Shooting at Heaven’s Gate
By Kaye Park Hinckley
Chrism Press, 2022
Paper: $16.24
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Lisa Harrison

Shooting at Heaven's Gate book cover

Shooting at Heaven’s Gate, the latest novel from award-winning author Kaye Park Hinckley, explores questions of moral culpability, divine agency, and the nature of good and evil in a taut, intricately woven tale of vengeance, synchronicity, and redemption. Parallel narratives follow the stories of combative university professors and the residents of a poultry farm nearby.

Narcissistic psychology professor Malcom J. Hawkins plots the demise of rising star literature professor Ginnie Gillan. Her plans for a Religious Studies program threaten his standing and his influence over students at Bethel University, a small college in south Alabama. Ginnie is married to adjunct professor Edmund, a man who has endured troubling mental episodes since his youth. Edmund’s psychological state was further affected by a tragedy that occurred when he was a boy. When Ginnie taunts Mal with her victory in securing approval for a pilot program, jealousy leads him to groom the perfect “pawn” to carry out his vengeance: Ginnie’s troubled husband.

Meanwhile, the residents of Broussard chicken farm grapple with illness and repressed secrets. Twin sisters Moline and Pauline Broussard own the farm, assisted by undocumented immigrant Jose Alvarez. Reared together, Moline’s daughter Alma and Jose’s daughter Angelina formed an early bond and think of each other as sisters. Their relationship deepens when Alma becomes a blood donor for Angelina, who undergoes transfusion for leukemia. Angelina fears that her treatments will be unsuccessful and that she will face an early death. Her father likewise fears losing her. The saintly Alma often wonders about her absent father and imagines what he must be like. Pauline is a convert to the Catholic faith, and tries to persuade her sister to join her, but Moline insists that she is unable to do so because of a mysterious incident in her past that she is unable to confess.

In alternating chapters, the story of the Broussard and Alvarez families begins to converge with that of the Bethel University professors. The two sets of characters demonstrate contrasting traits of humility and hubris. The farm residents are people of unassuming faith who face deep questions about suffering and who frequently interrogate their own decisions in light of their desires to do what is morally right. In contrast, Professors Mal and Ginnie frequently argue about the existence of God, with Mal promoting his atheist beliefs and Ginnie presenting herself as a staunch defender of faith. Yet the two have more behavior in common than is immediately apparent. Caught between them, Edmund is a hapless participant in a dangerous mind game that has far-reaching consequences.

Hinckley unwinds her labyrinthine plot gradually and subtly. Critical information often consists of small, unobtrusively observed details that will ultimately link the two storylines. The reader must pay close attention and recognize seeming synchronicities that appear more causally related as the stories tighten together. At the denouement, Hinckley presents the violence of the title from the perspective of the perpetrator, whose own understanding is confused and uncomprehending. Rather than taking the easy route of shock via gory details, the author uses present tense narration and allusion to good effect in portraying the unfolding tragedy.

Shooting at Heaven’s Gate includes discussion questions in the back matter, and the text offers much for the reader to ponder. Epigraphs from spiritual writers introduce each chapter. A production of Macbeth directed by Ginnie and starring Edmund provides an obvious invitation to compare the professors to Shakespeare’s couple, but a one-line reference to Othello is also an apt association. The reader may be led to hold one view of a character based on that individual’s expressed self-understanding, only to realize that the character’s behavior reveals other dimensions of personality As Ginnie says, “Each of us is both a child of God and a sinner.” In Shooting at Heaven’s Gate Kaye Park Hinckley explores the range of good and evil evident in humanity and asks whether it is true that “suffering plus faith equals salvation.”

Lisa Harrison is an avid reader who spent 15 years in the book publishing industry. When not curled up with a cup of tea, a book, and a rescued cat or two (or more), she enjoys all varieties of needle crafts.