Madonna-Whore Complexities

A review of Christine Sloan Stoddard’s “Naomi & The Reckoning”

Alexander Carrigan
Aug 9, 2020 · 6 min read
Finishing Line Press

As someone who was raised in a fairly lax Roman Catholic family, I was able to grow up in the church and attend its various programs, but with the understanding that I was able to take in opinions and thoughts from others and consider them all before making my own choice about whether or not to make the church an integral part of my life. One choice I was allowed to make was my Confirmation name, which I underwent when I was in 11th grade (my church did it later than all other rites of passage). I chose “Gabriel,” the angel who informed Mary of her pregnancy with Jesus Christ, as my Confirmation name, wanting to choose a name that was about communication and discussion, which is what I was into when I was 17 and planning to pursue a communications-related degree in college.

This act was one of the few choices I was allowed to make for myself within the church, and the desire and freedom to communicate my religious preferences with my family are something I am privileged to have, although I recognize that this is just that: a privilege. A privilege that came from being born in the right family, from going to a slightly more relaxed church than most, and, unknowingly, from being male.

This is a privilege that many of the narrators in the novelette Naomi & The Reckoning do not have. Written by Salvadoran-American author and artist Christine Sloan Stoddard, Naomi & The Reckoning is a collection of five poems and a single short story that examine womanhood, Catholic values, sex and purity culture, and more. They examine women who have had to grow up in a fairly restrictive society and how many of the teachings of the church either put them in existential dread or in situations where there is a threat to either fall victim to individuals with the power and the church’s backing, or live in fear of such people.

Stoddard dedicated the collection to “all the women who were tricked and shamed,” and the pieces within feel like they truly speak to these women. The five poems follow a path of growth, starting with a woman after her birth, through her childhood, puberty, and early adulthood. The first poem, “A Baby Girl,” shows how sexism and religious values begin to affect these women mere moments after birth, with Stoddard writing:

The moment she breathed her first earthly breath
the stench of sexism stung her hummingbird nostrils
{male doctors belittling female nurses}
{slap / pinch / mansplain}.

These continue with successive poems, such as “Defining a Slut,” which reads like a toddler or pre-K student arguing with a parent or a teacher. “The Almost-Rape” is probably the most terrifying poem, describing the titular act, one that nearly occurred due to a male figure in the narrator’s life exerting his power on her (my uncle got whatever he wanted / so when he wanted me / he assumed he’d get me), while also playing with the desire for both parties to want to hide the truth. For the uncle, it’s to not expose his dark desires and to maintain his charitable and good-natured facade within the community. For the narrator, it’s because she believes she won’t be believed and that she may be judged more harshly than the uncle.

The final two poems follow narrators in more mature, coming-of-age scenarios. “A Purity Ball Fashion Statement” is written from a narrator who has found a subtle way to fight back against the values that restricted her growing up and would even host something like a Purity Ball (So, she wore pink / because she saw no shame / in having nearly tainted waters). “Courtship As a Virgin c. 2016” is written as a discussion between two women filling out one woman’s Tinder profile, particularly in regards to a field about waiting until marriage. With these poems, the at-times dark comedic nature and the critical eye makes it read like Stoddard has created five poems about five different women, or five poems about one woman and her maturation within a restrictive setting. This illustrates just how carefully constructed each piece in the collection is and how they all fit perfectly in the Stoddard’s novelette.

Because of this, the short story “Naomi” can be either an equal fit to the previous pieces, or the natural progression of the narrative through line formed from the poems before it. “Naomi’s” titular character is a 30-year-old Catholic woman who has just married an older man she met on a mission trip and is now reckoning with her identity as a wife and as a woman now that she has consummated her marriage. The story covers Naomi’s wedding night and first day as the wife of Adam (a fitting name, as he’s the “first man” for Naomi as both a sexual being and one who opens her to new thoughts and feelings that emerged from her awakening) and how this internal tempest could cause Naomi more strife and chaos as she begins her new life if she withholds them from those around her.

“Naomi looks at the result of a woman who was raised in a strict Catholic upbringing, but had as much access to media and information about sex due to the spread of magazines and other readily available resources. For Naomi, who spent most of her life feeling like sex and marriage was a far-off dream due to some scarring and conflict with her identity as both a pure virginal woman and a woman with sexual desires, the result of her consummation leaves her feeling worse off and questioning how much of what she was taught actually applies to her. The teachings in the Bible and her church didn’t make her feel the sanctity of the act, nor did Cosmo make her first sexual experience the monumental and orgasmic ecstasy she assumed was being hidden from her.

But what helps make this story and the collection as a whole is that, through Naomi and “Naomi,” Stoddard is able to present an actual discussion and an blending of both the Catholic Bible and the Woman’s Bible. The salvation for Naomi comes not from taking advice from others, but by vocalizing her wants and desires, and learning that she has met someone willing to listen to her and try to meet her. While it’s open how well this will work for her in the long-run, it ends the collection with a baptism of sorts, where Naomi was able to find the path that will work for her and her marriage, and, with regards to the other pieces in the collection, gives an idea of how to hold onto these values but to not let them completely dominate their life.

Naomi & The Reckoning is a novelette of whispers, secrets, withheld thoughts and the nerve to finally put them out into the open. It examines a Catholic upbringing and the challenges women can face in these institutions and communities, but also gives the hope that there is a way to communicate the necessity to learn and be more than what one was taught. Every piece in the collection wonderfully builds on the last, showing Stoddard’s incredible ability to creative a narratively and thematically strong collection that can challenge, humor, and make the reader think about what lessons from their upbringing matter, where the faults in them lie, and how one can determine their own life if they understand which lessons matter the most to them.

Broads Non Grata

Disrupt — discover new voices and new aspects of known…

Broads Non Grata

Disrupt — discover new voices and new aspects of known voices. Pour in your raw emotions of feeling like an outsider to flourish in hope to work towards a more diverse/inclusive world.

Alexander Carrigan

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Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an editor, writer, and critic from Alexandria, VA, USA.

Broads Non Grata

Disrupt — discover new voices and new aspects of known voices. Pour in your raw emotions of feeling like an outsider to flourish in hope to work towards a more diverse/inclusive world.