Growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, living modestly in a boarding house with her mother, Isla, a waitress who is given to bouts of drinking during which she curses her daughter for ruining her life, Myrtle Charmaine Whitehead learns early on the risk of trusting in the permanence of anything. At eleven, she comes home from school to find a letter from her mother with cash and a promise to return in two weeks. Abandoned, the girl eventually seeks help from her Sunday school teacher, a compassionate woman who had already noticed the girl’s singing talent. Myrtle is taken into the woman’s home and just begins to accept that family’s love when the woman is killed in a car accident.
Dispatched into the foster care system, Charmaine (as she begins to call herself) moves through a series of loveless homes until at age fifteen she runs away with a college boy with whom she is infatuated. On her own again, she is taken in by a loving husband and wife who run a bowling alley/coin laundry in Baltimore. (Charmaine had bought a bus ticket to Baltimore as that was as far as her money would take her.) Hired as a snack-counter worker, Charmaine is given a chance to sing pop tunes for the customers, a gig that leads her to Atlantic City, where she sings in a Supremes-style trio in a sleazy casino bar.
Although she had undergone a religious conversion in an unexpected moment of expansive enlightenment in Baltimore, Charmaine never confronts the implications of her religious awakening until, on impulse, she wanders into a rescue mission off the Atlantic City boardwalk and hears the powerful preaching of Harlan Hopewell. She feels the confidence in his message. She knows now that her voice should be put to its fullest service by glorifying God. Within weeks, Charmaine and Harlan are married (although he is nearly twice her age). Charmaine joins his itinerant crusade as a singer. She tells him that her parents are both dead. The lie haunts her. She begins to be troubled by bouts of depression and insomnia.
The dynamics of her marriage alter when Charmaine is asked to care for the...
(The entire section is 857 words.)