I have no memory of how I came into possession of this volume, but it has seen better days. The dust jacket was literally crumbling to pieces as I read it, dated as the blurbs of praise that laud this as a “rewarding book particularly for young women. But older women too will find inspiration…in these crowded, pulsing pages.” So says Dr. Daniel A. Poling, who most likely only minored in condescension.
And that’s the thing of this book—The Hem of His Garment has to be read with the awareness of the crumbling dust jacket. It was written for a Calvanistic Christian publisher by a southern schoolteacher/mother in 1951, so yeah, feminism is scarce. But that doesn’t make the characters any less real. As a 21st century schoolteacher without kids, I did indeed have a hard time connecting to a main character whose life revolves around her children and wanting to be a good mother. But I have been in love, and I know what it is to want to make someone else smile, to have that smile make your whole day brighter because their happiness adds to yours.
In my job, one of the hardest things for me to handle has been the fact that it’s an admin position, and pretty much everyone at my level is a white, older female, so people look at my job and say “secretary.” I can’t even begin to tell you, Reader, how much that annoys me, how much I just want to shake the professors who call me their secretary or the people who talk to me as if I need shorter sentences so I can understand them. A part of me wants to add “M.A.” to my nameplate on the door in silent, constant protest against the idea that what I do makes me less, somehow, than the rest of the “academics” in the department, in the university, in the town.
So to come back to this novel, where the main character is so bent on making her husband happy and so focused on being the perfect 50s woman after a less-than-stellar childhood, is hard. Here is everything I don’t want to be, or be associated with, even though I totally respect the amount of things that women of that era got done. Yet here, too, is kinship; Sharon marries one of her teachers, a move I very much wanted when I was in high school crushing on my calculus instructor. She gets so focused on making the people around her comfortable that she completely misses the simple but strong faith of her grandmother-in-law, and glosses over this Jesus Guy to Whom her husband’s family is so connected. She breaks. She rebuilds.
Yeah, I don’t know anything about any of that.
This isn’t a stellar book. In fact, most of the characters drove me nuts in their Pleasantville aspects, because I don’t know or understand that culture. But I do understand the desperate frustration underneath of trying to be perfect and failing miserably, of being broken but wanting so badly to be healed that even grazing a Healer’s clothing is good enough.
The opening third or so of this actually read a lot like Joyce Carol Oates’s The Gravedigger’s Daughter, in that choppy uncertainty that keeps you off-balance as much as the characters. It’s not nearly as dark, though, no matter the many (many) times the main character’s “dark” side is discussed, the Evil Sharon that comes out and is disobedient or surly. Also, the Christian overlay—especially toward the end, to fit the title—felt shoehorned in, as if Briggs remembered almost too late to make the relationship with God explicit. She would have done better to leave it at hints, I think, and let the power of that run on its own steam.
I don’t know that I recommend this as anything other than a curiosity, but I do appreciate the reminder that even the people with whom you have nothing in common are walking this walk, figuring things out, falling and rising, and seeking Someone Else, just like you are. We are bound by our thirst for this, we secretaries and professors and housewives and preachers and mechanics and executives and human-born humans.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars