Let’s hope that I don’t end up with a bill for damages to this library book… I may have realized too late that snow was melting through the scarf I had used as a safe spot to nestle my stack. Oops! Of course, if I absolutely must pay a damages bill now and again, I’d be pleased to be paying for a book like Stories That Bind Us. If the library decides to replace the copy, I can keep the one I paid for (and I would love to add another Susie Finkbeiner book to my collection).
Susie Finkbeiner may sound familiar if you remember my review of her other title, All Manner of Things, one of my favorite Christian fiction reads ever. Stories That Bind Us is the meandering tale of Betty Sweet, a middle aged woman who finds herself suddenly widowed. Living in the 1960s, Betty is barely past the early stages of grief when she finds herself unexpectedly the caretaker of her kindergarten-age nephew. I could use flowery phrases to describe this book, such as “a contemplation on loss” or “a compassionate look at mental health” and insert some words like reflective and poignant. All of those would be apt, but I think it would be simpler to say that Stories That Bind Us is not action-oriented or tightly paced. It is a thoughtful, warm, and absorbing book chronicling Betty’s healing process, day to day life in the ’60s, and the growing love between a caring aunt and a hurting little boy.
Betty has a wonderful imagination, and concocts many fanciful tales to comfort and entertain her young charge, Hugo. Many of them are told in full within the pages of the novel, so if you like children’s stories, this may be the book for you. That said, little here is cloying– Betty deals with loss as well as the responsibility of seeking help for her mentally ill sister (Hugo’s mother). As I read, I found myself wishing our protagonist was more involved in her sister’s care and the doctors’ treatment choices, but I do think the way it is written is probably realistic for the time. I don’t think mental illness was understood or approached then in the same way it might be today. Like All Manner of Things, I wished that Scripture was a bigger anchor to the story and its message, but the tone was hopeful. The ending was happy, in many ways, but somehow felt… unfinished, or unsatisfying. I really can’t say more without giving away too much.
Overall my rating is a solid 3/5 stars. While acknowledging a few flaws, there is something so utterly… delightful about Susie’s style and characterization I could easily be convinced to sneak out an extra star if pressed! This book makes me feel like snuggling up with a blankie and double chocolate chip cookies to ease me through the sad parts. Not that I’d turn down double chocolate chip cookies with any book! But somehow I think they’d taste better… with the Stories That Bind Us.
Inevitably, when I’m reading a descriptive piece of Christian fiction, I wonder what it would be like translated into film. Especially if the book has a cinematic “flavor” to it, just aching for an adaption on the big screen! Once before I had a great deal of fun putting together a dream cast for an imaginary movie based on the book Hidden Among the Stars. (Click here to read that post.) I thought I’d do that again, this time for a Lori Benton book I read recently called Burning Sky. As I go along, I’ll share my cast picks, musings about the novel, and maybe mention a few Christian films I’ve enjoyed.
Burning Sky is set just after the Revolutionary War in the American frontier. Willa Obenchain (the protagonist of the story) has just returned to her childhood homestead to find it abandoned–parents vanished, without any trace of what might have happened to them. Willa was abducted by Mohawk Indians as a little girl, and has lived most of her life with them. Tragedy pushes her to find her origins and build a new future on her parents’ land. The heartbeat of Willa’s story, to me, revolves around a recurring Bible verse–Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed shall He not break”… a promise Willa grasps tightly.
I had difficulty choosing an actress to play Willa’s part, and to be honest, I’m still not completely satisfied. Whoever plays Willa needs to look as if she could not only survive, but thrive living among the Mohawk. Not to mention endure the strain of rigorous farm life. I still haven’t found someone who embodies the physical and emotional strength I envisioned in my mind, but I settled on Blake Lively in the end. Blake is beautiful, no doubt, but something about her features seems slightly– worn, as if she could portray a character who carries so much grief. At the same time, even the set of her chin suggests tenacity.
Next up would be Willa’s two romantic interests. Willa saves the life of Neil MacGregor, who finds himself obliged to her after he is injured traveling through the vicinity of her farm land. He stays on for some time to heal, falls for Willa, and sticks around to help in any way he can. Neil isn’t exactly cut from frontier cloth, but he works hard, loves to read his old family Bible, and of course has a Scottish accent going for him. I don’t watch the show Outlander, but I imagined Neil as something like that show’s Sam Heughan. That said, I chose the Scottish lead of All Creatures Great and Small, Nicholas Ralph, for this part. I think his role as a country vet on All Creatures… translates well to “I paint pictures of plants but I’m also totally comfortable getting muddy or patching up your gunshot wound” Neil.
Guy number two is Willa’s Mohawk guardian angel, “Joseph” Tames-His-Horse. Technically her brother (as part of the same Wolf Clan) back among the Indians, Joseph watches out for Willa, occasionally bringing her fresh meat and protecting her land. Joseph converted to following Christ as a boy after being taught by missionary Samuel Kirkland. (Interesting note, Samuel Kirkland was a real Presbyterian minister who lived for many years with the Iroquois tribes. He founded a seminary that admitted Indian boys, and was instrumental in convincing two of the Mohawk tribes to fight with the American revolutionaries.) Joseph longs for Willa to follow him to Niagara, where an Indian settlement is being formed and the Canadians promise land, ministers, and teachers.
I wish I could have more actors on this list that are currently working in Christian film projects, but the unique roles for this book made that challenging. How many actors can you name that look American Indian and were in a recent God-honoring movie? I thought of one young fellow from a movie called Hope Bridge, as well as the lead from Pureflix’s Samson, but neither their age or features seem to fit.
Willa has plenty of challenges ahead for her if she decides to stay on her parents’ land. Childhood friend Richard Waring, warped by the horrors of war, wants to lay claim to her property and is bent on proving her (mysteriously absent) parents were Tories. His aging father, Colonel Elias Waring, is also an imposing–but more sympathetic–figure.
I gave Maddie McCormick a slot as warm, protective Anni Waring for the sole purpose of mentioning another movie she had a bit part in– Unbroken: Path to Redemption. That film was excellent and emotionally moving– it tells the true story of survivor (and all-around amazing) Louis Zamperini, and his incredible road to Christ and healing.
I think I’ll close here, since this post is already so long! There are certainly other roles I could fill from Benton’s novel. Memorable characters, like Francis– a young man with disabilities who is critical to the plot– or orphan siblings Maggie and Matthew. Read the book and let me know what you think of my choices! If you’ve read it already, do you think Kevin Sorbo could play any role that you remember? (Is it really a Christian movie if it doesn’t have either Kevin Sorbo or Kirk Cameron in it??!) Lastly, if you were making this book into a movie, would you change the ending (I didn’t really like it)?
When you were a kid, did your mom ever make you watch history documentaries? You know the ones; maybe they were about the Civil War, or the Aztecs, or uncovering the secrets of Ancient Egyptians (seems as if new mummies are discovered every day). There was a deep voiced narrator who had perfected the art of sounding ominous, and interviews with at least one old guy who appeared to spend too much time locked away in a dusty museum basement. But the best parts of the film were when they would use actors to reenact historical moments in the background. You could watch Pharaoh so-and-so yell at underlings, lounge by the Nile, order a pizza, and ultimately die at the hands of some angry conspiring family member (okay, I made up the pizza part). If you’re like me, you ultimately found yourself surprisingly entertained. Fifteen years later, it’s not what you’d pick for movie night, but you still remember enjoying the learning process.
I finished a book a while ago that reminded me of one of those films– King’s Shadow by Angela Hunt. Based on the events just before Christ, the story revolves around King Herod’s sister Salome and her fictionalized handmaid Zara. Since much of the unfolding drama in the book is drawn from true history of the time, the plot meanders around like ordinary life does. Real people rarely have stories that fit perfectly into the plot-writing standards you learned in high school English, with orderly climaxes and obvious overarching themes. For those reasons, I think Angela’s hands were tied, (pen and all) and the story tends to lack direction.
That said, King’s Shadow still did an amazing job breathing life into the years just before and up to Messiah’s birth. Christian fiction centered on the years of Jesus’ life are commonplace, but the time period for this book was unique–and set the stage in a way that helped me to better understand the cultural and political backdrop that followed. It documents Herod’s life through the eyes of a sister who is fiercely loyal, even as he slowly degenerates into the baby-killing monster we read about every Christmas. If you enjoy political intrigue, there is plenty of it here, even (or especially) within the royal family. Handmaid Zara is a quiet presence throughout, lending the viewpoint of a God-fearing and humble Jew.
Of course, I made the mistake of reading what turned out to be the fourth book in a series (!)– oops. Do I regret it? No. This book solidified my opinion that Angela Hunt’s best work is her historical fiction. Her research and rich writing style shine here, while the constraints of the timeline help her keep her characterizations and stories more believable (something I think she struggles with in some of her contemporary fiction, such as an earlier work, The Canopy). Not unlike those documentaries, I walked away feeling as if I knew the time period and the motivations of its main players better, but lacking deep emotional attachment to the story or practical application to my own life. For those pros and cons, I gave the book 3/5 stars.
Do you like documentaries? Who are your historical inspirations? As always, I love hearing from you.
I really had no intention of reading another Tessa Afshar book so soon! Back in January I reviewed Land of Silence; besides that, I have an ever-growing pile of works by unknown (to me) authors begging to be given a little time. But In the Field of Grace popped up in the audio book section of the library, and I gave in. I haven’t had a good audio book in a while… I can listen with my phone using free services like Hoopla, but lately I’ve been struggling to keep my phone charged. For that reason alone I tend to prefer audio books on CD rather than digital format. Someday I’ll get around to buying a charging cable for my car…
In the Field of Grace is a retelling of the story of Ruth (from the Biblical book of the same name) with imagined details filling in the areas of her life we don’t know from Scripture. Afshar conjectures what Ruth’s Moabite backstory may have been like; considers her daily life in Israel; explores her relationship with Naomi.
The difficulty in writing this book, in my mind, is that I think most Christian women have read and heard the Old Testament passage preached so many times that they have already imagined for themselves many of the unknown particulars of the account. Challenging those interpretations makes it difficult for them to feel as if this could be how it “really happened.”
Afshar does a wonderful job, as usual, of painting with words a vivid world, but somehow it felt disconnected from the Biblical account to me. Maybe it’s the aforementioned problem (though I tried to have an open mind.) Mostly, however, I thought the romance between Ruth and Boaz was exaggerated and modernized in a way that somewhat cheapened the known Biblical narrative (which I’m sure was not Afshar’s intent). By way of example, in this fictionalization Boaz is instantly enamored with Ruth’s beauty upon first sight. Her eyes, her height… I actually rolled my eyes when he notices her long slender fingers (which are covered in dirt from working in the fields all day but still manage to be alluring!) Despite Afshar’s efforts to show that Boaz is a Godly man of character, the over-romanticizing detracted from Boaz’s words of blessing a few minutes later. This is because it felt as if he only showed her kindness, in large part, because she was so attractive to him. Would the wealthy landowner have shown the same generosity if she had not been beautiful, or was just too dirty, tired, and gaunt for him to notice her lovely features? Something in my gut tells me the real Boaz would have.
Ruth’s life also takes on a more precarious nature . She is nearly killed by thieves; struck down with heat stroke in the fields; is burned and suffers from smoke inhalation after beating back a fire in Boaz’s field alone; and… well, I’d better stop before I give away crucial spoilers. I wouldn’t mind the suspense if I wasn’t left wondering if most of the excitement was set up just so Boaz would have a couple opportunities to carry Ruth home in his arms, trembling with concern and hidden ardor.
But wait! Despite some of the issues I take with the book, I really don’t mean this to be a scathing review. I’m rating this 3 stars–lower than Land of Silence or Bread of Angels–but I wouldn’t say it’s devoid of merit. In keeping with Afshar’s signature style, there are plenty of moments of spiritual reflection throughout the book that are thoughtful and encouraging, so if you’ve enjoyed her other titles you will find similar here. I also particularly liked Afshar’s rendering of Ruth’s background in Moab as well as her relationship with Naomi.
In closing, have you read any other books based on the life of Ruth? Also, what are your favorite verses from the Biblical account?
Close your eyes for a moment… (not too long, or you won’t be able to read this post!)
You’re me. You’re at work at the library. The automated materials handler (a.k.a. the book sorting machine) is humming and spitting books into different bins behind you; someone’s mom is reading aloud in the children’s area; coworkers in sweaters and cardigans answer the telephone at the help desk in a professional tone.
You just received the daily delivery from our sister library in Fairbanks… and opened the lid of one box full of brand new shiny books. If this didn’t already happen every week (and you didn’t have to wonder about little details like shelf space) you might expect some angelic music to fly out when that box opens. Or confetti. With sparkles!
The last jar remained to be opened. I plucked at the red wax seal and pried the lid off, welcoming the whoosh of ancient air. I peered in. This time there was no scroll, but a fleece wrapped package.
“Rabbi Kagba. It’s not like the others,” I said, some nervousness returning.
“Fetch it out, boy. My hand is too large.”
Reaching in elbow-deep, I grasped the prize and brought it into the light. Beneath thick wrapping, with smooth leather on the outside and fleece on the inside, I felt something the size and shape of a cup. Three strands of knotted leather bound the hide to it. On the exterior of the skin the label read, BEHOLD THE SILVER CUP OF JOSEPH, SON OF JACOB, PRINCE OF EGYPT.
Had Yahweh been calling to me? Without words? Had he guided my steps to be among his people? To be set free from bondage and to follow him into the wilderness for some purpose I did not yet understand? Perhaps even the dream that had plagued me after the Nile turned red, when the gods themselves bled, was a message that Yahweh would destroy their power.
My heart contracted as I imagined the possibilities. Did Yahweh, the Almighty Creator, hear me? An Egyptian slave? Even though I had refused to surrender to him?
I dipped my toes back into the cool, rich waters of the Nile with another foray into the world of ancient Egypt! The biblical tale of Moses and the Exodus is lush with meaning to be gleaned about our Redeemer, so it’s not surprising to me that it has inspired more than one novel. Counted With the Stars is written from a fresh perspective; the protagonist is an Egyptian (rather than a Hebrew) fearful for herself and her people as the plagues unfold.
Kiya, the main character, grew up with riches but was sold into slavery when her family becomes unexpectedly destitute. She forms a close friendship with a fellow Hebrew slave, who tells her the stories of their people and Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants (see Genesis 15.) Eventually Kiya flees Egypt with the Hebrews and must decide if she will surrender her life to the same God who decimated her homeland.
There were some issues; in my mind there was a strong disconnect between the first and second halves of the book. Excellent characters, who had been built up and fleshed out, disappear without a satisfying ending when Kiya leaves Egypt . New characters (particularly a villain) pop up out of nowhere and seem cliché by comparison. I also thought the romantic arc between Kiya and her Hebrew love interest was unrealistic and their dialog too contemporary. “Eben” spends most of the book glaring at Kiya and treating her with contempt and for some reason she continues to find him all the more appealing. Eben’s behavior is explained to be due to his father being murdered by Egyptians, but I still don’t understand Kiya’s attraction.
Cossette does an excellent job expounding on the plagues and miracles of God; I especially found her interpretation of the parting of the Red Sea interesting. She imagines the strong east wind God sends to divide the waters (Exodus 14:21) to be very cold, and it freezes the waters on each side of the dry ground into the walls on their right and left. One of my favorite things about Biblical fiction is how it has me constantly reaching for my Bible to reread passages; to me, Exodus 15:8, which speaks of the water being “gathered together…the depths congealed” doesn’t suggest icy walls, but I don’t think it is firmly exclusive of it. Cossette makes it very clear the parting is a miracle of God and not simply a natural phenomenon!
All in all, I think Counted With the Stars earned itself a solid 3/5 rating. Parting thought—are you tired of Biblical Christian fiction? Are there any genres you are really interested in seeing me review? I recently purchased a mystery, which is supposed to be like a Christian version of Agatha Christie. I also may be getting started on some speculative works. What do you want to see most? Suspense, legal, mystery, apocalyptic? Something else?
But one child, looking up, saw farther and deeper and wider than the others. He saw the glittering bursts and showers but he saw fireflies too, and stars, all of them sparks of hope flung upward like prayers into the night. For in one quiet, unexpected moment, he had looked beyond the stars and caught a glimpse of God.
Cravings usually go hand-in-hand with food, but as I was writing this review back in April I found myself craving something a little bigger: summertime. Summertime colors; the creek bubbling to life again; my porch-style swing—oh, how I missed reading and swaying on that swing on a hot day. Where I live it’s a long wait for summertime. Continue reading “Full Review, Sutter’s Cross”→
Cousin Albert held out his hand for the photograph. I swallowed and gave it to him. There were two letters in the envelope; one I knew to be Emily’s writing. I looked away. If the other was from Ma I couldn’t bear it. I’d prayed for a letter from her for nearly a year. That Cousin Albert should have both a letter and a photograph, when I had neither, made me hate him. And then I hated myself. What was I thinking, grudging a dying man the only air he wanted?
I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires
By Cathy Gohlke
Moody Publishers, 2008