Great Expectations of Mothers
Since Visiting the Sins was published, one theme seems to have pushed more hot buttons with my readers than any other: how mothers ought to behave. In most cultures, but especially within the evangelical Christian culture of this story, we like our mothers saintly. Sober, modest and self-sacrificing. Or at least the appearance of such.
On one level, this expectation makes perfect sense. We shudder to imagine a world in which mothers abandon their young for drugs and debauchery. Those of us who were blessed with devoted mothers know in our hearts that we owe much of the good in our lives to the nurturing we received as children. And yet…
The women in Visiting the Sins repeatedly found themselves in situations in which their motherly obligations conflicted with something else. As a dirt-poor single mother without education or skills, Pokey (the matriarch of the Wheeler family) does some unsavory things in order to feed her family and propel them into increasingly greater wealth. In her mind, puritan morality is a luxury she could not afford, and she made no apologies for it.
The shame that Pokey’s behavior causes for her daughter, Rebanelle, turns out to be the driving force in Rebanelle’s life. Rebanelle holds herself to an impossibly high standard of behavior and devotes all her energy to redeeming the family’s reputation. When her daughter, Curtis Jean, slides into alcoholism and depression, the threat of public exposure is more than Rebanelle can bear. She covers it up.
Has anybody else been there?? In the course of my research for Visiting the Sins, I interviewed a host of church-going moms who had struggled with addiction and/or mental illness. Their stories ran the gamut from heartbreaking to hilarious, sometimes both, but one thread ran through almost all of them – the difficulty of admitting to a personal challenge for fear of losing their children or shaming their families.
As I followed the women of Visiting the Sins on their winding journey through the joys and pitfalls and impossible choices of motherhood, I found myself wondering – why are we, as moms, so hard on ourselves and each other? We all know the answer: because we don’t want our children to pay the price for our selfishness and weakness. But the more I hear from women who saw themselves in one of the characters in my story, the more I wonder about the price the whole family pays when a problem has to be kept a secret.
Set in the Bible Belt of Deep East Texas, Visiting the Sins is a darkly funny story about mothers and daughters, naked ambition, elusive redemption, and all the torment it’s possible to inflict in the name of family.
Down through the decades, the lofty social aspirations of the feisty but perennially dissatisfied Wheeler women — Pokey, the love-starved, pistol-packing matriarch; Rebanelle, the frosty former beauty queen turned church organist; and Curtis Jean, the backsliding gospel singer — are exceeded only by their unfortunate taste in men and a seemingly boundless capacity for holding grudges. A legacy of feuding and scandal lurches from one generation to the next with tragic consequences that threaten to destroy everything the Wheeler women have sacrificed their souls to build.
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Melanie Denman is a native of Nacogdoches, Texas and a graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University. An eighth-generation Texan, and a former banker and cattle rancher, she currently lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is working on a second novel.
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