A Place Behind the World was not the escape literature I sought while I was in a post-surgical haze of pain and medications. Nevertheless I wanted to clear paper books off my shelf, and A Place Behind the World looked about the right size to tackle (187 pages). It also had lots of white space. I hoped for an easy read, but the content wasn’t a good fit the day I read it. I had just had neck surgery.
The Plot of A Place Behind the World
When we meet Mary, a single woman who works for an ad agency in Washington, D.C., she is lost in a woods near her workplace. She is on her way to an appointment with a man in the park but can’t find him. Someone calls her name and she fears him. We watch her continuing struggle to find her way through the threatening woods. She fears an ice storm is on the way as she flees from this unknown assailant or kidnapper.
About every five pages there is a flashback. These flashbacks show scenes from Mary’s past and help us glimpse an abandoned child, molested by someone she had trusted. Men she had trusted too often had betrayed her as she searched for love.
We also meet Olivia, Mary’s only lifelong friend. Olivia’s kind father served Mary as both a father figure and Sunday School teacher. Uncle Oliver is the only one in her family that makes it clear he loves Mary. Her Aunt Lucile usually makes Mary feel unloved and unlovable.
For over 150 pages we watch Mary struggle to stay safe. Alternately she attempts to escape her hostile environment and escape “the hunter.” As she flees both she tries to follow the instructions of the illusive Michael who promises to protect her. Michael had described the woods in this “place behind the world” as a place of reckoning.
By the end of the book Mary finally realizes that Michael was right. However she had begun to doubt whether Michael was who he claimed to be. She wasn’t sure whom to trust. I don’t want to spoil the end, so I won’t say more about the plot here.
My Thoughts on the Book
I’m not inclined to analyze the author’s message or theme. I think you will discover it yourself as you read the book. In my opinion other authors have handled this theme better, but not in fiction . I may only have found this book hard to get into because of my physical state when I read it. But I don’t think so.
I believe the author could have achieved the same effect without belaboring the struggle in the woods . I think Hazard could have trimmed what seemed like unending descriptions of the hostile environment. We watch Olivia face darkness, the freezing cold, the rising fog, the murky water, etc. We look on as she finds a way to tunnel through tall and sharp rocks. I would have preferred less time in the woods and a quicker trip through the flashbacks. Sometimes less words are more effective than too many.
After I finished reading, I went back to the beginning to piece the book together. The struggle was important, but I still think too many words were wasted on descriptions of the woods and rocks. The plot and message would have been stronger had the author cut a few words out of those descriptions.
Is this book for you? Those who struggle with guilty secrets might enjoy this book more than I did. Those who have been unable to form healthy relationships with men might also find value in reading it. I think I would have preferred a mystery instead as I was recuperating. This was not an escape novel. I found it tedious.
Why does a person decide to become a surrogate mother? What makes a woman want to carry a child that belongs to someone else? To help a barren friend become a mother? Or as a way to earn money to start a new life?
When young Emily’s employer, Mrs. Stevenson, offers to pay her $100,000 to become her surrogate, Emily jumps at the chance. The cash would help her realize her dream of starting her own cafe.
She didn’t really like working for the Stevensons. She knew Mrs. Stevenson was cruel and manipulative. Emily had seen her falsely accuse and fire good employees who had done nothing wrong. She tried not to get on Judy Stevenson’s bad side, because she couldn’t afford to lose her job as housekeeper and cook for the rich couple. They even provided her with living quarters and she had nowhere else to go.
Emily discusses the Stevensons’ offer for her to become Judy’s surrogate with her best friend and fellow employee Brandon. He doesn’t understand how one becomes a surrogate. First she explains how the egg is implanted into her womb, adding that the doctor will explain more details after she signs a contract with Mr. Stevenson’s lawyer.
Brandon: …If you go through with this implant, they’ll hand you a hundred thousand dollars?….Just like that?
Emily: As soon as the baby is born, they’ll give me the money….They have a contract and everything….Don’t you see? I can leave here and find a place of my own. This is my only way out. A new start.
As Emily tries to convince herself it’s the right thing to do, it seems simple. She gets the implant, carries the baby to term, gives birth, and collects her $100,000. Brandon urges her to think it over for a couple of days before signing anything. He warns her that she could form a bond with the baby and not want to give it up. She dismisses the idea. She knows she’s not old enough at nineteen to raise a baby.
Into this discussion walks Mrs. Stevenson herself, but they hadn’t noticed at first that she was listening. She tells Brandon to get back to his gardening duties. As he’s leaving, this scene unfolds. Here’s how Emily tells it:
‘Oh, and Brandon, ‘ Mrs Stevenson pauses, awaiting his full attention. He turns and glares at her in complete defiance. A look I’ve never seen from him before. If you’ve ever heard the saying tension so thick you could cut it, then you understand my current situation. ‘I don’t pay you to give advice. If you would like to stay employed in this household, I suggest you mind your own business.’
‘But he was—‘ I start, but she silences me with a mere glance. She’s the type of woman who can smile at you and stare daggers into your soul at the same time. Something about her gives me the chills.
After Brandon leaves, Emily regrets ever telling him about the offer and her intention, thus provoking the confrontation. She is very fond of Brandon and is drawn to him. He has always been caring and gentle with her, unlike the many men her mother had brought home when she was growing up.
Her mother had kicked her out of the house the day she turned eighteen. She had worked at a diner until Mrs. Sevenson employed her and gave her a place to live.
Emily recognizes she’s attracted to Brandon, but is afraid he just sees her as a friend. He has been sharing his Christian faith with her.
Now Mrs. Stevenson approaches her, asking if she’s having second thoughts. She also tells Emily that if she decides not to become the surrogate, they will no longer have a place for her to stay. It will go to the person who does become a surrogate. Emily assures Mrs. Stevenson she will go through with the plan.
That night Brandon turns up in her living quarters unexpectedly and they continue the conversation. When Brandon leaves, the two are still at odds. Emily knows Brandon disapproves of her decision, but she hasn’t changed her mind.
Emily is anxious to talk to Brandon again, but try as she might she can’t find him anywhere on the grounds. At first she assumes he’s mad at her. She later discovers he’s been fired. She feels terrible. And she misses him.
Red Flags Emily Tried Not to Notice Before Signing the Surrogate Contract
Mr. Stevenson’s admonition to think about it at least overnight and his seeming discomfort over the transaction.
The provision in the contract that the money will be paid when she delivers a healthy baby
The lawyer’s statement that the contract is unconventional and that such transactions are normally done through an agency
Mr. Stevenson’s haunted look while urging Emily to think carefully before signing
The behavior of the doctor leading Emily to believe Mrs. Stevenson has had other surrogates
The words of Nurse O’Neill while giving Emily her medications, and the words the nurse mutters that she thinks Emily can’t hear, as well as the stories she tells Emily about Mrs. Stevenson’s past.
Her own observations of Mrs. Stevenson’s character, manipulative behavior, and selfishness
My Review of The Surrogate
I couldn’t put this book down from the moment I started reading. The main characters were well-developed, though I thought the plot was unrealistic. However I was so interested in what might happen next I was willing to overlook that. I believe the author’s main intent was to show how what seems to be a simple decision can be incredibly complex and even dangerous.
Emily appears to be a new Christian. She is blinded by her desire to escape Mrs. Stevenson’s employment and start her restaurant with the money she will get when the baby is born. She assumes everything will go as planned. It doesn’t.
After early testing, the doctor tells Mrs. Stevenson that there’s a chance the baby may be born with Down’s Syndrome, and Judy insists on an abortion. By this time Emily is bonding to the baby and she runs away with Brandon’s help to try to save the baby’s life. As it turns out she also needs to save her own. The reader is in suspense until the end as Emily and Brandon try to escape from Judy’s thugs . The action doesn’t stop.
The story reflects the author’s pro-life position and Christian values. There are plenty of Christian characters besides Brandon whose lives impact Emily’s in a positive way.
The book is suitable for both young adults and their mothers who want to read clean fiction with lots of suspense and a touch of romance. It delves into the ethical and emotional issues surrounding surrogate motherhood and abortion without being preachy. I recommend it.
Here are some of the other Christian novels I have reviewed that you may enjoy:
How Sweet the Soundby Amy Sorrells: The author uses this Christian novel to reveal the destructive patterns that can lead families and individuals to despair, but she also show us the way to Abba’s love and healing.
Tabitha by Vikki Kestell — A historical novel in which a young lady’s bad decision caused pain from which only the grace of God could deliver her
Inescapable: The Road to Kingdom: Is it possible to escape one’s past by running away? Lizzie Engel, born Amish, tries.
I admit to reading light romances when I want to relax. Sometimes I just don’t feel like thinking hard about what I’m reading. I want pure entertainment, and I prefer reading to television. I’m also addicted to free or bargain books. Some of these were free for a limited time on Amazon and some still may be free. Some I paid for after getting hooked on the series. Some I got free directly from the authors, but that did not influence my reviews. I always give my honest opinion.
Olivia by Kate Palmer
Olivia is Book 3 in the Western Hearts Series. Olivia Neilson unwillingly agrees to help run her father’s ranch while he’s away. She is a renowned horse trainer who dreams of having her own stable to breed and train horses. She is also engaged to Shane Chapman, a rich real estate investor. They are partners in forming Sterling Shoes Stables. They are building training and boarding facilities during the six months Olivia is running her parents’ ranch in Cedar Creek, an hour away from Sterling Shoes Stables, closer to the city.
Olivia has promised Shane to come to the city to join him when he wines and dines potential investors. At the first of these dinners, she hears Shane promise a couple of investors a quicker return on their investment than is reasonable. They also seem to expect her to train race horses, which she’s never done.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Shane’s investors appear with horses Olivia and her father’s new partner, the Cedar Creek vet Adam, do not expect and did not authorize. Olivia senses something is not right. Then two creepy men start following Olivia. Shane never seems to have satisfactory answers when she asks about these incidents.
Is Shane not what he appears to be? Is Olivia in danger? What can Adam do to help her?
This clean Christian romance with a touch of mystery fully engaged me. I couldn’t put the book down until the plot resolved itself. Click images to check prices at Amazon.
The Mutt and the Matchmaker: A Short Amusing Romance Novella
This light-hearted novella first introduces us to Jane Bly, who has given up on finding Mr. Right. Armani Vasquez, a self-proclaimed psychic matchmaker decides Jane is the perfect match for Tom Hanlon, a Private Investigator who is trying to catch a thief. Add Tom’s Aunt Ruby and her neighbor’s Maltese to the mix along with Jane’s fearful foster dog Calamity, and you have the recipe for a wacky romantic mystery.
This is a quick read and amusing if you don’t have anything better to read, but it has no depth and the plot is highly unrealistic. The best thing about it was the free promotional price. It kept me amused while I rode the stationary bike at the gym. It’s the first book in a three-book series by JB Lynn. If you love a mix of mystery and romance and want some light reading, this series may be for you.
I saved my favorite book for last. This Christian historical romance is set in historic Eagle Harbor on Lake Superior. It introduces a cast of unforgettable characters, many of whom fish or work in the nearby copper mines to support themselves. The theme of God’s providence runs through the book but is not intrusive.
Tressa, Otis, Colin, Erik, and the Sheriff
Widow Tressa Dannel discovers her cheating scoundrel of a husband, Otis, has left her with a mountain of debt. Tressa has been earning money to pay the mortgage on her bakery, where she and her son Colin live. Someone had stolen her savings three times and the banker, Erik Ranulfson, is about to foreclose. Sheriff Jenkins isn’t very helpful in finding the thief.
Finley McCabe and Reed Herod: The unwanted Suitor and The Brothel Owner
Finley McCabe, an uncouth man Tressa despises, keeps proposing and forcing unwanted attention on her. Reed Herod, the owner of a brothel Otis frequented, is pressuring Tressa to prostitute herself to pay off Otis’s debt to him. There is no way Tressa will agree to either of these options.
The Heartless Creditor, Bryon Sinclair
Otis borrowed money from wealthy merchant Bryon Sinclair to buy a new ship and then had gambled it away. Tressa inherited the gambling debt when Otis died. Bryon insists Tressa earn the money to pay off Otis’ debts as a cook on one of his ships. This would separate her from her ten-year-old son Colin. He could forgive Tressa’s debt and never feel it, but he won’t. Instead of showing compassion, he flaunts his wealth and power.
Colin Lost, Mac Meets Tressa
Now Colin is nowhere to be found. He’s not with his friends, and Tressa has to search for him. First, though, she has to mix another batch of dough. As she reaches for a wooden spoon her utensil canister falls to the floor. As she searches on her hands and knees for her errant rolling pin, Colin enters, startling her. Her head comes up against the counter and knocks the glob of sourdough into her lap, leaving her head throbbing.
Mac sympathized with Tressa because his father had been much like Otis. His best friend Elijah Cummings’ father, Hiram had taken Mac in, so Elijah was like a brother to him. Hiram had died in a shipwreck and they all still missed him.
When Mac sees how desperate Tressa’s situation is, he wants to help, but she won’t let him. She is also determined never to marry again. She doesn’t want any man to control her life and all she owns as Otis did. About all she will let Mac do is care for Colin if she has to work on the ship to pay Mr. Sinclair.
Mac and Elijah both believe God is in control, even as their own plans to buy a shipyard together in Port Huron and move there fall apart. Mac wants to marry Tressa, but she only wants to move away from a town she believes despises her. Her creditors are taking her to court in a few days, and only Judge Matherson can determine how much she has to pay to whom. He has a history of siding with men.
My Review and Recommendation
Naomi Rawlings grabbed my attention with Love’s Unfading Lightimmediately. Although I had started the book on the stationary bike at the gym, I couldn’t put it down to get any work done after I got home. I finished it before bed.
The Eagle Harbor setting in this novel plays a large role in shaping the characters. Eagle Harbor is a real place and you can read more about it and its history here. In this small fishing village and mining town, everyone knows everyone else and usually has an opinion about their neighbors. There is a wide gulf between the lives of the rich people who have power and those who earn their living as fishermen, miners, and small business owners.
The characters were well-developed. It was easy to care about Mac, Tressa, Elijah, and their many friends. It was also easy to mentally boo Bryon Sinclair and Reed Herod, the heartless villains. Had this been a drama, they would both have been trying to tie Tressa to the railroad tracks as the train approached. Mac would have gotten there just before the train to untie her.
The banker, Erik Ranulfson, was not a villain, even though he felt he had to foreclose if Tressa could not pay the mortgage. The grocer, Mr. Foley, also had a heart. You see the good in these men as they interact with Tressa and other characters.
The plot was intricate, with many subplots neatly woven into it. The author left just enough hints scattered through the book to allow readers to anticipate how these would build.
As I read the book, I knew I had met some of the characters before. Sure enough, I had read Love’s Sure Dawn, Book 3 in the Eagle Harbor Series, a year ago. I liked it even more than Love’s Unfading Light. I hope to read the rest of this series soon. I highly recommend getting the entire series at once, because if you like Christian historical romance you will want to read them all.
Grab One of these Romances Now for a Reading Treat
Books of Special Interest to Families with Adolescent Girls
These Christian books can lead to great discussions between adolescent girls and their mothers. The themes are rarely presented as well in the other books for adolescent girls I’ve read. The heroines develop deeper Christian character as they deal with social issues, peer pressure, faith, obedience, and friends.
A Room of My Own by Ann Tatlock.
A Room of my Own is set during the Depression, and Virginia, the daughter of a prominent physician, does not feel the Depression personally at first. Her family is well-off, and physicians are never laid off. But suddenly, her Uncle Jim loses his job at the grain mill, and Virginia must give up her room and share a bed with her younger sisters so that Uncle Jim, Aunt Sally, and their children can live with them — in HER room.
This makes the Depression more personal, and it becomes even more alarming when Uncle Jim becomes involved in organizing a labor union for the mill workers (which finally results in a violent strike). Virginia’s father begins to take her along on his calls to “Soo City” — a shantytown populated by the newly homeless along with the older hobo residents. The climax occurs when Virginia must choose between saving her father from sure danger and warning the residents of “Soo City” that the sheriff is going to burn their homes.
I suggest this book because it introduces many important themes. One is how blind we can be to the needs of others, blaming them for their needs, when we ourselves are not hurting. This can be especially evident in adolescent lives.
We can also see that personal knowledge can chase away prejudices and generalizations about people. Here are some of the historic/economic themes in this book worth discussing:
how to best help the poor
why labor unions were formed
whether violence is ever justified in trying to correct social ills
the effects of the Great Depression.
Though the central character of this book is a girl, there is much here for boys, as well. There are plenty of male characters for them to identify with, including the good doctor himself.
Because there is violence in the book, parents should only give it to children of at least adolescent age who can handle mature themes. It would make a wonderful read-aloud for families with adolescent girls.
The first is The Tender Years. Strangely enough, the protagonist of this book is also named Virgina. She has a persistent problem with peer pressure. The exciting Jenny, who leads the “in” group at Virginia’s school, has picked Virginia as her special friend. Virginia doesn’t want to lose that favored position even though Jenny’s schemes often get her in trouble with her parents.
Virginia’s supportive but firm Christian family provides appropriate consequences when she breaks the rules, so Virginia tries to obey. She succeeds for a time, but one day the pressure is too great. She lets herself be talked into a very risky situation — a ride in a “borrowed” raft with the gang. Virginia’s father had warned her that the creek was high and very dangerous. Virginia knew if she wanted to stay Jenny’s best friend she’d better show up for the raft ride. So, instead of going directly home from school as she was told, with heavy heart Virginia went to the creek.
As the gang waited for Jenny, their ringleader, to arrive, Virginia became more and more concerned about the time. When Jenny finally arrived, Virginia got into an argument with her, stood her ground, and left. Later, when Virginia hears that the raft overturned in the swift current, she is consumed with guilt — especially when one of her friends dies as a result and Jenny is badly injured.
The rest of the book deals with the healing process — not only for Virginia but for her friend Jenny. Virginia’s parents want her to reach out to Jenny with the love of Christ since Jenny has no home life. She has no mother at home and her father is an alcoholic.
There are many subplots that add interest to this book, and I found it difficult to put it down. The main themes are obedience and peer pressure and the conflicts between the two in the mind of an adolescent. This book would be good to read with preteen girls and up, for there is much to discuss.
The Tender Years is the first of four books in the Prairie Legacy Series. I’ve read all four because I became very interested in Virginia’s life. I think you won’t want to stop after you read the first book either, so you might want to get them all at once. There are links to the individual books if you click the image above.
Return to Harmony by Janette Oke
Return to Harmonyis another of my favorite Janette Oke books (with T. David Bunn). It is the story of the friendship between Bethan and Jodie, two Christian girls, as they grow into young women.
The book begins in Harmony, North Carolina in 1915. Harmony is a very small town. The population was under 350 back then. It was and still is primarily a community of small farms. Bethan was very content to live there. Jodie was hoping to leave someday.
Bethan and Jodie became friends the day Bethan had found a puppy and was sobbing because her mother said she couldn’t keep it. Then the school bully, Kirsten, tried to torment the puppy and Bethan, her favorite victim. Jodie sprang to Bethan’s defense, and from then on the girls were fast friends. Jodie knew just the person who really needed a puppy and led Bethan to Mr. Russel, a Civil War veteran who lived alone. He said the girls could visit the puppy anytime, and they often did.
Jodie was protective of her smaller friend, who was often picked on at school because she had a lazy eye. She knew Bethan hated having to wear her dreaded eye patch — especially at school. On the days she had to wear it, she also had to carry a spare. When Jodie saw how unhappy Bethan was on the day of the school spelling bee, Jodie wore the spare patch during the spelling bee, which she won, to show her solidarity with Bethan.
Jodie and Bethan were very different. Jodie was academically gifted and loved school. Bethan’s eye problem made reading hard for her and she didn’t do well in school at all. Just before the spelling bee Jodie had overheard her teacher and Bethan’s talking in the hallway. Bethan’s teacher was afraid she’d have to hold Bethan back at the end of the year. Jodie interceded for her friend and said she would tutor her, and her teacher agreed to try that.
Tragically, Jodie’s mother Louise catches polio not too long after that. Bethan stayed by her side during the period when Jodie was not allowed in to see her mother. Day after day the two girls sat together in silence at Jodie’s, gazing through her mother’s window in the afternoons, watching her struggle to breathe.
On the ninth day, Louise expresses her love to Jodie and her father and dies. After that, Jodie tells Bethan God let her down when He took her mother and she stops praying and won’t let Bethan talk to her about faith anymore. Her grieving is long and hard, but Bethan is with her through it. Bethan never stops praying for Jodie.
By this time Jodie’s father, who was always quiet except with Louise, has retreated into his own world and hardly ever says a word to Jodie. Were it not for Bethan and her family, Jodie would be completely alone. Neither had any other real friends.
As it became apparent that war would soon break out in Europe, Bethan’s family became concerned that Bethan’s brother Dylan would soon reach the age of conscription. The girls were also growing up. They were now sixteen. Though Bethan loved living in Harmony and desired nothing more than to find a loving husband and spend her life there, Jodie wanted to go to college and become a scientist. She also wanted to be a city girl.
Dylan is finally drafted, but the war is almost over, so he really doesn’t see the fighting. Instead, he repairs engines and decides he wants a career in the new automotive industry. It’s not long before he’s home again. At his welcome home party, he notices that Jodie is now a young lady, no longer just a kid. The two fall in love and get engaged.
It is apparent to Bethan and her mother, though, that Jodie has abandoned her Christian faith. Dylan is still a committed Christian. At the request of her mother, Bethan talks to her brother about their concerns. Dylan, who was trying not to face this issue, finally admits he has also seen this. He breaks the engagement and broken-hearted Jodie won’t forgive Bethan. Instead, she walks out of her life saying she never wants to see Bethan again.
Jodie takes the train to Raleigh to study chemistry at the university on a scholarship. Bethan is devastated by the separation. Jodie also feels completely alone since she is the only girl studying chemistry and she is ostracized by her male classmates. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there.
This book can be a catalyst for discussion on complicated issues. These include the meaning and responsibilities of Christian friendship, why God lets bad things happen to good people, how to help a grieving person, and the importance of being equally yoked in a marriage. I’d like to see this book in the hands of all Christian adolescent girls.
Elderberry Croft: A Place of Refuge for a Hurting Soul
When Willow Goodhope moved into the old cottage in the Coach House Trailer Park, she named it Elderberry Croft. She had chosen it because she had seen the little elderberry tree growing along the creek near her cottage. It had reminded her of a Bible verse about a tree planted by the water that sent its shoots out and did not need to fear heat or drought. Its leaves would remain green, and it would continue to bear fruit.
As Willow told her neighbor Kathy, ‘I’m like that tree. I’m in a place right now where growing seems almost impossible, but God is teaching me to send my roots toward the water, to choose life, and maybe to bloom where I’m planted, even to bear fruit. For now, this is where I’m planted.’
As soon as Willow got out of her old Toyota truck and started unpacking, her nearest neighbors Kathy and Myra started spying on her. They watched as she transformed the old cottage they both knew was a shack into a hanging garden with her potted plants.
Not only Kathy and Myra but also the rest of the Southern California trailer park residents were curious to see what the young redhead would be like. They couldn’t imagine why someone so young would live at their trailer park. Most of the residents were much older. Most believed they and their neighbors had come to the Coach House Trailer Park to remain until they died. Willow didn’t seem to fit.
Willow was a mystery, an enigma. She managed to find out her neighbors’ secrets as she helped heal their wounded spirits with her goody baskets and tasty things made of elderberries. She somehow managed to help physically and emotionally isolated residents to form healthy and supportive relationships with other residents they knew only as names.
Willow knew everyone’s problems. No one knew Willow’s. Occasionally someone heard her plaintive singing by the creek or saw her tears. Rumors were that she had a husband but was not living with him. No one could pry the reason she was hiding at Elderberry Croft out of Willow until almost the end of the book.
No Spoilers Here
The author gave me a free download for this book with no strings attached. I did not even have to promise to review the book. I decided to read it when I came home from a trip exhausted and didn’t feel like anything heavy. It was the perfect book to keep me curious to the end without taxing my brain too much.
I loved getting to know all the residents of the trailer park and I began to care about all of them. Although the plot was light, the residents all dealt with heavy problems. They ranged from substance abuse, childhood abuse, and PTSD to serious relationship problems that tore families apart.
Until Willow came and reached out to them with her healing baskets of baked goods, teas, jams, and salves made of herbs and elderberries, the Coach House residents nursed their hurts in isolation. Willow gave to others to keep from facing her deepest hurt. In the end, it’s the hurt of another that forces her to confront her own pain.
I did not want this inspirational novel to end. It appeared that Willow was on the way to healing at the conclusion, but I still bought the sequel because I wanted to know more. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Willow yet. If you read Elderberry Croft, you probably won’t want to say goodbye either.
I recommend that you start with the complete collection because once you start reading, you won’t want to stop. The characters’ stories develop together until the end. If you don’t have all the parts, you will be left hanging.
It Is Well Shows How a Major War Can Tear a Family Apart
We’ve all heard the saying that war is hell. It Is Well, by James D. Shipmantakes us toWake Island when it is attacked by Japan and to Fort Benning, Georgia for a brutal look at basic training. Then we move to Europe for a taste of fighting in Sherman tanks. We also see how widowed father Jonathan Beecher worries about his two sons who are involved overseas and his daughter who seems headed for trouble at home. In the midst of all this he is fighting to save his hardware store. The war makes inventory hard to acquire and more expensive.
I don’t usually read war novels, but this book seemed the best of my six choices to read free on my Kindle before release this month, through my Prime membership, . The book is easy to understand, but I found it emotionally hard to read. The only book that affected me somewhat the same way was Andersonville, by Mac Kinlay Kantor.
The story of the Andersonville Fortress which the Confederates used as a concentration camp for Union prisoners during the Civil War is now available in DVD. My stomach and emotions would not be strong enough to watch it. I didn’t feel like eating for two weeks after I read it. Fortunately, It Is Well is not quite as graphic, but it is still a vivid picture of what those in war zones faced and what their families suffered at home during World War II.
The Beecher Family before Pearl Harbor
Jonathan Beecher lived with his two sons, Matthew and Luke, and his daughter Mary, in Snohomish, a small town near the coast of Washington State, just southeast of Everett. Jonathan’s wife Helen had died of cancer when the book opens and the family is together for the funeral. Helen had made Jonathan promise before she died that he would never remarry.
Although Jonathan urges Matthew to stay home and help him at the store, Matthew opts to return to his job as a civilian construction worker in the Philippines. He tells his father he will probably return home in April of 1942, when his job is done. He is then transferred to Wake Island.
Jonathan had had high hopes for Matthew. He was intelligent and knew how to apply himself, but had no desire to go to college as his father wanted him to. So Jonathan pinned his hopes on Mary, who was also intelligent enough to go to college.
She was very helpful at home and at the store, but she disappointed him by welcoming the attentions of a much older policeman Jonathan knew was up to no good. Mary appeared to be willing to accept the counsel of her father not to date him, but she then later eloped with him. As Jonathan suspected, he turned out to be abusive.
Luke, the younger son was lazy. He tried to get through life with his good looks and smooth talking. He was also a prankster who had little respect for authority and often got into trouble. His father worried he’d never be a productive person. He knew he couldn’t rely on Luke for any help at all.
Pearl Harbor Changes Everything for the Family
The Beecher family attended the Snohomish Free Methodist Church where Jonathan is a pillar. After the service on December 7, 1941, his friend the pastor introduces him to a new church member, Sarah Gilbertson, a widow with a daughter. He explains that Sarah will be helping out at the church, and that Jonathan may be seeing her on the days he mows the lawn.
As they are talking, Jonathan notices a commotion in the church yard with a crowd gathering. He goes to see what’s causing the excitement and learns the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. The young men are already talking about enlisting . Jonathan knows Luke, and tells him not to go, or at least to wait a bit to see if they really will need him. Luke, being Luke, doesn’t listen. He has no idea what the Army is like. He believes it is one more adventure he can get through without much work or effort, so he enlists.
After he is living alone again, Jonathan is lonely. He and Sarah become friends with the understanding that they can never become more than friends. Sarah is not happy with that, and neither is Jonathan, but he feels bound before God by his promise to Helen not to marry again.
All Is Not Well at Home or Overseas or at Fort Benning
The Japanese invade Wake Island and Matthew had to learn to stand alone in the face of circumstances he’d never imagined he’d have to face. Luke discovers his disrespect for authority has severe consequences in the Army. For me, painful as it was to read, the important part of the book was watching these boys grow into what they needed to be.
Mary also learned that her disregard of her father’s guidance has made her life miserable and dangerous. Jonathan, meanwhile, knows he has fallen in love with Sarah and crosses the line by kissing her. Then he is filled with guilt and knows he needs to go back to just being friends. Sarah is not willing and breaks the relationship.
Meanwhile, the hardware store is more in debt every day. Supplies cost more because of the war that makes nails and other tools scarce. His customers have less to spend because of the war. Jonathan is trying to save his business.
The reader watches as the characters fight their own internal and external battles. Most begin to realize that the faith they have is weak or non-existent. They begin to seek God as best they can. They see how poorly equipped they are to survive physically or emotionally with no hope. By the end, all the characters have grown in character through what they have suffered.
This book is very well-written with complex characters whose lives you want to follow. The author shows every bit as much as he tells. Even though I don’t like war stories, especially battle scenes and human misery, this book drew me in and I couldn’t put it down.
I was a war baby sheltered in America. My own dad was rejected by the Army because he had flat feet, so I never heard any first-hand war stories. This book opened my eyes to what our infantry can experience in battle and the enormity of their physical and mental anguish. And I was only reading about it. They live it. No wonder so many come home unable to share their experiences except with their Army buddies!
Although though the plot was engaging, it was merely the vehicle to show us how the characters matured as they faced their inner and external demons. I won’t be a spoiler and tell you how the book ends. I’m hoping you will take this journey of discovery yourself.
The Kindle edition was the first Kindle novel I’ve read in a while that still has the X-Ray feature. I miss it when a book doesn’t have it — especially if it’s a book I want to review. Kindle books aren’t as easy to scan and flip through as paper books, and the X-Ray feature makes it easier to remember all the characters and important parts of the plot.
I would recommend It Is Well to those who enjoy realistic historical fiction, especially that which relates to World War II. There is blood and gore, as you might expect, and cruelty. It was hard for me to read those parts. I am more sensitive to these things than most people I know. Yet each of these episodes contributes to the growth of the characters. They aren’t there just to be sensational.
I would not recommend this to people suffering from depression since there aren’t many happy moments until near the end. These were not happy times. The book is realistic and doesn’t paint a rosy picture of war at home or abroad. It does portray the devastating effect war has on all involved, including civilians. If you’d like to better understand what we now call “the greatest generation,” I urge you to read this book.
I have been unable to discover who decided September 6 is National Read a Book Day, but it really doesn’t matter. People should be reading books every day. Most teachers, librarians and booksellers would agree. My nose has always been in a book. I can’t understand why more people aren’t turning off the TV. I’ve always found reading more entertaining.
Life Without Books?
As one who’s always been surrounded by books, I don’t want to think how dull life would be without them. I usually read three to five books a week. I’m currently reading A Lady of High Regard by Tracie Peterson, a Christian historical romance. As I write this it’s still free in the Kindle edition, but the price could go up any time.
I cut my bookworm teeth on picture books. Later I read my way through most of the juvenile section at the public library near my home. I walked there nearly every day. The librarian “didn’t notice” when I had checked more than the total books I was allowed at one time. By the time I hit high school, I was reading my way through any nonfiction books in the adult section I found interesting. You might conclude I was a voracious reader and you would be right.
Television Lost when Competing with Reading
When I was very young, TV was new. I was six years old when the first neighbor bought one and we all gathered to watch Beanie and Cecil on the Leakin’ Lena. Here’s a sample show of the type we saw — the original black and white puppet version.
Is it no wonder that I preferred the Thornton Burgess animal stories? TV shows for children in those days could not compete for my attention with Amanda, by Wolf Von Trutzschler. It was my all time favorite picture book. Amanda was a friendly snake who wanted to help all the other animals, most of whom loved her. Her best friend was Archibald, a monkey, who acted as her hands. The pictures in that book will stay with me forever. The book is now collectible and expensive, but I wanted you to see the cover anyway. I’m glad I still have my copy, even though it’s worn out.
Some of my favorite stories and poems came from the big orange Childcraft books (1954 edition) Mom had on the shelf. I poured over the folk and fairy tales, adventure stories, and illustrated poems day after day.
Among other books I loved was Make Way for Ducklings, a book no child should miss. I loved the scene where the policeman held back traffic so the duck family could safely cross the street.
The Little Golden Books are Unforgettable
Back then there were not many quality picture books, but we did have the Little Golden Books. Some of my favorites are still available today. These books sold for only a quarter when first published. I had a large assortment. These are the illustrations stored in my mind. For the most part, these are the editions I loved. Newer editions of The Three Little Kittens have dropped a few pages deemed politically incorrect today.
Noises and Mr. Flibberty-jib was one of my favorite books because noise bothers me, too. That’s one reason I moved to the country, just like he did. I made my mother read me The Taxi That Hurried over and over. I wanted that taxi to get to the train station on time. The Poky Little Puppy appeals to the children who like to stop and observe what they see, even if it makes them late for dinner.
Annette Funicello was about my age, and I idolized her. She finally got her own series on the Mickey Mouse Club. Disney featured Annette’s series in a collector’s DVD set. It includes biographical information on Annette, as well. I read her autobiography, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, not long before she died. It satisfied my search for more information about the person I had identified with so much during my middle school years.
My family watched Lawrence Welk and I loved the Lennon Sisters. I recently read their autobiography, Same Song, Separate Voices, written by all four of them, and loved it. They grew up in Los Angeles County, as I did, and they weren’t rich. I had watched them sing on Lawrence Welk for years and the book showed me how they got started, what those years meant to them, and what came after them. Every fan should read this book. This video shows the sisters when they were young on the Lawrence Welk Show, as I knew them.
As a preteen, I spent most of my free time in my room devouring the historical fiction of Gladys Malvern. I had loved Behold Your Queen — the fictionalized version of the Bible‘s Esther. I wanted to read all Malvern’s books. Now they are available in Kindle editions. I see I missed some my library didn’t have. Nancy Drew was also required reading when I was young, so I read through the original series.
I still preferred books to television when in my teens. The only shows I really cared about were comedies. Our Miss Brooks was my favorite. I love to laugh, and that’s something Eve Arden always makes me do. Other shows I watched were I Love Lucy, and the Burns and Allen show. Those shows accounted for about 90 minutes a week, so I had lots of time left to read. Most of my friends read, too, so we shared book recommendations.
What I Read While I Was in College
I continued to read classic fiction. I was an English major, so a lot of the fiction and poetry I read was assigned. If I enjoyed authors, I tried to read more of their books. I read German poets in the original.
College was also a time of spiritual inquiry for me. By my junior year I had returned to faith in Christ after a three-year period of exploring other religions. I read a lot of Christian nonfiction to better understand my faith and inspire me to live it out in everyday life. The books I read in college were the classics of evangelical students in the 1960’s, and I had the privilege of meeting some of their authors at conferences.
One of these was John R. W. Stott, a prominent Anglican priest and world-renowned Bible teacher. His most well-known book is Basic Christianity. His writing is alive with truth and challenges to apply it to life.
I also met Elizabeth Elliot, first missionary and later a college professor. She was widowed three times. Her most famous book is Through Gates of Splendor, the story of the martyrdom of her husband and four other American missionaries in a jungle in Ecuador. After his death, she edited and published his journals. Shadow of the Almighty reveals the innermost thoughts of a man totally committed to following Christ — even to death. It required careful and thoughtful reading.
The End of the Spear is a movie that tells the story of the five missionaries’ deaths from the point of view of the Waodani warrior who led the raid that killed them. The movie also reveals the good that came from this martyrdom.
You now know some of the books that satisfied my need for stories and knowledge during my youth. I will skip the years of early marriage and parenting. I have shared some of what I’m reading now in other reviews on this blog. Most of the books here are now available in Kindle editions. That means you could actually buy a book today for National Read a Book Day. If you don’t have a Kindle yet, I review the one I use here.
If you opt for picture books, I hope you will get physical books rather than eBooks. I think real books provide a better reading experience for children and allow for better interaction with the pictures.
No matter what day today is when you read this, go read a book and help your children to do the same. Take a trip to the library to celebrate Read a Book Day. Then take your treasures home and read them. Enjoy.
I like mixed genre fiction. I enjoy almost any fiction genre more if it contains some humor. Humor can relieve the tension in a mystery or thriller. Romance can also add interest to mysteries and historical novels. Christian faith can add depth to romance, historical fiction, and mysteries.
I have been mixing it up this month. I’ve read many novels that fit into multiple genres. Here are brief reviews of some of them. At the end of the post you will find links to the books I’ve discussed. Some of them may still be free for your Kindle. Many of the books are also available in paperback for those who prefer bound books.
Mixed Genre Fiction for Youth: Humor, Mystery and Romance
Kait’s Strange Hobby: Adventures in Funeral Crashing
Adventures in Funeral Crashing by Milda Harris introduces us to Kait Lenox and Ethan Ripley — two people hurting because of a death in the family. Kait is sixteen and a nerd. Her former best friend Ariel has turned into an enemy who loves to make fun of her in public. As one of the unpopular people in her school, she eats by herself. She loves to read, and her secret hobby is crashing funerals. The first funeral she attended was her mother’s, who had died of ovarian cancer, and Kait misses her — a lot.
Ethan is the most popular boy in the school. His half-sister, Liz O’Reilly, has just died of an overdose. Her friends and family were shocked since she did not run with druggies and seemed to be an upbeat person — not someone who would do drugs. Nevertheless, the papers reported she had died of a drug overdose.
Kait decides to go to Liz’s funeral, even though she had never known Liz, who was in college. Kait’s usual practice is to be inconspicuous, wear dark clothing, and sit near the back. She tries to avoid talking to anyone who might ask her how she knows the deceased. She figures Liz’s funeral will be big enough that no one will notice she is there.
Kait doesn’t want to admit to anyone she is funeral crashing. She likes funerals because she learned a lot about her mother at her funeral she hadn’t known before. Kait likes to hear the stories family and friends tell about their loved ones at the funerals she crashes.
Unfortunately, at Liz’s funeral, Ethan Ripley walked up to her and asked her how she knows Liz. Her prepared answer, that they had an English class at the community college doesn’t work with Ethan since he knows she is only in high school. So she asks how he knows Liz, and he explains Liz is his half-sister. He asks again how she knows Liz, and she flees.
Ethan Nails Kait and They Team Up to Solve the Mystery of Liz’s Death
She manages to evade Ethan for a few days before he finally finds her at the video store where she works and makes her explain how she knows Liz. She finally admits that she doesn’t and that she was just funeral crashing. Ethan asks why she likes funerals and she explains.
She talked about her mother’s funeral, and Ethan and Kait see each other’s grief. It comes out that Liz is one of several girls who recently died of an overdose, and they were all girls no one expected to be using heroin. Ethan finally tells Kait he thinks Liz was murdered. The two decide to work on the case and find out who killed Liz and the other girls.
A Teen Romance Even an Adult Can Enjoy
There is enough humor, mystery, and romance in this book to keep most teenage girls intrigued. Even I didn’t want to put the book down. There was a twist at the end that caught me off-guard, but I was still satisfied with the ending.
I enjoyed the interaction between the teens and the hints of budding romances. I will have to read the next books in the series to see how the romances progress and what new mysteries the friends will solve. The series has good reviews from those who have read all of the first three books. The one I have reviewed is still free for Kindle as I write this. To order, just click on the buy button at the end of this post.
The Aylesford Humorous Christian Romance Series for Adults by Steve Demaree
Brad Meets His Neighbors
I read Volume I, Pink Flamingoed, and I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. Well-known mystery writer Brad Forrester inherits a house in what he assumes is a quiet neighborhood on Aylesford Place in December. Before he can even unpack he hears carolers outside his door.
When they have finished singing, they invite him to come with them as they gather all the other neighbors on the dead-end street. The three singers are Amy, his pretty next door neighbor, and Cora and Frank, an elderly couple. Cora explains to Brad that Amy will lead the neighborhood tour as they collect the other carolers. She explains who lives in each house and a bit about them. The church most of them go to is at the dead-end of the block. When everyone is collected they all go to Amy’s house for a party.
What a Bunch of Characters!
The fun in this book is in the interaction between the characters, most of whom are Christians. As Brad observes them for the first time, it’s obvious that Harry, the retired IRS agent, is the brunt of most of the jokes. He is a tightwad, and they call him on it frequently. Cora is like the adopted mother of the single young adults who live on the block. They confide in her and she gives them advice.
Melanie is a single real estate agent who chases any man near her age who crosses her path. Cora tries to tell her that she may be scaring off those men who might like to do the chasing themselves. Amy is a professional photographer.
Pastor Scott Ambruster and his wife Nancy have the only children on the street, Jill, Kenny, and Mallory. They also add humor to the book as they tease each other. Kenny’s greatest fun seems to be in making his sisters miserable.
The most infamous resident on the block is someone no one ever sees. The neighbors call her Witch Peabody, but her real name is Minerva. Her fortress-like house with an iron gate is next to the park. No one dares get near it, for it’s said that she shoots anyone who does. She frightened a couple of Mormon missionaries so badly that they ran away and no Mormon ever came back to the neighborhood.
One Big Zany Family
It soon becomes evident to the readers that the neighborhood is like a big family. They tease each other, but they care for each other. Within this neighborhood, there are four budding romances before the book ends, and one of the couples is not young.
Cora seems to be the ring leader of the group — the one who organizes things and keeps everyone — including Harry — in line. She is the one who organizes the church fundraiser where the pink flamingo comes into play.
The Pink Flamingo
One unlucky neighbor is chosen by lot to be the first to receive the pink flamingo Cora provides. The person with the flamingo must place it in plain sight in the yard of another neighbor — without being seen. If a neighbor finds the pink flamingo in their yard, they have to donate $20 to the fund for the orphanage and be the next one to get rid of the flamingo. If they get caught placing the flamingo, they have to donate $20 to the fund.
Tightwad Harry is determined avoid having to make that $20 donation. That’s why he sleeps on the front porch the first night. I won’t tell you how that turned out. You need to read the book, which currently, as I write this is free. You have to pay for the rest of the books in the series.
There are many humorous subplots, most involving Harry. There are also some mysteries to be solved. Why is Minerva a recluse? Who is the mysterious Moses on the church email list? Harry’s efforts to solve this one make his wife sure he’s having an affair. She also thinks that’s why Harry wants to sleep on the porch.
Pink Flamingoed Will Make You Laugh
Pink Flamingoed is slapstick funny and should appeal to most adult ages who just want to laugh. I think seniors will most appreciate the humor and may catch more of it than younger people might.
The characters are not as well developed as they could be, but their interactions show you a lot about them. What they do reveals their personalities, as well as their affection for one another.
The books in the Aylesford Place Series are not literary, but they are entertaining. They make great escapes when you don’t want to get involved with a thriller.
Romance Novels are Ideal to Read When You Have to Read in Spurts
When it’s hot and I’m feeling a bit wilted, I tend to read romance novels that don’t demand too much from me. This is especially true when I have to spend a lot of time waiting. I had numerous computer problems this week. I used several tiny slices of time to read just a few pages while I was waiting for scans and reboots.
Light romance novels are just right when you have to read in spurts. A mystery or thriller I can’t put down tempts me not to go back to work when I should. So during my trouble shooting waiting times, I sometimes read romances.
All Romances Aren’t of Equal Quality
Many of what we consider the best romances aren’t romances at all. They are novels that include romance and we remember those romantic scenes, even though they may be only part of the plot. I think of Jane Erye and Gone with the Wind as examples. They are classics because they are about much more than romance.
If you Google “romance genre,” most sources agree that a romance novel focuses on the love relationship between the two main characters and that the ending satisfies the reader. In other words, there should be a happy ending. When people read romances, that’s what they usually expect.
The digital romances I read this week on my Kindle varied in quality. All were free, since they were daily promotions. Some were worth exactly what I paid for them. Some I enjoyed, even though it was obvious that the author stuck close to a typical formula.
When I read a romance, I’m happy if it’s clean if I care about the characters, and if the plot seems to evolve from who the characters are. I don’t expect much more when I’m reading for escape. I read romance novels when I want to have something to do during commercials, or while I wait for my computer to work. Romances or short stories are my choices when I don’t want to get involved with a novel I can’t put down when it’s time to get back to work.
Don’t Waste Your Time or Money on These
I normally enjoy mail order bride romances. I read quite a few of them. I thought I was getting a good deal when Mail Order Bride: Clean Romance and the Call of Marriagewas offered free during an Amazon promotion. It got some good reviews so I gave this 13 short story set a try. Amazon classified it as Western Christian Inspirational Historical Romance Short Stories. The stories did not inspire me. The first few weren’t too bad, but the more I read the worse they seemed to get.
As an ex-English teacher the spelling and grammatical errors bothered me a lot.The author really needed an editor to catch mistakes the spellcheck didn’t . I think what bothered me most among the mistakes was the use of the wrong pronoun. Too many times the author is talking about a woman, and then referring to her later in the sentence or in the next one as he. Or a man will later be referred to as a she. This leaves me going back to reread to see if I misunderstood. This happened many times over the course of these stories.
You may find some of these stories amusing, and they may keep you entertained for a few minutes, but in the end you will probably wish you’d spent your time reading something better. I certainly wouldn’t pay to buy this.
The Best Romance in the Bunch
My Father’s House by Rose C. Johnson is set mostly in rural Georgia. There are also scenes in New York, Canada, and Detroit. The settings in the novel are not just places where things happen. They take on personalities of their own in how they influence the protagonist, Lily Rose Cates. Georgia is where Lily Rose thrives. Detroit, and Manny who took her there, together kill her spirit.
Lily Rose was born in a small town in Georgia in 1964. She is a country girl in every way.Her mother fell into depression when Lily Rose was born and never recovered. Lily’s father brought Annie Ruth to come five days a week to help raise her. When her older brother James Michael left to become a missionary her mother’s spirit seemed to all but die.
Lily’s father, though, believed in her and made her world perfect. That helped her believe in herself. Her early years were idyllic. She was Daddy’s girl. When she was sixteen her world crashed when her father died of a heart attack while mowing the lawn. His last words to her were, “‘Lily Rose, you’re gonna be all right.'”
Annie Ruth continued to take care of her and her mother. Her father had provided for their support in his estate. Annie Ruth explained to Lily Rose what she needed to know just when she needed to know it. She did the real mothering. One theme of this book is the importance of support from family and friends when one faces life changes. Lily Rose faced many of them.
When Lily graduated from college, her closest friends moved on and married. She stayed in the cottage the three of them had shared. She got a part-time job in a flower store and wrote for the local paper. She felt very much alone. Then her cousin Maggie called and invited her for a visit in New York.
The visit with Maggie lifted her spirits, but it also led to some of the worse years of her life. On a Friday night they had dinner at Valenti’s — an iconic Italian restaurant. Their waiter, who introduced himself as Manuel, paid Lily Rose a great deal of attention. At the end of the meal, he asked for her phone number. She was sure she was in love.
When she got home, he did call. Often. She learned that he was a lawyer in Detroit — not a waiter in New York. He had only been visiting his brother who owned Valenti’s the night they met. They had a whirlwind courtship. It seemed almost enchanted. Manuel wined and dined Lily Rose and brought her diamonds. The only thing that put a damper on it was was a visit home to Annie Ruth so she could meet him. The instant Annie Ruth met him, her smile vanished.
Once they were alone, Annie Ruth warned Lily Rose that he was trouble. When she found out Manny had proposed, she said privately, “‘Don’t get tangled up in the briers with that man.'”
The author offers many clues to foreshadow what will happen in the marriage, and there is enough complexity in the plot to hold your interest to the end. Although I started reading in spurts, I went back to the book when I had larger blocks of time and I was just too hot to enjoy more demanding reading.
I recommend this book as a Christian romance that is inspirational, but not preachy. You will be able to predict what will happen in the marriage, but not how the characters will solve their problems. This book will especially appeal to those who have lived in small towns and those who appreciate clean rather than explicit romances. I hope you will enjoy In My Father’s House as much as I did.
Rose C. Johnson also wrote a devotional I’m hoping to read soon — God, Me, and Sweet Iced Tea.
In Greening of a Heart, Stepheny Houghtlin shows us not just one heart, but several that need healing. All of them are part of or tied to the restoration of the garden of the vicarage of St. John the Baptist Church in the Catswold Village of Burford. Burford and the church are real. You might want to check out the websites linked to so you can picture the setting before you read this. These sites say nothing about a garden. The church, however is the setting for some important scenes, since Hannah and Martin live in the vicarage.
Tom Bastin took the picture of the church St. John The Baptist Church you see above. You can also see many other scenes from Burford in his Flicker Album Burford.
The Cast of Major Characters
Hannah Winchester, an American: The vicars’ wife and mother of Anne and Christopher
The Reverend Martin Winchester: Vicar of St. John the Baptist Church, father of Anne and Christopher
Malcolm Thomas: Martin’s old college friend, now also his Bishop
Brother Gregory: Monk at St. Edward’s House and spiritual counselor to Martin
Anne: Daughter of Hannah and Martin, wife of Geoffrey Bentley, mother of James and Kate
Geoffrey Charles Bentley IV: Anne’s husband and father of James and Kate
Christopher: Brother of Anne and son of Martin and Hannah, single
Henry Bernard: On a research sabbatical from Kew Gardens in London. Hannah hired him to help with the heavy work in the garden during its restoration. Single
Madeline Thompson, widow: An old college friend of Hannah’s who is Hannah’s sounding board in the book. She is a catalyst in helping many characters find direction
Christine Bennett: Never married, older parishioner, critical of Hannah’s garden restoration. Lives across the road from the vicarage and has her own garden. She is no longer speaking to Hannah since garden work began.
Robert K Myers: Deceased former Vicar of St. John the Baptist Church, who originally designed the garden Hannah is restoring. Close friend of Christine.
Emma Barksdale: Another parishioner, close friend of Christine and Hannah. She doesn’t understand why Christine is so critical of Hannah’s garden restoration project
Samuel White: Senior Warden at St. John the Baptist Church, single, close friend of Martin and Hannah. He appears to be secretly in love with Hannah
Lucy and Randy Talbot: Henry lives with them in Burford while he works for Hannah
Many men who are working to restore the garden and coach house, and their wives and children
Other parishioners, including Lynn Spencer, who likes to make trouble with her gossip, and her husband Mark, who is much kinder
Margaret Clover: New in town, just bought the Bay Tree Inn. She plans to use it to serve healthy meals such as those that helped cure her cancer. Divorced
Caroline Clover: Margaret’s daughter, who will be the chef at the Bay Tree Inn
A Troubled Marriage
As the book opens, we learn that Hannah and Martin Winchester have a troubled marriage. Martin is burned out as a priest and a husband, since he has let his work dominate their lives. Hannah is wondering what happened to the man who courted her and laughed with her when they were first married. Now he rarely laughs at all. They now sleep in separate bedrooms. The author describes it this way:
“The image of one of her garden walls, where stacked stone had shifted and sagged over time, reminded her of their relationship.”
Although they shared a common faith as members of the Church of England, they did not express it the same way. Hannah’s family had been “high church” with services closer to those in the Catholic Church. Martin was “low church” and did not believe in icons and incense, or “smells and bells.” This was occasionally a source of conflict.
Whereas Hannah had been an independent American woman while in college, now, with an empty nest, Martin seems to think she is incapable of managing her life without his input. He has become stern and impatient with her. He is no longer interested in sharing memories of their courting days and other carefree times, as they had in the early years of their marriage. There had been no intimacy for so long that Hannah had begun to think of Martin almost as a guest in her home, more a priest than a husband.
The Role of The Garden In Greening of the Heart
Hannah’s Garden Restoration Project
The book begins in the vicarage garden, with Hannah pulling weeds. She aspires to gain recognition as an authority on plants someday. She has accumulated a library of gardening books and has visited other gardens whenever there was time.
She is in the process of restoring the garden the late previous vicar, Robert Myers, designed and planted. She is hoping that as she works on the garden restoration, it will bring her closer to Martin again. She expected they would make decisions together, but he shows little interest, preferring to let Hannah make the decisions.
Martin’s Dreaded Lunch Date
Martin is about to leave for a lunch date with Malcolm, his friend and bishop. Malcolm had called Hannah earlier with concerns about Martin’s health and state of mind. Hannah knows Malcolm is going to tell Martin to take a leave of absence. She also knows Martin will be disconsolate after the meeting.
Henry Arrives in Burford
Meanwhile, Henry Bernard is on his way to Burford from London to meet Hannah. He hopes she will hire him to help with the garden restoration. He is also looking for information about a photograph he’d found while cleaning up his grandmother’s home after she died. The photo is of a young priest who is his own mirror image. He arrives in time to have a quick look inside the church before meeting Hannah, but Hannah is already there watering the altar flowers and she had seen him come in. She noticed he was touching a remembrance plaque on the wall, which she later discovered was for Robert Myers.
She engages Henry in conversation and he says he’s her 2 pm appointment. Henry tells her he’s taking a sabbatical from his work at Kew Gardens to study the influence of clergy gardeners on the development of English gardens. People believed Robert Myers had integrated spiritual elements into his gardening activities. Henry said many clergymen considered gardening both work and prayer.
Henry impresses Hannah she and hires him after negotiating terms of employment. Hannah tells Henry he’s an answer to her prayers. He silently disagrees, thinking that it wasn’t her prayers, but his own detective work that brought him to her.
Martin Returns Home after Lunch Date
After Henry leaves, Hannah returns home to find Martin is back from his lunch date and he’s devastated, as she expected him to be. Malcolm has sent him to take a course in Jerusalem that will be part of a three-month leave from his ministry. Malcolm hopes this will restore Martin’s health, energy, and heart for preaching again. Hannah hopes it will restore her husband to her.
Who is Henry Really?
Why did he want to come to Burford? More than one character in the book raises this question. Anne seemed not to trust Henry. Lynn Spencer chided Hannah for hiring someone she knew nothing about. Hannah, however, had no reason to be suspicious and she let the criticism roll off her. A savvy reader will have a pretty good idea early in the book who Henry is, but the author does not completely reveal it until much later.
The Garden Party
Will There Be Trouble?
Hannah goes back to preparations for her garden party the next Saturday. She has invited everyone to the Winchesters’ Garden Opening. Hannah is hoping there will not be trouble since she knows some parishioners have been upset with her project. Christine Bennett, usually not a critical person, has been most vocal in her complaints. She had accused Hannah of ruining Robert Myers’ garden, and Hannah had reminded her that it no longer belonged to Robert Myers. Christine had not spoken to her since. Emma Barksdale, a friend of both, had told Christine to behave at the party. Madeline has warned Henry to steer clear of Christine.
For the most part, the party turns out to be a success as, Madeline, Hannah’s oldest friend, had come to help. A few incidents had marred it, however. She and Martin had quarreled just before the party because he thought he needed to tell her how to act with the guests. Henry has impressed Madeline, but Hannah’s daughter Anne wants him fired because she had dated him years ago and he had left her alone at a party he’d invited her to.
Hannah Speaks, Martin Prays, but Not Everyone Is Happy
Hannah welcomes everyone. She explains that she restored the garden to honor the memory of her mother who had died ten years ago and that her inheritance from her mother was helping to pay for the restoration. The guests applaud, but Christine does not join in. Martin prays for everyone involved with the garden restoration and for the future ministry of the church.
Hannah then joins Lynn and Mark Spencer at the punch table and Lynn immediately gets on Hannah’s case about hiring “a complete stranger” to work for her. Mark tries to intervene, but Lynn keeps meddling. Hannah justifies her decision to hire Henry by explaining his qualifications. Lynn still thinks Hannah shouldn’t have hired someone she knows nothing about.
The guests stop to shake Martin’s hand as they are leaving, and Christine isn’t able to hide her negative feelings. The other guests seem pleased.
The day after the party, Henry takes a bouquet of daffodils to Christine’s house to try to get acquainted with her and try to find out why she is so negative. The reader sees a new side of Christine during this visit.
More Than the Garden Grows
Madeline’s words act as catalysts to the ideas and actions of many characters in the book. Madeline was the one who encouraged Hannah to restore the garden. At one point before the garden party, Hannah tells Madeline, “I’ve lost touch with my own dreams and it scares me. Growing old is bad enough, but I wake up and think of wasted days where nothing I’ve done is of any consequence…. I need to reinvent myself.”
Madeline spins a tale about a driver telling a couple of strangers he is lost. One of the men responded, ‘No, you’re not, you’re here.’
Madeline adds, “If we spend our days always thinking of what we’ve missed, what might have been, we miss the now of our lives, too. You aren’t lost, Hannah, you’re here. In this moment, we’re here, looking at this beautiful garden emerging around us. Perhaps …being lost is not a bad thing, but an opportunity to notice new places you have never been, actually looking at the things you pass by. “
Characters Grow as Part of the Community
Greening of the Heart is a story of people interacting and growing through the process. The church community and those in the wider community of the village around it begin to know themselves better. They make decisions, face unacknowledged truths about themselves, and find solutions to their problems through their conversations with others and by observing their behavior.
An example of this is Anne’s marriage to Geoffrey. The reader sees immediately that the marriage has severe problems. It is only as Anne observes the relationship between other couples that she realizes how troubled her marriage is. Geoffrey is a snob who has tried to keep Anne from her family and any friends that won’t enhance his social standing. He also stifles Anne and their children.
Although Anne has observed the growing distance between her parents, she realizes that Geoffrey’s life is all about impressing people he considers important, whereas her father’s life is about serving his congregation to the extent there’s nothing left for his wife. Geoffrey is harsh with her and with the children, who withdraw in his presence. Anne has smiled through Geoffrey’s rants and cried when she was alone. Anne never saw her father even say a harsh word to her mother.
She decides to seek counsel from her mother and she finally reconciles with Henry for the sake of her mother. It is her brother Christopher that motivates her to heed Madeline’s advice to get a job so she can be self-sufficient. She decides to do it.
Anne sees how loving the relationships between the workmen and their wives are. She observes the other young couples expressing affection and treating their spouses with respect. Anne’s observations and conversations with her new friends and her mother help her see that she must change her interactions with Geoffrey. How that relationship will turn out is still up in the air at the end of the book.
We see more examples of growth during interaction throughout the book. The relationship between Henry and Christine leads to the reconciliation between Christine and Hannah. Madeline’s words influence almost all the main characters.
Madeline is good at discerning who can help whom and then doing her best to bring them together and plant scenarios in their minds until they see new possibilities. This results in the idea that the garden might produce the vegetables used by the Clovers in the kitchen at the Bay Tree Inn. Later Hannah comes up with the idea of using that relationship between the inn and the vicarage garden to gain added revenue for both by giving garden tours in cooperation with Margaret Clover, ending with lunch back at the inn.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Martin is interacting with a new community of people. Their influence, and a frank letter from Hannah, are helping him see himself and his marriage in a new light, and he wants to save it.
I got very involved in this book. I began to really care about these new book friends. If you enjoy books that are more character than plot based, if you like watching people examine their lives with a mind to understand themselves and others, you will find this a rewarding read. You will see people falling in love, reconciling their differences, and experiencing spiritual and marital renewal through relationships begun in a garden.
If you thrive on relationships with people and like to observe positive changes in their lives, you will want to read Greening of the Heart. It will make you think about your own life and relationships as you watch the drama unfold. If you are also a gardener, this book will have an added layer of meaning for you. If you enjoyed reading the Mitford Series or Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven by Fanny Flagg, I would also expect you to find Greening of the Heart appealing. If you haven’t read any of these, what are you waiting for? You won’t want to miss any of these books.