May 2016 The Devil In Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo
blog by Cindy Bushey
Readers often develop a preference for certain genres, and mysteries are a favorite choice. True life mysteries told by the people who lived them can capture a reader’s attention and focus. However, knowing that the pages are recounting someone’s life experiences makes it difficult to critique the telling. Sympathy and empathy can hinder objectivity. Zion’s readers faced that dilemma with May’s choice: The Devil in Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo.
This book recounts the meeting of the author’s parents, their subsequent marriage, their lives as itinerant evangelical revivalists in the southern United States, and their settling in 1969 in small, rural Sellerstown, North Carolina to pastor Free Welcome Holiness Church. After being told they couldn’t have children and experiencing a miscarriage, the author’s parents, Robert and Mona Nichols, were ecstatic to know they were expecting another child and starting on a new life in this quaint town. They had a fearless reliance on God to guide them in their life work.
However, fear became a constant companion when they ran afoul of the conceited, small town tyrant, H. James Watts, who resented the new well-liked pastor and set out to make life miserable and run the intruder out of town. Mr. Watts had accumulated money and power and did not hesitate to use it with the result that the community was under his thumb. Rev. Nichols, with his more open, democratic approach to life and religion was a threat to this despot. As a reader commented, Watts was a control freak, a narcissist with homicidal overtones. Over the course of four years, he escalated from anonymous late night phone calls to threatening letters, to vandalism, to stealing hunting rifles, and then to cutting phone lines followed by setting off dynamite in the front yard of the author’s house. By now, Mrs. Nichols was expecting another baby. Rev. Nichols and his wife found solace in scripture, and he preached about loving your enemies. According to the author, her daddy firmly held that a soft answer turned away wrath. The bombings continued for three years while, unbelievably, investigators were unable to find concrete proof of Mr. Watt’s villainy. Finally, the hatred culminated in an assault that left Mrs. Nichols dead, Rev. Nichols wounded and Rebecca terrorized.
First, it must be clear that our readers were horrified by this reign of terror perpetrated on the author’s family. Rebecca clearly conveyed the siege mentality under which her family lived, and it was inconceivable to our group that the authorities could not bring the violations to an end. The post-traumatic stress, her father’s mental breakdown and early death, the losses Rebecca and her brother, Daniel, suffered were incredible. For them to have the ability to forgive the perpetrators is certainly rooted in their deep faith and reminiscent of Amish behavior after the Nickel Mines tragedy a few years ago.
Yet, as we read, many felt their sympathy was tempered by annoyance. The author wrote in a style likened by one of our readers to a “chatty Cathy” trying to re-write In Cold Blood. Those readers’ feelings gradually changed to anger – not just at Mr. Watts, but also at Rev. Nichols. How dare he be so ready to subject his family to that danger? Was he so blinded by his need to forgive or by his own self-importance that he failed to save his wife and children? Reliance on God is what we all strive for, but God also gives us common sense which apparently was lacking here. A reader compared this situation to a familiar joke about a man caught in a flood who refused to enter a boat but instead relied on God to save him. He failed to see that God sent the boat as his rescue vehicle. What did Rev. Nichols think after eight different dynamite explosions and windows blown out so that shards of glass fell on sleeping baby Daniel (something that grabbed at the heartstrings of our readers)? Would discretion not have been the better part of valor, or was there too much testosterone floating around in this contest of wills? A parent’s first duty to their children is to protect them. In that respect, most of our readers felt Rev. Nichols was far from heroic.
Neither did Mrs. Nichols’ behavior inspire most of our group. She seemed out of touch, not quite ringing true in her daughter’s descriptions. Something seemed very wrong with this family. From our perspective decades later, we wondered where the child protective authorities were and why these parents were not getting counseling. There was speculation that the author’s father had some mental problems long before his breakdown occurred and suffered religious delusions that only he could pastor that particular church. The eventual turn-around by Mr. Watts after years in prison, the appearance on Dr. Phil to publicly demonstrate the power of forgiveness, and the publication of the book appeared a bit too pat and contrived to follow a certain agenda rather than be truly inspirational for most of our readers.
The book did give us pause about the nature and definition of forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the injured party without being dependent on any action of the perpetrator. Rebecca’s and Daniel’s forgiveness was extended before Mr. Watts ever expressed sorrow – a true forgiveness. Forgiving does not mean forgetting, and again the author certainly expresses that sentiment by retelling her story. Forgiving enabled her and her brother to develop a strategy to move forward with their lives. That is admirable. Zion’s readers just wished that, among all the scripture verses quoted by Rev. Nichols to justify remaining in place, he could have thought of Matthew 10, verse 23 “When they persecute you in one town, flee to another”. So much tragedy and loss of life could possibly have been avoided.
The Devil in Pew Seven evoked strong responses from our readers. While one found the book compelling and thoroughly appreciated it, giving it two thumbs up, another gave it one thumb up, 6 gave it just a knuckle, four felt neutral about it, and one definitely disliked it. In early June, we wrap up our reading season with a very different style of writing and explore a popular young adult work of fiction, Chinese Born American.