Pew spans a week in a small town in the Southern States of America. A young person is found during the Sunday morning service sleeping on a family pew. Visitors to the town are rare, so the family take this one into their home. The stranger is an enigma, remaining mute, speech and memory almost erased by a past trauma. Hilda, the mother, is determined to fit the stranger into accepted categories, but her insistent questioning gets no response, so the Reverend is invited for dinner. Because his daughter named her stray kitten Gutter after the place where it was found, he suggests the newcomer should be named Pew. His interrogation is no more successful than Hilda’s.
The family find Pew’s silence and indeterminate appearance threatening, so their guest is subjected to a series of interviews culminating in a hospital visit, but the physical examination can’t take place because Pew refuses to undress. A meeting is called and people vent their frustration at their guest’s ingratitude. Hilda describes Pew’s failure to co operate with the doctor and is asked, “And what was it that made you think Pew needed to be examined?” “Well for one, we just wanted to make sure Pew was healthy. We don’t know where she – or he - had been…” “Like taking a stray to the vet,” Harold said, “To get their shots.” “Oh, I suppose so” Hilda said. “I hadn’t thought of it exactly like that, but I guess so.”
While the upright, uptight members of the congregation treat Pew like a stray, other outsiders in the community show genuine acceptance and find in Pew’s silence an invitation to confide. Pew has arrived at a time of heightened tension and rising crime, in the week leading up to the annual Festival of Forgiveness. Originally instituted to unite the community and heal old wounds, the festival has become divisive, black churches dropping out.
Nevertheless, although the white family that found Pew has transferred them to the family of a black pastor, they are expected to attend. This is Catherine Lacey’s third novel and is written in economical, almost poetic prose, with Pew as narrator. It is concerned with the fragility of self, the mutability of identity and the smug insensitivity of organised religion; a theme based perhaps on the author’s Mississippi childhood. Nelson, a refugee, fostered by a member of the congregation, tells Pew, “They take me every week [to church].
My whole family was killed in the name of God and now these people want me to sing a hymn like it was all some kind of misunderstanding.” While Mr Karcher, an incomer to the town says, “And the only thing I can see that a belief in divinity makes possible in this world is a right towards cruelty…People need a sense of righteousness to take things from others …to carry out violence. Divinity gives them that. It creates the reins for cruelty.”