Raymond Atkins,
Camp Redemption
(Mercer University Press, 2013)

With his third novel, Raymond Atkins continues to blaze a fresh trail through southern fiction. Readers of The Front Porch Prophet and Sorrow Wood (which I reviewed for this site on 31 October 2009 and 11 October 2008) will welcome this one. Camp Redemption has the loose charm and soaring spirit of the other two. Like the others, it introduces us to a reasonably sane and stable man surrounded by a cast of endearing loonies and eccentrics in a small southern town.

In this one, Early Willingham, a middle-aged man not really driven by ambition, operates a Christian camp with his older sister, the gloriously and hilariously religious Ivey, who is given to speak in Bible quotations and receives guidance in her dreams when she is visited by the spirits of those who are long dead. She never questions the guidance she receives and has trained her younger brother to follow it as she does, even though he is not totally convinced that she isn't crazy. It was one of these visitations that got them into the summer camp business, which, as the novel opens, is dying. The Willinghams are forced to cancel the upcoming summer season due to an almost total lack of registration. After the season has been canceled, Ivey receives a message from the dead that they are to use the camp property to care for the poor. Exactly how will become obvious when the time is right.

The time is right when they find one of the registered campers, 14-year-old Jesus, living in one of the cabins. He has run away from home and his horribly abusive father, and after three weeks on the road has wound up at the camp. Jesus becomes the first of the down-and-outers the Willinghams take in. Others follow until Camp Redemption is loaded with oddball eccentrics who have in common the fact that they are all broke and half crazy. They are also great company for the reader.

On one level, Camp Redemption is about family, specifically the fact that the families we build are often stronger and more nourishing than the ones we were born into. It is also very much a novel about love and the forms that it takes. Most of all, though, it is very funny.

Atkins is a comic writer, able to see the humor in every situation and to follow it where it leads. Like his other novels, Camp Redemption is loosely plotted -- plot isn't the element that interests him most. What he cares about is his characters, their talk, their attitudes and values and their wonderful inability to realize how very weird they are. Atkins delights in putting two or three of these people together and letting them talk. He doesn't construct comic monologues; no, what he does is listen to the natural voices of these people and turns them loose on a page. What results is honest and hilarious. He captures the cadences of southern speech, the colorful metaphor-filled language and the love of story-telling that still characterizes all of the south except the major cities. Atkins is reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, sharing their passion for the truth and their innate gentleness. He's a more accessible Faulkner, without quite as much darkness. He deserves to be read far and wide, not just in his native south. He has much to show us about his region.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

7 September 2013

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