Wednesday, July 14, 2010

God's Good Time: Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth by Sandra Dutton

When Granny asked me what we learned in school today, I tell her all about trilobites and how southern Ohio was right down by the equator. "We're digging for fossils tomorrow, too," I tell her.

"Wish I could dig for fossils," says Granny. "But I'm just an old fossil myself."

"Digging?" says Daddy. "You know when I was in school, we didn't go out digging. We stayed inside and learned our lessons."

"Ain't no different ages," Mama says. "Tempting kids to believe in something that ain't so!" Mama goes on. "The world is 6000 years old. You look in the Bible."

God must have loved curious kids, because he made so darned many of them. Mary Mae Krebs can't help being one. "What do we believe?" she asks her mother, and her mother tells her to read Genesis.

That works for Mary Mae, whose Sunday School class is already practicing for a puppet play about the Creation right from the book of Genesis. She's in charge of Mrs. Noah, whose job, she is told, is to look after all the animals on the Ark. Practical Mary Mae hits a snag right there. How could one woman, even with those daughters-in-law, clean that many cages? And what about the insects? They're animals, but the Bible doesn't say anything about rounding them up and housing them in the Ark in all those little bitty cages. And what about fresh meat for the lions and tigers?

When Mary Mae and her class study the Cincinnati Arch, a band of ancient rock filled with the fossils of the Ordovician sea which once covered the Ohio River basin, her teacher Mrs. Sizemore takes them on a field trip to the school grounds themselves where a construction project has uncovered a treasure trove of trilobites, ancient snails and starfish, and crinoid fossils. Mary Mae is fascinated by the "enrolled" trilobite she finds and as she writes her "Interview with a Trilobite" report, she and her great-grandmother write a song for fiddle and guitar about the little creature. Then Mary May spots hundreds of little fossils embedded in the rocks around her own backyard fish pond, and when she shows them to her mother, Mama's protests fail to past muster even with Daddy, not to mention Granny.

"She oughtn't to be learning such things," says Mama.

"But this is our backyard," says Daddy. "Can't go walking around like an ostrich."

"Them fossils was put in the ground to trick us, Farley."

"Trick us?" says Daddy. "Who's trying to trick us?"

"The Lord," says Mama.

"If that's what the Lord's up to, you can go to church yourself. I ain't going."

Things come to a head when Mama finds her trilobite report and takes her out of school. Forbidden to read anything but the Bible, Mary Mae goes back to adding up the "begats" in Matthew to see if the generations total up to 6000 years, but she runs into the question of how to count those Bible folks who lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. Mama's already overloaded, what with her job and distributing fliers for the church and everything else, and she finds Mary Mae's endless questions about the Bible a trial and tribulation, And then, when Mama drives a young friend home to Indiana, the young woman talks her into stopping to see the famous local site, the Falls of the Ohio, in whose shoals millions of fossils are all around to be seen by visitors, "like the Lord's science lesson." Although Mama is gruff with her questions, Mary Mae senses that her mother is beginning to have some doubts about her interpretation of Genesis as well.

Then Mary Mae's educational luck changes. A chance talk with a visiting pastor shows Mama that there are differences of opinion about the form Creation has taken even among the faithful at the Remnant Church of God.

"I can understand your concern," Pastor Tilbury says to Mama. "but fossils is God's creatures, too. The way I see it, they was all fossilized during Noah's flood in 3500 B.C."

"Now me, I believe they was fossilized in 90,000 B.C.," says Mrs. Tilbury.

"I think you're way off," Pastor Tilbury says to his wife, "but everybody's got a right to their opinion."

With a reassurance from the pastor that fossils were mentioned in the book of Romans, Mama is convinced that it's time Mary Mae went back to school so Mrs. Sizemore can take over the job of answering at least some of her questions.

In Sandra Duncan's latest, Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), her inquisitive and level-headed Mary Mae comes head on against the eternal verities. A member of an evangelistic church which affirms the primacy of the Scriptures, she has a hard time reconciling her mother's version of creation with what she sees before her eyes, and her natural childlike drive to understand the world puts her into opposition with her mother's weary assertions that there are some questions that ought not to be asked. Still Mary Mae's parents and church elders are sincere and loving, and Dutton refuses to portray them as enemies in the ongoing conflict between faith and knowledge. Her use of the everyday speech of her characters is rich and pitch perfect, and her theme, that no one has an absolute answer to the questions of life, is crafted with the respect that can only come with love and the love that can only come with respect. As Publishers Weekly says in its starred review, "Dutton sensitively navigates the sticky debate between creationism and evolution both through the young narrator's delightful curiosity and honest questions, and through the various responses she receives from numerous caring adults, who all strive to provide truthful guidance."

"Now tell me about them fossils," says Granny.

"They're older than the dinosaurs," I say.... "Miss Sizemore says the world is fifteen billion years old."

Granny's clicking her teeth. "Hmm... Well...My..."

"God takes his time," I say.

"Yes, he does," says Granny.

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