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Angela Pneuman’s ‘Lay it on my Heart’ explores the religious battling the secular

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Charmaine Peake’s dad thinks he’s the Apostle Paul.

But the book this daughter of a self-proclaimed prophet, and granddaughter of “famous evangelist Custer Peake,” uses for guidance is not the Bible.

As many introverted seventh-graders do, Charmaine looks to her reading material for direction — in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” it’s clear that the daughter can and must save the father. If only Charmaine could “tesser” out of her life and locate her father at a more stable point in time, but only L’Engle’s characters can instantly travel between times and places.

Charmaine’s father, David, has not disappeared to another planet as in “Wrinkle,” but has fallen into the depths of a raging chemical imbalance right before her eyes. Hearing the voice of God on a regular basis, he has been committed to a psychiatric care facility.

Throughout “Lay it on my Heart,” author Angela Pneuman subtly uses “Wrinkle” as a springboard for her character’s anxiety about her father.

Is he mentally ill? Or does God really speak to him? And which book is most helpful to her, the Bible or this piece of fantasy from the 1960s?

In her hometown of East Winder, Ky., “two out of three men are preachers, or they’re at the seminary studying to be preachers, or they’re retired preachers living out their dotage.”

There’s also the “town people” and the “county people” down by the river who “instead of turning to the Lord … turn to the worldly occupations of drinking, fornicating, gambling over cockfights, or listening to country and rock ’n’ roll music that makes the blood boil for more of the same.”

The inherent tension that crops up in the presence of extremes such as the ultra-pious and the fornicators has registered on Charmaine’s growing list of problems. She doesn’t notice outright, but rather deeply feels the way judgments and values are placed in line with her town’s polarity.

On the one hand, she wants to support David, her ailing father, by continuing to think of him as a prophet rather than a mental patient. It’s this part of her that obsessive-compulsively prays, with the goal of praying without ceasing, to please him.

But on the other, she thinks, “I would rather share a secret with my father than with the Lord, but that’s backwards.” This secular part of her wants to live in the world, look like her peers and experience life as it rushes at her without all the self-censoring she’s been taught.

The protagonist is in middle school, and it’s tempting to classify this novel for young adults, but the struggle to self-advocate while simultaneously questioning the nature of one’s inner voice versus competing exterior input is mature subject matter.

Charmaine and her mother, Phoebe, are railroaded by David into “living on faith,” which in this case means that Phoebe has to come to terms with no longer being able to rely on her spouse.

When David is committed to a psychiatric care facility Phoebe rents out the family’s house, moves to a trailer by the river — which places Charmaine in the middle of the sinful county people — and takes a job as a substitute teacher.

The Bible’s Apostle Paul suggests that some people are “put on this earth just to listen to and believe anything ... the head of household says about God.” Phoebe and Charmaine struggle to understand why the Lord would want them to overhaul their lives repeatedly, and can’t help but wonder why only David is privy to God’s directives.

The title of the book comes from the subplot, which craftily intensifies the issues within the main plot.

The 75 members of Charmaine’s youth group are asked to take a moment of silence and allow God to lay three people on their hearts. Their task will be to minister to the three people God gives them.

“You may find yourself thinking, suddenly, of a person you don’t really like that much. Pay attention to that,” Pastor Chick says.

So God’s voice is acceptable, that is, not a sign of mental illness, when it’s in answer to a call.

Charmaine must minister to the three peers who have most captured her imagination: an aspiring cheerleader from a broken home; a ratty girl who’s counted among the sinful county people; and a severely deformed teenage boy who rides her bus and makes lewd comments to her.

Pneuman rarely allows slack in this taut storyline; we watch this awkward girl labor to reconcile her experiences, desires and interests with what is expected of her.

Toward the end of the novel Charmaine receives a moment of clarity in which she sees her future.

“It is the only prophetic vision I will ever have, my whole life, and maybe it comes from God and maybe it comes from some part of my own mind, inside my own skull, some part I don’t even mean to use. Which maybe comes from God, too.”

Pneuman’s treatment of the “reality,” or lack thereof, of divine communication is lovely and not in the least bit condescending. Readers are left to make their own judgments.

Really, right to the last, it’s impossible not to wonder about the voice David hears.

Anne Kniggendorf can be contacted at akknigg@gmail.com.

Lay it on My Heart, by Angela Pneuman (288 pages; Mariner Books; $14.95)

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