TODAY, we’ve got a great book for the entire family, especially if your family is related to evangelical Christianity. I can’t imagine a more engaging and compassionate slice of American life than the 129-page “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth”—a novella for young readers by Sandra Dutton. Anytime we recommend books for “young readers,” we’ve selected them deliberately because we know adults will enjoy them as well. (If you don’t have a child at home right now, get this book and give it to a family that does—after you’ve enjoyed reading it yourself!)
“Mary Mae” was written with loving good humor by Sandra Dutton, who was raised in a very creative church-going family herself—and who grew up restlessly interested in all kinds of learning, including science. For millions of our conservative evangelical neighbors, that kind of restless curiosity still means there will be a collision at some point over evolution and literal interpretations of the Bible. Here at ReadTheSpirit, we maintain a “Faith and Science Resource Page” encouraging people of all faiths to recognize that religion and science aren’t enemies. In fact, we just published a very popular week-long series on “Science Vs. Religion” emphasizing that very point. However, all of those new bridges between faith and science don’t help much if you’re a bright 10 year old in a family intent on defending a 6,000-year-old version of cosmic history.
This tale about little Mary Mae and her family is based loosely on various experiences author Sandra Dutton recalls from her own childhood in southern Ohio. (Here is Sandra Dutton’s own website if you want to read more about her life as a writer and artist.)
Perhaps because she represents all the creative fire of Sandra Dutton’s own childhood, Mary Mae jumps off these pages as a terrific, well-rounded, likeable kid. She loves her family, loves her family’s long legacy of making music, and especially loves her grandmother, who seems capable of crafting a fresh song about anything that pops up in life. The whole clan belongs to an extremely conservative Christian church, where everyone enjoys playing music, praying together and creating folksy stage shows. It’s that latter pursuit—in this case, a puppet show about the Book of Genesis and the adventures of Noah—that winds up as a central point of tension between Mary Mae’s faith and her love of science classes in the public schools.
It would have been so easy for Sandra Dutton to craft this little tale as a mean-spirited Louisville Slugger to whop readers up side the head and score points on behalf of Mary Mae’s love of science. I don’t want to spoil any of the fun in this book, but it’s safe to say the novella is about opening our eyes and hearts to new connections in our own life stories. Mae loves both her collection of fossils she has gathered for a major project at school—and she loves her family, her church and even this puppet show that causes her so much grief before the curtain finally falls on these hand-made puppets.
I especially appreciated Dutton’s choice in not making Mary Mae’s Granny into an over-anxious stick-to-the-literal-Bible zealot. In fact, Granny is a folksy songwriter and musician who understands that the world is full of wondrous narratives. Don’t misunderstand. Granny is also a very conservative evangelical, but she’s an evangelical fascinated with the true wonderment of God’s creation. That potentially makes her more of an ally for Mary Mae than a foe, when Mary Mae’s Mama suddenly gets bent out of shape over the public school’s science projects. You’ll have to read this tale to find out what happens.
As a journalist for more than 30 years, including several years reporting from Kentucky, I can tell you that I’ve visited churches like Mary Mae’s many times. I’ve had the honor of spending time with families just like Mary Mae’s family. I could tell the moment I opened the cover of this book that Sandra Dutton was penning a pitch-perfect tale. When I discovered, in visiting Dutton’s own website, that she even wound up making a set of the puppets she describes in the book—I could tell how much she loves the people in this book. You can love them, too.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)