Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth

At Barnes & Noble I was entirely thrilled to come across Brenda Peterson's memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. Peterson, a novelist, non-fiction writer, and environmentalist, is the founder of a grassroots conservation group Seal Sitters. But I know her best as a novelist: she first came to my attention as the author of the delightful novel, Duck and Cover (1991), the funny, touching story of a Bible-thumping family growing up in the '50s in the post-war fear of nuclear bombs, duck-and-cover drills at school, and bomb shelters in the back yard. Her last novel, Animal Heart, (2004), was published by the Sierra Book Club, which shows she may have outgrown conventional publishers.

Because, believe me, this woman can write.

I am a third of the way into this fast-paced, radiant, ebullient, and often purely funny memoir. Peterson writes about her relationship with nature as a nomadic forester's daughter who comes of age in the '50s and '60s, first living in California, then Massachusetts, then Virginia, and then California again. But her love of nature also spurs her rebellion against the Rapture predictions of her Southern Baptist family, who, though they are caretakers of the earth, literally believe the end of the world will come and the saved will be snatched up midway in the sky by God. Unlike right-wing politicians like Reagan, whose "rapacious use of natural resources" reached an extreme under Pentecostal James Watt's term as Secretary of the Interior, when he expressed doubts that the earth was worth saving because of the short time left, the Petersons are gentle, tolerant, and humane. Brenda has doubts but doesn't want to hurt them.

Brenda has a dilemma: don't animals have souls? In church she prefers to sit with Mr. Bode, who whittles an ark and animals during services. Brenda has a survival plan for World War III, based on her fascination with dinosaurs, and belief that the ichthyosaurus didn't become extinct but rather evolved into dolphins.

"We'll survive the first nuclear blast in my mom's fallout shelter. As soon as that's over, I'll take my family to Virginia Beach. We'll call on the dolphins to carry us out to sea where we'll be safe. We'll learn to float on the waves and go ashore only to sleep on the beaches."

Mr. Bode nodded, considering this. "You mean, we'll become amphibious?"

"That's it, yes!"

I love reading about Brenda's earth science background, her fascination with music and resonance, and experiences with racial tension when the black girls on her basketball team are taunted by an all-white team. (Brenda's team, however, wins, thank God.)

This book also covers her college education, work at The New Yorker, and life in Seattle. She is politically radical, and I'm wondering how this went over with her family. I'm very much looking forward to the rest of this.

I'm not sure I would have found this book if I hadn't visited the biography section at B&N. Another reason to go to "physical bookstores." It is very, very worth reading, a record of growing up in a religious family, but told in a non-stereotypical way.

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