Five for Five
By Jennie Hansen
“LDS novels are all the same.” I’ve heard that tired refrain several times recently from people who don’t read fiction, who don’t read LDS fiction, or who just plain don’t read. I smile and pity the speaker. Reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures, learning something new is another one, and as for variety, there’s plenty of that in the eclectic stack of LDS novels I have read in the past few weeks.
None of the five books I’ve chosen to discuss this month fall easily into any particular genre category, though some come closer than others. Five books by five different women and published by five different publishing companies are as varied as the women who wrote them. And I should mention that only one of the five, Chocolate Therapy, is specifically intended for a female audience, though male readers would likely enjoy it too.
I’ll begin with Search for the Warwick II by Sherry Ann Miller. Here is a rollicking pirate tale based on real sea-faring history of the sixteen hundreds. It is the story of a man, a sea captain, who sets
out to rescue his ten-year-old son who has been captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Algeria. This well-paced story sets the imagination soaring with attention to the minute details, sounds, smells, and tastes of the sea that bring immediacy to the story without overpowering the action. Miller’s own experience with long voyages on sailing vessels brings authenticity to her writing. Though loaded with nautical and historical information, the plot moves the story and there is plenty of action.
Sherry Ann Miller is frequently billed as the writer of miracles. Many readers adore the many miracles that occur in her stories. Others are less enthusiastic about the elements of divine intervention that pepper the resolution of the adventures she writes. I personally would prefer she tone down this aspect of her stories, though it doesn’t bother me enough to be less than enthusiastic about this book. Though her characters talk candidly about the Bible, faith in God is shown, and miracles do occur, the book is not one I would label preachy. These things are an integral part of the weave that makes up her characters. This is both history and escapism at its best.
Chocolate Therapy by Dianne Crabtree is as delightful as its title suggests. Joan Spencer is a typical, suburban Mormon wife and mother, a little overweight, a little under-organized, a little self-critical. She fills her calling to the best of her ability, and tries really hard to be compassionate and to serve others, but life happens on her way to perfection. She faces the daily chaos and disruptions that go with having a husband, raising children, dealing with difficult neighbors or ward members, and dealing with a runaway pet mouse. Then along comes her father, whom she hasn’t seen since he abandoned her family when she was nine years old. Then there’s her sister, who is dating one of her own former boyfriends. And an approaching fortieth birthday adds to the mix. Stress calls for drastic measures in the form of long distance calls to a friend who moved to Florida and a hidden stash of chocolate bars.
Bearing a strong similarity to chick lit, with its edgy appeal to young single women, Chocolate Therapy has a keen handle on the trials and disasters that confront mothers of multiple children of varying ages. I doubt this book is destined to be a great classic, but it’s light and funny and terribly real. It subtly pokes fun at the compulsion some women in the Church feel to be perfect and suggests it’s all right to stress over events that may not be earthshaking to others. And while you’re stressing, if chocolate makes you feel better, then eat a chocolate bar – or a whole box of chocolate bars.
Dysfunctional families are nothing new to LDS fiction, but few give an open window to the workings of family members’ minds as does Elizabeth Petty Bentley in her new novel In a Dry Land . In a style more literary than genre, Bentley takes the reader inside the minds of a family bonded together and torn apart by Baby, a severely retarded thirty-two-year-old member of that family.
The mother is fiercely protective of her darling baby girl, who stopped growing mentally at the age of one due to an unexplained illness. Coupled with her love for this child is guilt because she rebelled against God, demanding a different blessing when the child nearly died of her illness, insisting not even God could have her baby. Her life totally revolves around this child, to the exclusion of her other three children, including a daughter, Libby, who was conceived and raised to be Baby’s eventual caretaker.
Libby is docile and obedient on the outside to the fate decreed for her by her parents, but inside she seethes with resentment and bitterness. Like any nineteen-year-old, she dreams of having a boyfriend, marriage, and children of her own, and though she loves her sister, she resents the limitations Baby places on her life. She also develops ambivalent feelings toward a young man who does care for her and increases her heartbreak over the life she is destined to live.
Her brothers and father have little to do with Baby and her care falls completely to the aging mother and the fate-bound sister. Imagine the constant stress of caring for a 250-pound baby with no concept of right and wrong, managing bodily functions, or social mores. One brother becomes excessively religious, but intellectualizes himself out of a real testimony. The other claims to reject his family and the Church, but is as closely linked to the situation as any of the others and is the most practical of the lot. The father hides from reality and his guilt over misusing his priesthood by spending nearly every moment he isn’t at work running around giving blessings and providing service to everyone but his own family.
In a Dry Land by Elizabeth Petty Bentley is an unusual book that wouldn’t be likely to be published by any of the major LDS publishers. Some of the language is blunt and explicit, though not crude. It doesn’t paint some church members in a very positive light, though it is much kinder to women than to men. Readers who enjoy Thomas Hardy’s tragic style won’t want to miss this one. Those who like intense realism, hard choices, and don’t mind a dose of injustice, should give this book a try. The main character, Libby, is a complicated heroine, whom readers will admire, pity, find annoying, cheer for, and never quite forget. This definitely is not your usual LDS novel, neither is the story or characters quite like any you’ll find everyday in any ward, yet we’ve all come in contact with some who have come close.
Shattered by C.K. Bailey stands alone well, but is actually a follow-up to Whisperings , which was printed in 2004. Two major themes run through the book. First there is the obvious story of a boy in over his head with drug dealers who witnesses a murder and has to run for his life. He takes refuge in a snowbound luxury cabin with an elderly man and two psychiatrists who love each other, but are still caught up in lingering emotional problems from their own pasts and are not ready to commit to each other. The man feels responsible for his wife and unborn child’s deaths and the woman endured horrendous abuse as a child.
The boy’s story is action oriented, but the doctors’ stories are on a more mental or emotional level. Forgiveness and healing are major issues in this book.
I found the book to be on the preachy side, but still enjoyed it. Moodiness and analysis of thoughts and feelings are strong elements in the story and doctrinal references are used almost as a “how to” manual for overcoming emotional scarring. Those dealing with issues of abuse or guilt will find this book to be not only an entertaining story, but one of support and help in dealing with such issues.
Unsung Lullaby by Josie S. Kilpack is primarily the story of a young couple who discover they will never have biological children. Several other themes run through the book as well, beginning with the young husband, Matt, who learns he already has a biological child from a deeply regretted mistake made while he was still in high school.
Here Josie explores Matt’s reluctance to share his newly discovered knowledge with his wife and parents. The matter of the sin he committed is over and he has gone through a grueling repentance process, but is this enough? What is his obligation to the child? What will their friends, family, and ward members think if the child visits them and it is learned that Matt fathered a child out of wedlock?
Maddie, Matt’s wife, has trouble accepting her husband’s past mistake, but when she finally does put her marriage ahead of her wounded pride, she is more determined than he is to establish a relationship with the little half Navajo boy, Walter, who is Matt’s child.
Their eventual quest to adopt an infant proceeds slowly (but not as slowly as is normal in real adoption cases). The fact that Matt already has a child and that the child is biracial is a negative factor to many of the girls and their mothers they meet who are planning to place their babies for adoption and are considering them as prospective parents.
Young Walter’s life on a New Mexico reservation and that of his young aunt are some of the most poignant portions of the book. The authority the tribe has to make decisions for tribe members and the seeming dual citizenship that gives the tribe authority beyond that of other US citizens is brought out well.
Though a compelling and generally well-written book, I found some of the research on infertility inaccurate and the young couple, Matt and Maddie, disappointing. Maddie is immature and they both too often act like spoiled rich kids.
In spite of these weaknesses the story is compelling, with multiple issues addressed in a straight-forward way. Some of these issues, such as the wife’s reaction to learning of her husband’s intimate experience before their marriage, poor communication between husband and wife, and the couple’s personal growth, could have been more thoroughly explored.
None of these books can be classified as romance, mystery, Church history, or suspense. None of them will appeal to every reader, but all are worthwhile novels that will be loved by different readers with varying tastes.
Search for the WarwickII by Sherry Ann Miller, published by Granite Publishing, 340 pages, $14.95
Chocolate Therapy by Dianne Crabtree, published by Spring Creek Book Company, 231 pages, $15.95
In a Dry Land by Elizabeth Petty Bentley, published by Publish America, 236 pages,$19.95
Shattered by C.K. Bailey, published by Covenant Communications, 277 pages, $15.95
Unsung Lullaby by Josie Kilpack , published by Deseret Book,276 pages, $14.95