Sunday, October 15, 2006

John’s Sanctified Blues

Sanctified Blues
By Mabel John with David Ritz
Harlem Moon tradepaperback

It is unusual for Christian women’s fiction to be reviewed in this space, but when it’s written by a former Raelette and carries an endorsement from B.B. King, it is certainly noteworthy. Like the protagonist of Sanctified Blues, Mabel John sang with Ray Charles and had a solo career as a soul singer, before becoming an ordained minister. Her co-writer, David Ritz is also well grounded in the blues and soul, having co-written the autobiographies of Charles and King. The result is a novel informed by the Gospel and the blues.

Sanctified Blues takes its name from the soul classic Pastor Albertina Merci penned. It combines the strands of gospel, soul, and blues that run throughout the novel:

“Got the sanctified blues . . .
I miss the church where Mama raised me

Got those sanctified blues . . .
Miss the wisdom that Mama gave me

Sanctified blues . . .
This man ain’t what he said” (p. 62)

Throughout Sanctified Pastor Merci faces many trials, particularly the terminal illness of her niece Cindy. Reluctantly, she finds herself trying to counsel Cindy’s employer, a daytime talk show host bearing a resemblance to Oprah Winfrey. A lot of people get the blues in Sanctified, including Pastor Merci, who tells readers:

“The Blues are deep. I say that because I’m a blues singer. That doesn’t mean I don’t love the Lord. And it doesn’t mean I don’t love praising His holy name. Doesn’t mean I haven’t devoted my life to putting God first. It just means that I know about the blues. (p. 126)

In Sanctified, music and inspiration are intertwined. During an interview Pastor Merci tells a jazz disk jockey:

“Jazz is as much God’s music as gospel. The Bible just says, ‘Make a joyful noise.’ The key word is ‘joyful.’ Jazz is about joy.” (p. 264)

Amen to that. At one point Pastor Merci is edited out of an awards broadcast because she refused to soft-pedal her opening prayer. Give John similar credit here. She obviously wants to express her faith in God and does so in Sanctified with great enthusiasm. Some readers might consider the good Pastor’s frequent prayers and sermons too preachy. However, John stuck by her guns too, and Sanctified expresses her faith without compromise.

Sanctified may not be perfect, after all it is a first novel. Some of the dramatic sub-plots do get a little over-wrought, but she does resist the urge to wrap them all up in a nice little bow. Overall, one has to respect the integrity of Sanctified, and everyone can relate to the blues at its core.