redemption” is, like “Sorrow Wood,” a quirky, whimsical novel.
The story is set in a little valley in northwest Georgia, outside Rome, just east of Fort Payne, Alabama. The characters are again eccentric, for the most part gentle but nevertheless willful and determined.
The central character and controlling point of view is Early Willingham, 54, who owns the valley along with his older sister, Ivey, 72.
It is mid-May and because of the recession only seven children have registered for their summer Bible camp. Early is worried. Ivey reassures: “The Lord will provide.” Early counters: “If He’s going to provide, He needs to get on with it.” To avoid bankruptcy, it is necessary to cancel the season.
They do this reluctantly since the Bible camp has been running for 25 years, ever since Ivey, a “devout member of the Washed in the Blood and the Fire Rapture Preparation Temple,” had a visit in a dream from their dead mother, Clairy, who quoted Isaiah 54:13: “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children.”
Early thought Jesus could just run the camp Himself. “He already knows all the stories. He was THERE.”
Early himself is not religious and prefers to spend his Sunday afternoons at the illegal beer joint run by bootlegger Hugh Don Monfort. But, Early had promised his mother on her deathbed that he would watch out for his sister, “one of God’s special children,” so he quit his job as a mechanic in the Ford dealership in Rome to build and run the camp.
Early had no other plans, really. He’s single, his wife having left him for a textbook salesman from Opelika, Alabama.
Early also grows a little marijuana, for personal use only, in a thick stand of bamboo, not visible from police helicopters, and retreats from time to time, with a Dr. Grabow pipefull and a Schlitz malt liquor, to the shore of their lake to skip stones and meditate.
Early is a highly likable fellow. He doesn’t share his sister’s faith but he loves her, and, without being a Christian himself, is accepting, loves his neighbors and is naturally generous. Financially pragmatic, however, he persuades the reluctant Ivey to close the camp for the upcoming summer. Ivey is willing because, in another vision, she is instructed to help the needy and to look for a sign. Soon an abused, runaway boy, from Apalachicola, is discovered hiding in cabin; his name is Jesus.
There you are.
Jesus is soon joined by a number of other needy, homeless folk and a blessed community is formed. They start a church with Ivey, naturally, preaching.
This novel nearly goes sentimental with homeless, hungry children being fed and visits by angels, Mama and other people you might expect to meet in heaven, but it doesn’t quite. It is neither a Christian novel nor a satire of faith.
Owing to Early’s sardonic and irreverent if sometimes wordy commentary and the supporting cast of cynical lawyer, cynical bootlegger and Jesus’s murderous father, “Camp Redemption” remains, happily, dark comedy.
There is even some violence, gunplay, and killing. This is rural northwest Georgia, after all.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”