Every so often, I discover an author who writes fiction with such a compelling and infectious voice that I almost can’t put a book down. It happened with Anne Tyler. And Jan Karon. And Steven Lawhead. And now it’s happened with Vinita Hampton Wright.
Velma Still Cooks in Leeway is a beautifully written story on so many levels. The sense of community is evocatively drawn, so much that you want to be part of the little town of Leeway, KS, sit down for a piece of pie at Velma’s Place or worship with the saints at Jerusalem Baptist Church.
The characters are richly observed and poignantly drawn from all aspects of the community’s life. They are quirky and likeable and unique, like the best of Karon’s Mitford folks. Wright really excels in the exploration of the inner lives and motives of her characters. There is passion and doubt and self-serving and heroism and fear and simplicity and ego and failure and addiction and anger and self-righteousness and grief and love and hate…In other words, there is life.
And all of this is suffused with a deep, genuine Christian faith. The authenticity with which Wright weaves faith together with the stuff of real life is what makes this story so intriguing. She clearly knows church, church people and church rhythms. But even more, she knows those same people away from church, and how hard it can be to live out the grace and redemption we sing on Sundays.
Velma is a woman who filters everything through faith, but not in a simple, connect-the-dots, five-easy-steps-to-success way. It is the faith of the Psalms—you know, the dance of trust, doubt, lament, questions without answers and hope. Wright’s observations make for some stunning writing.
While trying to figure out how to help two young people deal with the tensions caused by an unplanned pregnancy, Velma prays:
“Lord, if there’s a way for these two kids to make up and heal some of this awful business, then you need to do something. Or tell me what to do.” Then I talked through some ideas and waited for the Spirit to nudge me on the right one. There were no nudges, but I’ve learned that you can’t plan a nudge from the Spirit. That kind of nudge can come anytime, so you have to be paying attention all the time. I think God decided to work this way to keep us from getting lazy.
Some people think it takes a simpleminded person to sit down and talk with the Lord over tea. For a lot of my younger years…I’d thought such devotion was crazy too. Mama being so devoted was a problem for my unbelief, because I couldn’t help but respect her. You rely on your mama for so much. And once you imagine she might be crazy, even in just one part of her life, all of your own life feels less secure.
One day, feeling sick and struggling with a season of doubt about what her life really meant, Velma had a dream:
“I drifted and was inside my café. I saw the pots and pans and cups and saucer and grill. They were mine, and my gift of feeding people was the only gift I was sure belonged to me. I’d done it as naturally as walking for thirteen years. And my customers trusted me. They knew what days of the week I served their favorite soup. They knew that if no tomatoes showed up on their salads or burgers that it was because I couldn’t find decent fresh tomatoes that day. And if things were a tad spicier than usual, they figured I had a cold and my taster was off. Leeway’s citizens forgave me and shared their family news and praised my menu year in and year out. And I served them—on my feet ten, twelve hours a day, year in and year out. The food I gave them was mainly from recipes in my head, and no matter how many times I made a certain dish, it always felt like a new creation. And that gave me a deep-down happiness.
Until now. Now it suddenly hurt me to do it. It hurt me for whatever reason. But I could see that it didn’t matter. There was such a thing as being faithful to your own gift. I’d have to climb out of the attic and walk down the street and cook just because. Because it was my gift, my best gift, maybe my only one.
“You feeling better, Vellie?” Howard asked, as we walked down to open up the next morning.
“No, I feel terrible.”
Surprise flashed across Howard’s face.
“I feel worse than ever, Howard, but I’ve got responsibilities. “
“Everybody’s missed you these three days,” he said softly, his voice tripping through the green-gold air that smelled of coolness and fresh sun. ‘Bailey was at the hardware store yesterday, swearing that his intestines were acting up because they’d missed your split-pea soup on Tuesday.”
“Don’t these people ever cook for themselves?”
“Oh, they can cook,’ Howard said with a little smile. ‘But when you do it, they feel loved.”
Prayer, moral failure, decision-making, vocation, struggle, community, love, forgiveness and more all show up in Velma’s world. And this is the wonderful thing about Wright’s writing. It is a novel about a Christian, but not so much a Christian novel. In other words, it is the furthest thing from the formulaic, glassy-eyed, too clean and safe Stepford Christians that inhabit most of the junk in the Christian fiction section at the bookstore.
Velma makes you think about your own faith—and how to live it more authentically and holistically. It’s discipleship by fiction—and well worth the read. Check out this and other works by Vinita Hampton Wright.