How fitting that Grace McCleen's LAND OF DECORATION begins: "In the beginning there was an empty room, a little bit of space, a little bit of time. I said, `I am going to make fields,' and I made them from place mats, carpet, brown corduroy and felt. Then I made rivers from crepe paper, plastic wrap and shiny tin foil......and I saw that they were good."
The narrator, Judith, is a ten year old girl, both precocious and deluded, obsessed with creating her own "Land of Decoration" (the Promised Land according to the book of Ezekiel) out of scraps and doodads, some made from past belongings of her deceased mother.
Discovering that events such as a snowstorm that she shapes in her imaginary world manifest in the external world, and believing that she hears the voice of God commanding her, Judith becomes convinced that she can create miracles. But the God she worships and obeys is a wrathful God, a God of vengeance rather than compassion.
Judith's father, rigidly evangelistic, and consumed with his own sadness and conflicts, is unresponsive to his daughter's needs, and angered by her overactive imagination. "I don't want to hear any more about this," he repeatedly tells her. Eventually, the bully Neil Lewis who threatens and terrifies her at school,
torments her father as well, leading to an eventual showdown.
Clearly, THE LAND OF DECORATION is not a light read, and is frequently painful. But the author Grace McCleen brilliantly conveys the experience of Judith, who struggles with such determination to make sense of the hostile world in which she lives.
Judith wanders back and forth between reality and delusion, uncanny insight and misinterpretation, genuine faith and a twisted religiosity that expresses more the consequences of a world without God rather than one illumined by His presence. Feeling completely powerless, she becomes entangled in a web of emotional need, imagination , creativity and religiosity, in a manner which enables her to believe she has the power to alter her world.
Teetering on the brink of schizophrenia, Judith appears at times to lose her bearings completely. But her own search for truth, a teacher who cares, and a father who begins to heal may help her negotiate the rocky road back to sanity and love. For Judith, perhaps the gateway to experience of the true Father begins with the love of the real father, who may have to break down in order to break through - and reach out.
As a psychotherapist myself, who as a child sought refuge from abuse and neglect in creative expression, I am impressed with the sensitivity, depth and believability with which author Grace McCleen portrays Judith's inner life. Surely, having broken free of a narrow, restrictive form of evangelism herself, McCleen must have experienced some of what her young heroine experiences. Unless she wrestled with her own demons in order to gain and maintain her grip on reality, how else could she so convincingly guide us through the labyrinth of Judith's mind?
To potential readers who are Christian and may be wary of the book's subject, be assured that THE LAND OF DECORATION does not attack Christianity or Evangelism per se. Rather it portrays the negative consequences that result from religion becoming twisted, losing its anchor in true faith and love - and the process of disentangling and awakening.
Reading THE LAND OF DECORATION we continually descend into hell, into the anguish within Judith's mind and the desolation of her environment. Not all readers may feel inclined to suffer such torments.
I therefore recommend the book with reservations. It is not for all. But it possesses a savage beauty, a tough and fierce tenderness which will reward readers who have the courage to journey into the fire, withstand its burning, and revel in its light.