(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Victimized by an abusive father who battered his mother, Michael Morris trusted his religious faith during his childhood to help him survive spiritually. For his first novel, he appropriated those experiences to create his protagonist, Erma Lee, and depict her awakening and transformation from a person who sees herself as an unworthy, abused wife to one who values her family, friends, and community. Erma Lee initiates her spiritual transformation by escaping from her unfaithful, violent husband, Bozell Jacobs, and her emotionally cold Mama. Abandoning her tedious factory job in Cross City, Louisiana, Erma Lee drives with her granddaughter Cher, of whom she has custody, to Wiregrass, Alabama, the hometown of their cousin Lucille, who once bragged at a family reunion that plentiful, well-paying jobs were available in that town.

When Erma Lee and Cher arrive in Wiregrass, they discover that their cousin distorted the truth but are nevertheless determined to stay. Erma Lee enrolls Cher in school and rents a furnished mobile home at the Westgate Trailer Park, owned by the nosy Miss Trellis. A high school dropout, Erma Lee secures a job in the Barton Elementary School cafeteria, stretching her small paychecks to buy groceries and pay expenses. Erma Lee worries about how she will be able to support Cher throughout the upcoming summer. The school’s principal, Patricia Murray, asks Erma Lee to tend to her sickly mother, Miss Claudia Tyler, during the Easter vacation.

When she sees Miss Claudia’s elaborate house, Erma Lee, feeling ashamed of her background, pessimistically assumes that the wealthy Miss Claudia, the widow of a local store owner, will reject her. Instead, she is surprised when Miss Claudia embraces her, urging Erma Lee to read her Bible and discuss religious issues. Meeting finely dressed churchwomen who visit the ailing Miss Claudia, self-conscious Erma Lee feels insecure and flawed, comparing herself to them and fretting that she will be fired. Evasive about her past, Erma Lee hides her secrets, lying that her daughter Suzette is hospitalized for a mental condition instead of admitting the truth, that she is incarcerated in prison for dealing drugs and abandoning Cher....

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Dixon, Joyce. “A Q&A with Michael Morris.” In A Place Called Wiregrass. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperCollins, 2004. Transcription of interview, originally posted on the Southern Scribe Web site, that relates Morris’s experiences with religion and how he expresses faith through his fiction.

Hilliard, Juli Cragg. “Michael Morris: Writing at Last.” Publishers Weekly 250, no. 37 (September 15, 2003): S10. This profile discusses new Christian books written by four authors, noting how Morris’s religious views influenced his writing.

McGregory, Jerrilyn. Wiregrass Country. With material by Jerry DeVine, Delma E. Presley, and Henry Willett. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. This volume in the Folklore in the South series explores cultural aspects of the Wiregrass region, including music, community activities, and storytelling; provides insights into the characters and situations in Morris’s book.

Summer, Bob. “Wiregrass Springs up Fast.” Publishers Weekly 249, no. 23 (June 10, 2002): 19. Discusses why Morris’s novel was marketed as Christian fiction despite his assertion that he did not write it specifically for a Christian audience.