The Bailey Cove branch of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library hosted a talk by R. A. Nelson yesterday at 10am, and our small audience was treated to the story of Nelson’s writer’s journey. In order to get to the talk on time, I had to break off my reading of Nelson’s most recent novel, Days of Little Texas, about a young pentecostal preacher. Not the subject matter I would normally pick up — but his third novel, like his first two, deals with uncomfortable subjects (pentecostal evangelism and ghosts, our collective culpability in slavery), or as Nelson puts it, subjects that “scare” him, subjects that “push[es] him creatively” (“About the Author,” Days of Little Texas). I am glad he practices this creative courage because we reap the reading benefits. Discussing his research for Breathe My Name, Nelson said that he changed his views on the main character’s mother (I’m trying not to give away the book’s story — go read it!), and because he learned a different way of seeing, his writing gave me the same insight.
I did not want to stop reading Days of Little Texas to go listen to Nelson talk, and that’s the highest form of praise for an author. But the book was waiting for me when I got home, and I finished it. Nelson’s books have great pacing, and Days of Little Texas kept me hooked all the way through, delighted with some of the twists I didn’t see coming. Once again, I’m left thinking about things I’d pretty much fixed my mind about. I like seeing in new ways, especially if it’s a good story that helps me do that. I’ve always felt that a great novelist teaches as much as she or he tells a good story — Chinua Achebe’s essay, “The Novelist as Teacher,” has always made a lot of sense. I’m happy to claim Nelson as one of my new teachers and favorite authors.