Tuesday, September 11, 2012
It was after midnight at the dawn of the 1960s. Donna Johnson was 3, her brother 1, her father gone. Her mother had sold everything — “knickknacks, flatware, all of her slacks” — to join a traveling caravan of evangelists led by the preacher Brother David Terrell. Holding tent revivals in a new town every few weeks, they were essentially carnies, but instead of hawking funnel cakes, they were selling God.
On this particular occasion the family would drive all night to the next stop on the so-called sawdust trail, a circuit of Southern backwaters where miracles were in high demand. Stretched out next to her brother and mother in the back seat of Mr. Terrell’s Falcon, the young Ms. Johnson leaned her head back. The preacher was behind the wheel, his wife and daughter next to him. Ms. Johnson started to drift off.
Then she saw this: “A hand made its way from the front seat to the back and rested, light and tentative as a mayfly, on my mother’s knee. Someone flicked on an overhead light.” This is the key early moment when “Holy Ghost Girl” turns, as good books must, from promising read into sure bet.
Ms. Johnson’s enthralling memoir, her first book, is about growing up on the road in a clan of what she calls Holy Rollers. She remembers the wood slats of the folding chairs digging into her toddler legs as sermons spun into a fifth hour, and, years later, faking an ecstatic, speaking-in-tongues experience. (“Shondishondishnondi.”) But it’s really Mr. Terrell’s show, and Ms. Johnson’s account unfolds into a fascinating portrait of that preacher and the grip he had on her family.