Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1297
Tambourines to Glory is divided into thirty-six chapters, each a separate scene with its own title. The first, “Palm Sunday,” is the longest at six pages, and it introduces the main characters, the setting, and the idea that triggers the plot. On a Palm Sunday in Harlem, two friends are reminiscing over their younger days when they attended church occasionally. Essie Belle Johnson and her neighbor Laura Reed both grew up in the American South, and came to New York City as young adults, specifically to the African American section called Harlem. Both are about forty, living in oneroom kitchenette apartments in a run-down building, and barely getting by on welfare. Essie dreams of having enough money to bring her daughter Marietta up from Virginia to live; Laura thinks only of the next drink, the next bet on the numbers, and the next man. Playfully, they discuss opening a church and getting rich off the collection plate. As they sing a hymn they are uplifted for a moment, and Essie is moved to strengthen her relationship with God.
The next morning, Essie tells Laura that she really intends to start a church. She believes that God will answer their prayers, and that he has already touched her life. Laura is willing, though she sees the church only as a way to get money. They agree that when the weather is warm they will buy a Bible and a tambourine and start praising on the street corner. Laura will preach, Essie will sing, and they will use the tambourine to keep time and to gather collections.
With a tambourine from the Good Will Store, the Reed Sisters, as they call themselves, offer their first worship service at the corner of 126th Street and Lenox. The two dozen people who stop to hear them are moved enough to join in the singing, shout “Amen,” and throw some change in the tambourine. On their first night of preaching, the Reed Sisters take in $11.93. Although they had agreed that the first night’s collection would go toward purchasing a Bible, Laura takes out almost four dollars for liquor and a bet. Over the next several nights, Laura’s habit is to preach, divide the money, and go look for a man or a drink, but Essie stays to talk with the people in the crowd. They think she can help them, and she wonders whether it is true.
The church is a success. Laura tells the crowds that “since God took my hand, I have not wanted for nothing.” The Sisters have been able to pay the rent and eat regular meals. Laura urges the crowd to put money in the tambourine to help her stay on God’s path, and they do. One old woman, Birdie Lee, accepts salvation and takes a turn shaking the tambourine to God’s glory. She is so energetic and rhythmic that she draws in more people. Although Laura does not like sharing the spotlight, she sees that letting Birdie Lee stay with them is good for business. Like many chapters, this one is sprinkled with snatches of lyrics from the hymns sung by Essie, Laura, and Birdie Lee.
As autumn begins, Essie, Laura, and Birdie Lee find a three-room apartment to house their church. The first convert in the new location is Chicken Crow-for-Day, a lifelong gambler, drinker and womanizer. His conversion draws others. Soon, Essie has two thousand dollars in the jar where she keeps God’s money. She is still uneasy about the church. She can see that she and Laura are doing some real good in the lives of other people, and she herself feels more energetic and engaged than ever before. But she knows that for Laura it is all just a scam. Essie wonders whether they are truly serving God.
Chapters 14 and 15 are entitled “Enter Buddy” and “Enter Marty.” Buddy is Big-Eyed Buddy Lomax, who takes Laura out for a drink after services. Buddy is handsome, sophisticated, flashy and young, and Laura is flattered and excited to be seen with him. Before long, Buddy spends most nights with Laura, and has gotten her to go along with a plan to sell tap water as blessed Holy Water from the Holy Land. Marty is a white man who pulls the strings and controls the money behind Buddy’s schemes. Essie and Laura will never meet him, but he will do favors for them and look for ways they can help him as well.
Marty gets Essie and Laura an apartment on the ninth floor of a new building overlooking the park, jumping them ahead of all the people on the waiting list. Essie is more uncomfortable than ever with Buddy and Marty in the picture. She refuses to accept any of the proceeds from the holy water, so Laura uses it to buy a Cadillac. Laura is so dazzled by Buddy’s skills in bed, and his new ideas for bringing in more money from the church, that she buys him a convertible, caters to his every whim, and pretends not to notice when he spends time with other women.
Almost a year after the church began, it is the largest independent church in Harlem, and has outgrown its quarters. Marty arranges for Laura and Essie to take possession of a condemned theater that could never pass a fire inspection, and the Tambourine Temple is born. The new church seats a thousand people, and has a marquee where Laura can enjoy seeing her name in lights. Essie has been studying the Bible and reading other religious books. She is a true believer, and she hopes that Laura will start to believe also.
Marietta arrives to live with her mother and Laura. She is sixteen, innocent and lovely, and Buddy is attracted to her immediately. On Marietta’s first day in Harlem, Laura catches Buddy kissing her. Marietta is also courted by C. J., a young guitar player from the church, who offers her less excitement but a more solid Christian relationship. Meanwhile, Marty has Laura begin a new practice of calling out “lucky texts” from the Bible, and slyly encouraging the congregation to bet on those numbers during the week. This increases the amount in the collection plate, and is good for Marty’s gambling businesses. To keep suspicion off Laura and Buddy, Buddy pretends to be converted during a service, but Essie sees through him. As Laura adds a fur coat and a chauffeur to her lifestyle, she and Essie grow farther apart. Finally, Essie and Marietta move to a small house of their own in the suburbs, coming to town only for services.
Just before a service one night, Laura notices a hundred dollars missing from her purse. She confronts Buddy, who admits without remorse that he has taken it and savagely tells her that she would be too old to hold his interest without her money. Suddenly, Buddy’s infidelity and cruelty is too much, and Laura stabs him to death with Essie’s pocket knife. When the body is found, Essie is suspected, and Laura joins in accusing her. In jail, Essie sings gospel songs and prays, accepting her situation as punishment for not ridding the church of Laura’s corruption. Eventually Birdie Lee testifies to having witnessed the crime, and Laura confesses. Before the police take her away, she moves all her cash into the church bank account.
With Laura gone, Essie, Marietta, and C. J. will lead the church in a new direction, starting a day care and other new programs to improve the lives of community members. Essie preaches and sings, praising God, and shakes the tambourine to the glory of God.
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