Brothers and Sisters, please put your hands together for Ronald Earl Pettway, aka Little Texas–the faith-healing child evangelist who takes the spotlight in R.A. Nelson’s latest novel, DAYS OF LITTLE TEXAS (Knopf, 2009).
Ronald Earl’s youth is scarred by tragedy. His father is sent to prison for growing marijuana in the crawl space under their trailer home. Soon afterward, his mother’s corpse is discovered among the wreckage of a meth lab explosion. Miss Wanda Joy King—his great aunt, a sturdy Pentecostal woman—provides the newly orphaned boy with food and shelter, but not much else.
Ronald Earl’s watching old-time evangelist Sugar Tom Walker preach up a storm in San Angelo, Texas, when Fate comes knockin’ at his front door. Thunder clouds roll in, and a bolt of lightening strikes his friend, Certain Certain. When Ronald Earl lays a comforting hand on his motionless chest, the old man’s body shudders back to life. “You resurrected him!” a bystander cries, and when someone hands him a microphone, he gives an electrifying speech to an enthusiastic audience. “Ten years old, and the Holy Ghost comes up inside me for the very first time,” he marvels.
And thus begins Little Texas’s faith-healing ministry. Throngs of believers flock to his services, chanting his name and expecting miracles. Sugar Tom and Certain Certain serve as stage hands, while Miss Wanda Joy acts as Chief Operating Officer in his evangelical enterprise.
By the time he’s sixteen, the mantle of responsibility is resting heavy on Little Texas’s shoulders. Plagued by sexual thoughts he can’t seem to control, he’s awash in feelings of guilt and unworthiness. Shackled to the straight and narrow, he yearns to break free of others’ expectations.
It is at this juncture that two distraught parents plead with him to save Lucy, their sick daughter, from certain death. His eyes drift over her lifeless body, barely covered by a thin blue dress. Though his spiritual energy falters in the face of this temptation, the little girl seems to gather strength as he prays.
In each new town, Miss Wanda Joy seizes the opportunity for another revival meeting. And in every doorway, Little Texas sees the blond-haired girl in the blue dress. Is she another of his ardent followers, he wonders, or is he falling in love with a ghost?
The story reaches its dramatic conclusion at the Vanderloo Plantation, where legend has it that the Devil himself once wrestled an evangelist—and won. Here, Little Texas and Lucy come face-to-face with their personal demons. And in this haunted place, a final plot twist helps weave together twin themes: light and darkness, belief and doubt, love and loss.
While this book is intended for young adult audiences, I believe it has crossover appeal for older readers who enjoy stretching the boundaries of their imagination. The author does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere, using colorful, region-specific descriptions and dialect. And as the daughter of a faith-healing evangelist who’s spent many an hour in Pentecostal revival meetings, I especially appreciated the authentic-sounding cadence of Little Texas’s sermons. With a deft hand and a light touch, Nelson expertly portrays the unique stylings of an itinerant preacher. Even so, I found myself wishing he had written more sensory details into the tent revival scenes, to help them come alive for those who aren’t familiar with this slice of Americana. And I wondered if readers without a Bible background might struggle with some of the scriptural references. Still, I admired the skill with which Nelson threaded paranormal and spiritual elements into the fabric of this unusual love story—and that he pulled them together in an entertaining, provocative way.