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Book Review – Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson

Synopsis:  She was just three years old when her mother signed on as the organist of tent revivalist David Terrell, and before long, Donna Johnson was part of the hugely popular evangelical preacher’s inner circle. At seventeen, she left the ministry for good, with a trove of stranger-than-fiction memories. A homecoming like no other, Holy Ghost Girl brings to life miracles, exorcisms, and faceoffs with the Ku Klux Klan. And that’s just what went on under the tent.

As Terrell became known worldwide during the 1960s and ’70s, the caravan of broken-down cars and trucks that made up his ministry evolved into fleets of Mercedes and airplanes. The glories of the Word mixed with betrayals of the flesh and Donna’s mother bore Terrell’s children in one of the several secret households he maintained. Thousands of followers, dubbed “Terrellites” by the press, left their homes to await the end of the world in cultlike communities. Jesus didn’t show, but the IRS did, and the prophet/healer went to prison.

Recounted with deadpan observations and surreal detail, Holy Ghost Girl bypasses easy judgment to articulate a rich world in which the mystery of faith and human frailty share a surprising and humorous coexistence.

First Line:  “”Donna, I don’t know if you’re coming to the funeral, but I heard Daddy’s gonna try to raise Randall from the dead.  Call me.””

Random Quote:  “If pictures existed from those days, and in my family they do not, they would reveal a pasty-skinned, pinwormy-looking lot with baggy clothes and dark hollows under our eyes.  Maybe it was too much “light” bread or not enough pork and beans.  We began to physically resemble our metaphoric conception of ourselves – a battlefield on which God and the devil duked it out.  The cosmic implications of our hardships and the fact that we expected Jesus to touch down at any moment made the normal touchstones of childhood an after-thought.”

Review:  Donna Johnson grew up on the tent revival circuit of the 1950’s and ’60’s.  Her mother was a follower of David Terrell’s ministry, playing organ for his traveling ministry.  If you’ve never been to a tent revival, this may all seem very strange, but for many Americans these revivals are a part of a normal spiritual life – an addition to their regular church-going schedule.  Tent revivals are a place to hear what I always think of as Holy Roller-type preachers.  These preachers are often Pentecostal and people within their tents can be heard and seen speaking in tongues.  Faith healing is another frequent component to these events.  If you’re still confused it might help to think of people like Oral Roberts – just about all of the early televangelists came out of the tent revival circuit.

Whether or not you are Christian, tent revivals are a unique experience.  My Mississippi grandmother was Southern Baptist and took me to one that occurred as a part of the Webster County, Mississippi Centennial celebrations.  I don’t remember a lot about it other than the smell of the tent, the heat and the flapping of the funeral parlor fans (paper fans on a wooden stick donated by the local funeral parlor), and the amazing singing.  People brought picnic lunches and stayed all day and into the night as different parts of the same community came together under the big tent.

Donna Johnson grew up on this circuit, hauled around in the backseat of cars, living wherever the faithful provided, as her mother played organ for David Terrell.  Later, the family lived in Houston as her mother continued her long-time affair with Brother Terrell.  While Ms. Johnson left the church at 16, it is clear within her writing that she did not leave faith entirely behind and it is the uneasy compromise she appears to have reached between her life before and after Brother Terrell that provides the underlying tension throughout her memoir.

Ms. Johnson is at her best when describing her childhood – the days and nights under the tent, backseats and borrowed houses, lack of food, uncertainty in everything except the love of Brother Terrell.  She is very skilled at picturing this from her childhood eyes and at keeping her adult self safely on the sidelines.  The later parts of the book, events that follow after her mother left them and then returned, are much less clear-eyed, more hazy, less connected to reality and perhaps that is as it should be after a childhood under the bigger-than-life tent – what comes next feels up for grabs.

Well-written, honest, funny, tragic, and often surreal, Holy Ghost Girl gives the reader an up close look at a different kind of life while avoiding sensationalism and judgment.

FTC Disclosure:  Advance copy from the publisher for the author’s TLC Book Tour


About Donna M. Johnson

Donna M. Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the poet and author Kirk Wilson.

Be sure to visit the other stops on Ms. Johnson’s virtual book tour for more opinions and chances to win a copy of her book:

Donna M. Johnsons TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Tuesday, October 4th:  Joyfully Retired
Wednesday, October 5th:  Melody & Words
Thursday, October 6th:  Bermuda Onion
Friday, October 7th:  Colloquium
Monday, October 10th:  Chaotic Compendiums
Wednesday, October 12th:  A Fair Substitute for Heaven
Thursday, October 13th:  In the Next Room
Friday, October 14th:  Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Monday, October 17th:  Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, October 18th:  Amused by Books
Wednesday, October 19th:  Book Addiction
Thursday, October 20th:  Books Like Breathing
Monday, October 24th:  BookNAround
Tuesday, October 25th:  Life in Review
Wednesday, October 26th:  Saras Organized Chaos
Thursday, October 27th:  Broken Teepee

I’m very pleased to be able to give one lucky reader a copy of this great new memoir.  Just fill out the entry form below for a chance to win!  Winner announced 10/17/2011.

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