The General fiction category for the Whitney Awards has always been one that seems to spark a lot of controversy. Sometimes, the category seems dominated by inspirational, feel-good stories that might sell a lot of copies but night not be well-respected by fans of literary fiction. Some years, audiences and publishers raise the outcry– “But how could <<Insert book name here>> not be a finalist? It was far and away the best book of the year!” This year, the pendulum seems to have swung away from the inspirational novels, and toward, well, death. Protagonists in four of the five novels have recently been uncoupled, and in the fifth, an aunt’s death starts the action of the story in motion. And with that common thread running through the stories, I know you’re just dying to dive in, right?
In Mile 21, by Sarah Dunster (published by Cedar Fort), Abish Miller is a student at BYU-Idaho who feels like she has little in common with her peers at school. She’s the kind of girl who glares at her co-workers in her part-time student job on campus at BYU-Idaho and argues with her parents. But she also works as a volunteer chaplain at the local hospital, visiting patients who would otherwise spend their days alone. When she leaves work and the hospital, she runs like someone is chasing her. In other words, Abish is complicated. And prickly. We soon learn that some of Abish’s prickliness comes because she’s grieving the loss of her husband, Mark, who died a year earlier. I think we often have preconceived ideas about widows, and especially about young widows– that they bear their loss with grace and a stiff upper lip, but Abish is raw and rubbed down to the bone. She’s not coping well, except when she runs.
While Dunster does an excellent job showing the depth and complexity of Abish’s character, revealing details that explain her crustiness and her pain without exactly justifying them, the novel is about more than just Abish. She writes about Rexburg, Idaho and the surrounding countryside with such authority, affection, and clear-headedness that they almost become another character in the novel. I loved the descriptions of the streets and the farms that Abish passes as she runs, and Dunster forces readers to look at some of the inherent contradictions in a community that is as predominantly Mormon as Rexburg.
Ruby’s Secret, by Heather B. Moore (published by Covenant Communications) is part of the Newport Ladies’ Book Club series. Along with Josi Kilpack, Annette Lyon, and Julie Wright, Moore writes about the lives of the eight women who are all members of the same book club. Ruby Crenshaw is newly-widowed when she has the idea to form The Newport Ladies Book Club. She’s the kind of woman that everyone thinks is perfect. Her house is immaculate, and her clothes are stylish. She knows about the world, and she’s interested in other people. But she’s also been carrying the secret that her husband was repeatedly unfaithful during their marriage. It makes her believe that her future will be a solitary one, filled with friends and extended family, yes, but never with a partner.
At the urging of her daugher-in-law, and not because she feels like a senior citizen, Ruby starts attending the local senior center, and soon finds herself signing up for a trip to Greece with a group from the center. Soon she finds herself second-guessing her resolve to stay single, while questioning whether or not she wants to let someone new in. Moore’s writing is smooth and the story is very readable. Ruby is an engaging character and I think many readers will identify with her struggle.
In The House at Rose Creek by Jenny Proctor (published by Covenant Communications), Kate Sinclair was content with her life in Atlanta. Her job was busy, but satisfying, and her boyfriend helped her pass the time. But when the aunt who raised her dies and Kate inherits the family farm, she has to take a temporary leave from her life in Atlanta to get things settled in the small town in North Carolina where she grew up. Unfortunately, Kate soon learns that the home is slated for demolition, and it becomes her personal mission to prevent that from happening, while righting some wrongs in her personal life. As she searches more deeply into her family’s story, she finds herself completely enthralled with family history, which leads her to the Mormons (and away from life in Atlanta), which leads her to make some big changes in her life.
I think that Proctor is a writer who knows how to create characters, keep readers interested, and work with conflicts. I really thought that the story of Kate’s family history was fascinating. However, I’m not sure about how I feel about this turning into a conversion narrative. If the book is written for a general, non-LDS audience, would they feel manipulated by the turn the story takes? If the book is written for an LDS audience, then would the conversion narrative be interesting to someone who is, theoretically, already converted? I thought that part of the story was less compelling than the rest of the story.
In the opening scene of Love Letters of the Angel of Death by Jennifer Quist (published by Linda Leith Publishing and reviewed at Segullah by Kellie), Briggs and his young wife discover the body of his mother at her trailer. It’s not pretty. She’s been dead several days, the end of a life of potential unfulfilled. As Briggs and his wife and boys navigate the funeral and the boxing up of her possessions, readers begin to see that he has a true love and passion for the woman he has chosen to spend his life with.
Over the course of this eminently readable novel, we get more vignettes. Briggs speaks to his wife, addressing her as “you” as he seems to touch on some of the highlights of their courtship and dozen-year (or so) marriage. He jumps back and forth from early dating to recent past to some of the tough early years living way up north in Canada while he established himself in his career. They go to a relative’s funeral. Their son has an accident. They walk in the woods. She really hates big bugs.
It sounds like a lot of simple things, but Quist shows (without being sentimental or heavy-handed) that it’s simple moments like these that make up a relationship, that cement a love affair. The writing is beautiful and a little bit haunting (I think it has to do with the perspective), and I found myself riveted. Since a book that focuses so much on death is ultimately a book that also focuses on faith, I was very impressed with the way that Quist handled issues of faith. I think that in books written by Mormons, we often see characters who are overtly Mormon and then seem to be characterized as “Mormon” characters, or we see authors who stay away from issues of religion and faith at all, so they don’t have to address it and possibly limit their audience. To a Mormon reader, Briggs and his wife are obviously LDS, but Quist seems to stick to looking at issues of faith and not necessarily of Mormon culture (and honestly, I’m not sure how Mormon culture looks different in Canada). Quist’s characters are faithful and mature, but their faith is undefined.
Finally, and I’m reluctant to say this, because putting together one of the pieces of the puzzle of this story as it unfolded was a sheer pleasure for this reader, I was delighted to see that in a year where we had many, many books about death in the pool of books to read for the Whitneys, this is one that managed to tell the story in an artful way. I’m delighted that the Whitneys brought it to my attention, but it will be a book that I recommend to many people.
In Road to Bountiful by Donald Smurthwaite (published by Covenant Communications), Loyal is an old man. He buried his wife some time ago, and now he’s doing the responsible thing– leaving his home in South Dakota to live in a retirement community near his daughter in Utah.
Levi is a young man, a college student who has spent the summer bagging groceries with precious little to show for it. So when his aunt offers to pay him to drive her father from South Dakota to Utah, he plots the quickest route to the cash.
But over the course of the journey, Loyal’s slow pace begins to rub off on Levi, who starts to see the journey as an adventure rather than a job.
Smurthwaite is a gifted writer. His sentence structure and pacing are excellent, and he knows how to say what he wants to say in order to get a reaction. I was delighted by the early chapters of the book. However, as the narrative continued, I found myself less enamored with the story, which felt sentimental and simplistic. I can see how readers who read to be uplifted or to have their emotions stirred would like this story, but I felt that Smurthwaite had the writing chops to make it better and more complicated with less overt motivations.