THE BOOK: The Holdouts
PUBLISHED IN: 2008
THE AUTHOR: Sherry Clements
THE PUBLISHER: Drinian Press
SUMMARY: Some girls grow up with Barbie dolls and E-Z Bake ovens, but not Martha. She has Scorpion Tail, Beelzebub, and the seven battles of the Apocalypse to deal with in addition to a mother who reads bedtime stories from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Martha lives in working class Arkansas of the late sixties and early seventies. Her father is a proud and brutal man who can’t always get enough work to keep pinto beans on the table. Her mother, Pixie, in the most creative moment of life, slips into her wedding dress, marches to the local storefront fundamentalist church and marries Jesus. The only redeeming thing about the church for Martha is that the middle Spoon daughter is also forced to attend, and she’s the toughest outlaw girl in town. Martha finds temporary respite through her friendship with Spoon and her strong independent grandmother. Girlfriends, however, get boyfriends and grandmothers get old, but the holdouts survive.
An adult novel told in a child’s voice, readers will increasingly identify with Martha in her search for self. The story resonates with the universal struggle of growing up and finding a place in the world.
THE BACK STORY: When I was a wee girl, my parents joined a fundamentalist Christian church – not an unusual thing to do here in the Bible Belt south. However, this church was like a fundamentalist church on crack. Just about anything could get a girl tossed into the fire, where she would burn for an eternity.
One day my family visited the Boone’s. They had five daughters, all way too old to be my friends, but I was enthralled with them, nonetheless. The adults were sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee when the Boone daddy told a story about the youngest daughter hiding in the bathroom with the radio and dancing to rock and roll. The adults laughed and moved on to the next topic. I looked into the other room where the youngest Boone daughter sat and even though I couldn’t see her face there was something in the set of her body that told me she was mortified at the telling of this story. I was mortified on her behalf also and never forgot. Her fictional counterpart became the center of a short story, except this time the girl was Spoon and not Boone; she was dragged to the front of the church and the people prayed the rock and roll demons right out of her (or so they tried). The short story grew to novel length and became the thesis of my MFA.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ THIS BOOK? Although rooted in the South and chock-a-block with characters and settings that a Southerner might conjure, this book transcends the description of “regional,” or “Southern.” It is a poignant story of a young woman’s struggle to free herself and her soul. In the particular, there is the universal.
“For Martha, who is landlocked in Arkansas during the 1960s and ’70s, the Gulf of Mexico is a pirate’s paradise of monkeys swinging from coconut trees and Texas girls in grass skirts, shaking their hips to the hula. Martha and her best friend, Spoon, plan to run away to the Gulf and star in an all-girls’ band as soon as they graduate from high school. In Sherry Clements’ debut novel, The Holdouts, it takes more than a dream of hula-ing on the beach for Martha to navigate the religiosity of her whacky, dysfunctional, working-class family and the put-downs of her white-bread peers.
“Spirited Martha is the daughter of Pixie, a born-again Christian so possessed by her love of the Lord that she marches in her wedding dress to the storefront God’s House of Whole Truth to marry Jesus. Martha’s maternal grandmother is one of the few stable family influences, if you can call “stable” a woman who chews tobacco, wears rubber boots and overalls and lives to catch catfish in the Arkansas River, alongside the “born-agains” getting their dose of faith and silt in the muddy embrace of the Living Waters. Martha has a father, true, but he’s a hard-headed man, not moved by his wife’s pleas to come to Jesus nor motivated to provide Martha and her younger brother, Spencer, with a loving alternative to their mother’s religious zeal. He takes off to find his own brand of salvation, leaving Martha and her family with a Bible, a pot of pinto beans, and a refrigerator that only kicks in when the spirit moves it.
“Clements’ characters are so precisely drawn the reader feels he or she could reach out and towel-dry the baptismal water from them. Her setting is as real as a photograph, her dialogue as alternatingly radiant as a light-speckled stream, dancing in the sun, or as biting as a crawdad with a dental problem.
“A coming-of-age story for adults, told in a child’s voice, The Holdouts modulates between the mellifluous voice of the adolescent young woman, longing for a magical world of beauty, and the scrappy tones of the plucky young girl, trapped in a hard-scrabble world not of her making that she describes in the tones of a bewildered junior reporter.
“The wistful teen Martha, meeting up for the last time with her friend, Spoon, describes, in a kind of prose poetry, the used evening dress that Spoon has brought her:
“‘I watched with delight. A gentle wind touched a ribbon here, the skirt of pearls, the net of lace. Then the wind touched me, and I heard a waltz, and I saw the antique debutante who wore the dress so long ago in the ballroom, and the mama and the daddy who were so proud of their fine daughter, and the naughty little brother who peeked from upstairs. The wind swirled again, and the antique debutante and her friends rose up on ballerina toes, and they didn’t wait for a beau to ask them to dance. They waltzed alone and together, and grace fell down like confetti/’
“The feisty child Martha reports the goings-on at God’s House of Whole Truth when Sheila Spoon’s father, Brother Spoon, tries to cast the demons out of his daughter for locking the bathroom door and dancing inside in her underpants to rock music.
“Spencer and me jumped. The old grandma cried out. The little Spoon crawled into her mother’s lap. The bum who lived in the train tunnel woke up from his nap. The boy tied in a wheelchair wagged his head from side to side….
“The little Spoon broke her mother’s grasp and ran out in the aisle. She clenched her fists and yelled.
“Say you’re clean, Sissy, say you’re clean so we can just go home!”…
All of this got Sheila’s attention. She moved her eyes from the water stains on the ceiling and looked sadly at her baby sister….
“I. Am. Clean.”
“Hallelujah!” everyone cried, and they all broke into a chorus of “Victory in Jesus.”
That night Mama walked home with her head in the clouds and the forecast never changed.
“Yet, it is not only the language and characters that offer sustenance to the reader. Underlying the novel are the serious issues of how young people can carve out satisfying paths for themselves amidst the craziness and mundaneness of everyday life. The book also illustrates the daily humiliations working-class people face while attempting to co-exist and keep their dignity among better-off acquaintances. Martha’s family has to find ways to save their pride when Martha receives a free coat at school and, later, when the principal delivers a Thanksgiving basket of food on their front porch. Martha and Spoon think they’ve scored fashion bargains at the Triple Churches Yard Sale Extravaganza, only to be ratted out at school by the original owner of a white smock blouse with blue, hand-embroidered roses.
“As the book moves toward Grandma’s eventual senility and Spoon’s infatuation with a boy named Dude, Martha must decide whether she can hold out for her dreams or be swept up in the religion, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll claiming those around her.” — Margo Wilson is an associate professor of English/journalism/creative writing at California University of Pennsylvania.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Sherry Clements was born and raised in Arkansas. She has a BA from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and a Master’s of Fine Arts from Goddard College located in Plainfield, Vermont. Her job history ranges from waiting tables to being an adjunct college instructor. Today she lives in Arkansas with her son, John, and a couple of rescue mutts. A beautiful day in her life would have to include a bike ride along the Arkansas River.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: “My goal was simply to tell this story about people who live at the margins of society and are often deemed unworthy of the written word.”
LOCAL OUTLETS: None.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
PRICE: Starts at $12.95 with many used copies available when purchased online. Kindle edition is $2.99.