Monday, October 1, 2012

Almost Heaven by Susan X. Meagher

Book:  Almost Heaven
Author:  Susan X. Meagher
Publisher:  Brisk Press

Any given Sunday.
I was raised in a small, non-descript town that was more southern than it was northern.  While my ancestors were all Moravians, my siblings and I were raised in a non-denominational protestant church because my grandmother, who was from a different small, non-descript town in another state, had never heard of the Moravians. 

For the record, the Moravian Church puts an enormous emphasis on basic religious principles in the form of faith and practice—for more than 500 years, the only stated requirement for entrance into Heaven is show up with a covered dish.

But I digress.

As a kid, I would always sit in the back row of the church, a four-seater pew, with my grandmother, and with Florence and Stuart Woods. Without fail, another little old lady named Mary Magdalene would sit directly in front of us.  Mary was what you’d call “an eclectic.”  She was born in my hometown, but married a rich man and moved to the city.  When her husband passed away in 1966, she retired and moved back home.  Mary’s last name was Krichbaum—and she was loaded.

Mmmm, herbicide
Of course, back then and in that place, the definition of “loaded” was that your car had four matching hubcaps, and your drinking water didn’t taste like Atrazine.

In all seriousness, Mary loved the finer things in life—from her late model Cadillac, to her silver tea service and her Italian leather, little-old-lady pumps. Of course, often “the finer things” included her fox stole.  And what made Mary’s fox stole memorable was that it had about 18 beady little eyes that stared right at me throughout some of the holiest moments of my life. 

Still, Mary was a character, and wasn’t like any other woman in my hometown.  Mary had plenty of opinions about plenty of things, and she wasn’t afraid to state any one of them out loud.  I distinctly remember one blustery, winter morning as we all filed out onto the front steps after yet another sermon on Agape love, Mary proclaimed in her gravelly smoker’s voice that what we all needed was “a little Southern Comfort.”

Even as an 8-year old in a dry county, I somehow knew she wasn’t talking about warmer temperatures.…

Not Mary Magdalene's fox stole.
No, Mary Magdalene’s wealth and outspoken personality set her apart from everyone else in town, but she fit in just fine because no matter how long she had been away from it, she was of it.  Yet, had someone come into town to help feed and clothe those who barely made ends meet or tried to make the community a better place, they would have been summarily shunned because they were considered an “outsider.” 

It’s part of the logically illogical hierarchy of prejudice in small communities that’s a bit like dinosaur mentality—only with more staying power.   

Susan X. Meagher’s latest offering, Almost Heaven, takes on life in a small, insular community and shows that as much as things change, they stay the same.  Cody Keaton hails from the mountain grotto of Ramp, West Virginia.  She’s from a long line of mountain people, and isn’t used to taking more than she needs or needing more than she has.  A chance good deed—trying to return a lost one-dollar bill—leads her to an unexpected and surprisingly unwanted mega lottery win.  Cody is a smart woman, and even though she doesn’t know how banks work, she knows she needs to protect all that money. 

Enter one Maddie Osborne, the up-and-coming Branch Manager of Appalachian States Bank.  Maddie quickly realizes that Cody doesn’t know the first thing about money or financial management, and works hard to gain her trust and offer ideas to help keep Cody protected.  But, Cody wants to help her large, extended family have the things they need—like food, medicine, guns, and clothes.  But the more she gives, the more they expect. 

Maddie has never had much place in her life for the great outdoors, but as her friendship with Cody deepens, she finds herself appreciating things like fishing and hiking—especially fishing and hiking with Cody Keaton.  Before long, their relationship becomes physical. And even though Maddie can’t wait until she gets a new job in a civilized city like New York or San Francisco, she finds herself falling in love with Cody.  But, one thing Cody is very good at is not allowing herself to dream of things she can’t have, and she knows absolutely that Maddie will leave when the first civilized offer comes in…people like Maddie want more than the hillbillies in Ramp can offer.

Despite their glaring differences, Maddie and Cody are good together.  But, can Maddie walk away from her lifelong dream of the Big City and be happy on a mountainside? And can Cody give up the independence and solitude that has shaped her Spartan life, and share everything with Maddie?

In so many ways, Almost Heaven is a textbook example of a Susan X. Meagher novel—the premise is unique and interesting. The storytelling is patient and fully developed. And the characters have a distinct visual and literary appeal. 

Beyond the expected however, is a wealth of riches that bring this story to life. 

Among them, the research into the cultural, historic, and scenic aspects of West Virginia, and Ramp in particular, is stellar and lends an air of authenticity to the lives of the women and men who populate this story. And the depiction of life in a small and poor, rural community is spot-on—at times majestic, and at times painfully dispirited.

Ms. Meagher skillfully draws two strong and independent protagonists, with seemingly little in common, other than a bunch of dead presidents. However, their relationship manages to be both instant and slow to develop—and the real depth comes as each learns through the other how to step outside of their safe familiar. Additionally, the author takes great pains to detail the deep and wide roots of Cody’s family tree, which in turn, lends credence to Cody’s on-going struggle to choose between blood and good sense. 

One aspect of the story that I found to be amazingly authentic is Cody’s experience of coming out to her hillbilly family.  In this instance, none of them were thrilled—but none of them were surprised either. Outside of a few mentions that she could find a good man—and being quoted a few things that people want in the Bible but that aren’t really there—her family “accepted” it, and went on with their lives. 

This is a classic example of the logically illogical hierarchy of prejudice in small communities that is so hard to explain to people who have never had to consider the list of alternative uses for Sears catalogs or corncobs.

 I’ll admit that I always love to get my hands around a new Susan X. Meagher novel, and Almost Heaven didn’t disappoint.  While some readers might not cotton to the more rural tone and setting of this story, I absolutely loved the rustic setting, the characters, and the sensibilities that I recognized from my youth—and the message that, sometimes, less really is more. 

Cody Keaton’s life changed forever when she won the lottery, but the most valuable things the money had to offer were all those things the money couldn’t buy.  It was a sober reminder for me to stop and appreciate the most important things in my life.  For a solid book that entertained me for hours, I’m giving Almost Heaven a 5.0 on the Rainbow Scale.  Because it made me hug the stuffing out of my wife and my pets, it get’s another 0.1. 

That’s a solid 5.1 for Almost Heaven.


  1. A new Susan Meagher novel and another stellar review from Salem West! It's like Christmas. This story sounds too good to pass up and it's true, Susan never disappoints.

    Thanks for another visit to a small town that's logically illogical!

  2. I may be a biased reader of this blog (which I will vouchsafe is the best lesbian book review blog on ALL the Internets), but I am an unabashed fan of Susan X. Meagher. And this book looks to be a real tour de force. I can't wait to read it -- and I'm even going to buy my OWN copy (Salem's Kindle has some kind of weird, sticky noodle casserole residue all over it).

  3. Salem - I agree with you that this is a fantastic book. The setting, I think, made the book for me. The setting and the family dynamics, as well as Cody and Maddie, just made this a wonderful read.

    It's one of those books that takes me awhile to shake.

  4. I love Susan's books, and they only get better, as does this review site. Thank you, Salem for all your hard work. DeJay

  5. Hmmm.... I haven't read "Almost Heaven," I may check it out. There is a great novel by Luana Reach Torres titled, "I Heard the Pastor's Daughter Is Gay," that you may also want to check out. Thanks suggesting "Almost Heaven."