Prolonged periods of drought in recent years have resulted in a considerable diminishing of groundwater in the Central Valley of California, and temperatures are expected to rise by five or six degrees Fahrenheit in the region by the end of the century. It seems that, in less than a decade, the effects of climate change shifted from feared to felt. As corporations continue to aggressively resist responsibility, there is more pressure on the individual than ever to do their part. So what happens when a once-abundant, isolated agricultural community of roughly 1,000 people is drought-stricken and plagued with massive crop failure and is then approached by a zealous man who promises rain and delivers generously? They trust him. They worship him. They get godshot.
Chelsea Bieker’s first novel, Godshot (336 pages; Catapult), is the story of that community. In 2018, in the fictional town of Peaches, drought has once again devastated the land. Pastor Vern, a sequined cape-wearing spiritual leader of unbound theatrics, has calcified his grip on the town’s inhabitants, promising that obedience to his word will bring the rain once again. Fourteen-year-old protagonist Lacey May begins as a bright-eyed, devout believer in Pastor Vern, ready for her “assignment,” a secret duty of Vern’s design that begins for the church girls when they become “women of blood.”
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At the center of Lacey May’s story is her growth into womanhood and her feelings of abandonment when her mother, an alcoholic who has cycled abusive men in and out of their lives, runs away with a man named after the color of his hat, the Turquoise Cowboy. As Lacey May grieves, Pastor Vern’s command of Peaches and his plan to fortify his church against dissent continues to traumatize her. She seeks answers from the women running the office of a phone-sex line— “the unreachables” who commit “the most unholy sins of sins”—where her mother was sent to convert callers, and they turn out to prove a crucial refuge for her. Throughout the novel, Lacey May gradually quiets her impulses toward her learned conception of godliness and heeds her own divine intuition, and discovers what it means to have unconditional love for an unavailable mother.
Bieker writes a highly readable prose and with an awareness of the questions that arise during a traumatic childhood. The story is dark and often sickening, but Lacey May’s glimmers of wisdom are her buoy, bringing her to the surface when she most needs air: “I knew people on the outside of the church wouldn’t understand how I could stay instead of leave, withstand instead of run. I would say those people have never been under the hand of a bad thing so bad it can start to seem good.”
Godshot is a wild and intriguing examination of cult psychology and adolescence within the context of climate grief and isolation as understood by Bieker, who was raised by her grandparents in the Central Valley and observed the obsession with weather and harvest of the farmers there. Godshot is as concerned with Lacey May’s spiritual truth as it is with factual truth, viewing the world through a sobering lens: the effects of climate change, the vulnerability of impoverished communities, the dangers of patriarchy. With references to recent natural disasters such as the 2018 Camp Fire, the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in California history, the novel asserts itself in the near-present tense. Godshot pierces the boundaries of fiction , reading as the true story of a California town we have not yet come to know, but one not far off from the California we know now.
“What’s global warming?” Lacey May asks her mother early in the novel. “I’ve heard of that few times too,” she responds. “‘Maybe we should be a little more curious.’”