John turns 14 on the morning the story begins. Both attracted and repulsed by the church, his father, and everything his father represents, John is anguished and deeply confused. He longs to experience all the world has to offer, but he is terrified by sin. He does not know that Gabriel is not his biological father.
A hard, religious man. Despite his pious mother's prayers and beatings, Gabriel was wild and sinful—until he was born again at the age of 21 and became a preacher. In a dream, God promised him that his descendents would bear His seal. He married Deborah, had an adulterous affair with Esther, and endured the early death of his unacknowledged son, Royal, from a distance. His son by Elizabeth, Roy, is his new hope. John, his stepson, must bear the brunt of Gabriel's sublimated wrath and guilt.
Raised by her strict, religious, and unloving aunt, Elizabeth came north to be with her boyfriend, Richard. Richard killed himself, leaving her unwed and pregnant with John. She met Gabriel through his sister Florence, whom she had come to know at work. Gabriel offered her hope and a return to the true path. He promised to raise John as if the boy were his own. If Gabriel raised her up, he has also done much to undermine her, as she now begins to realize.
Florence has resented her brother Gabriel since he was born—resented him their mother's favoritism, which he received at her expense; resented his sudden, newfound holiness; resented the way he treated his first wife, Deborah, and now Elizabeth. Florence knows she is ill and doesn't have much time left to live. But she is determined to knock Gabriel down a few pegs so that he cannot tower in his righteousness above Elizabeth and John.
Roy is John's younger brother. He is outspoken and much less concerned with the metaphysical questions that plague John. He closely resembles his father, Gabriel, as he was in his younger days and also shares many traits—as well as a first name—with his half-brother Royal (Gabriel's unacknowledged son), whom he will never meet.
John's role model. A young leader in the congregation and a saved man.
Florence's friend and Gabriel's first wife and spiritual companion. She was brutally raped as a girl by a group of white men. Unable to bear children, she died fairly young.
Elizabeth's intelligent, bitter, and fragile first love. He committed suicide after a racist incident with the police, not knowing that Elizabeth was pregnant with his son John.
The saved members of the Grimeses' church, Temple of the Fire Baptized.
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