by Sean Ross)
Growing up in a devout Catholic home in Jackson, Miss., Mary Miller experimented with rebellion now and then. There would be evenings when she and her friends would skip Sunday school—required because they did not go to a Catholic high school—and smoke cigarettes at the nearby Shoney’s. The moments were fun but fleeting.
“We knew we had to get our asses to church to meet our parents,” she says. “It wasn’t something we were going to get away with every time.”
The protagonist of Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, dabbles in rebelling against her religious upbringing as well, though in a more dramatic fashion. In the book, 15-year-old Jess is being driven across the country by her fundamentalist family. Their destination: the western time zone, more specifically California. The reason: Her father believes the rapture is coming and wants his family to be among the last Christians transported to heaven.
The circumstances are certainly different, but Miller shares much in common with her protagonist, specifically the questions that come with growing up in a faithful family.
“She’s really never had a reason before to question anything,” Miller says of Jess. “She knows the same people, she’s lived in the same town and now she’s on this trip and suddenly everything is called into question.”
For a majority of the book, Jess is traveling with her father, an unemployed, diabetic pastor who spearheads the trip; her mother, a Catholic who quietly doubts her husband’s plan; her older sister Elise, who is pregnant and serves as an antagonizing force of teenage righteousness.
Locked in the first person narration of Jess, there are no grandiose, existential questions on religion in the novel. Rather, Miller has Jess explore her doubt in more subtle ways, such as how to conceptualize the rapture itself: bursts of sadness in realizing animals won’t be among those taken to heaven and wondering why the end of the world—a divine event if ever there was one—would respect man-made time zones.
Like any good journey tale, there are encounters along the way featuring death, desperation and sex, and these serve up a whole slew of questions for how Jess sees her self in the scheme of her family and her faith.
For her part, Jess doesn’t vocalize her doubts, opting to work as a unifying force in the family—something Miller is all too familiar with. Some of her siblings turned away from the church as they grew older, but she preferred to do what made her mother happy.
“It was just easier to keep quiet and do what you were supposed to do,” Miller says. “I couldn’t take a lot of conflict.”Miller Cover
But the instinct to please—whether for Miller or her protagonist—isn’t simply an act. What lies beneath it is a genuine faith for both writer and character. Miller continued going to church through college at Mississippi State University, a time when her siblings and many of her friends were embracing the freedom to step away from worship. She kept going partly as a comfort, partly as a way to form an identity and partly to keep pleasing her parents. Her personal faith continues; she no longer attends church regularly but is steadfast in her identity as a Christian.
“There’s a difference between believing in God and having a church community,” she says.
Organized religion is not the most anodyne subject, and Miller worried that her novel could be considered a Christian book or that the story would be dismissed because of the premise. As she candidly says: “For highly educated people, being a Christian is just not cool.”
At times, it was a struggle to give the book an identity separate from religion. Some of the titles suggested by her publisher were “Rapture Road” and “King Jesus Returns” (which is a play off T-shirts featured in the text). Miller breathes a sigh of relief that they agreed on a title that has no hint of Christianity. As important as faith is to her characters, the book is not a religious one. If anything, it’s a coming of age story for a girl who sees the world through a fundamental lens. The pragmatic way Jess employs this in her narration is one of the more refreshing aspects of the novel.
“I don’t see religion as really all that central,” Miller says. “It’s a tool I use in order to write about these characters.…I think mostly I just wanted to present them as real people with real struggles. It’s just what they are and it’s part of who they are.”
Sean Rose is a former crime reporter and current MFA student at Texas State University. Follow him @swritenow.