Review: Amazing Grace

Amanda Book

Gentle Reader,

I grew up watching Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and reading Janette Oke books. Gentle “prairie romance” was, as now, considered a usually safe, family-friendly option. It’s not that my parents didn’t allow other things, but rather that they shielded me from things I didn’t need to be exposed to at the time. These unspoken lessons regarding entertainment have stuck with me, though I confess to not always heeding them.

My tastes have, of course, changed. I haven’t picked up a Janette Oke novel in more than a decade and I didn’t keep up with the many adaptions and spin-offs of her earlier works, such as the Love Comes Softly series of movies. I continue to enjoy historical books and shows (and always will), but I prefer plots with more grit and realism. I don’t want things to be tied up in neat, candy-colored bows all the time. I don’t want the obvious guy to always end up with the obvious girl. I don’t like that the characters are often interchangeable and the themes unchanging. But that’s the jam for some people. If I learned anything in working for a library district for 17 years, it’s that there’s a book for every reader – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So, dear reader, if gentle prairie romance is your thing, keep reading.

Amazing Grace, the first novel written by Amanda Longpre, unfolds within the context of a real event – the Panic of 1873. A lesser-known economic depression that began in Europe,

[t]he signal event on this side of the Atlantic was the failure of Jay Cooke and Company, the country’s preeminent investment banking concern. The firm was the principal backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad and had handled most of the government’s wartime loans, using a widespread sales campaign backed by advertising to sell bonds to people who had never before owned securities.

United States History Pages

Colorado City banker Henry Bennett finds himself wiped out by this failure, which has widespread repercussions. Already disliked by the town’s residents, he becomes an outright enemy when he is forced to call in their loans. The reader is allowed to see that he doesn’t revel in doing so, but his neighbors and fellow businessmen are not privy to this inner struggle. Bennett is not, on the whole, an upstanding man, but Longpre steers clear of the “irredeemably evil rich guy” trope, which I appreciated.

The figurative noose tightens and soon Bennett is brought into confrontation with Marie Larson, a widow struggling to hold onto her farm. The grief is fresh and it is a matter of pride for her to keep what she and her husband worked for. Larson reacts badly to Bennett’s announcement, which makes him angry and you can imagine where that goes. This scene stands as a comment on pride, bad communication and the ways in which both move us to defensively lash out instead of listen.

Bennett and Larson are thrown together, which sets the rest of the story in motion. The action moves from the town to Larson’s farm, where Bennett has no choice but to lay low (with a cow named Ophelia for company). There’s a sort of riff on Beauty and the Beast as the two characters slowly but surely learn to trust each other.

It was at this point in the story that I began to find it difficult to relate to Marie. (That’s one of the oddest sentences I’ve ever written. Very meta). There seems to be nothing that she can’t do, except plow (though she does try). She is not entirely without flaws, but she is clearly one of the smartest, if not the smartest, women that Bennett has ever encountered. This didn’t feel right to me. Of course it’s not wrong for this character to be smart and skilled, but homegirl needed to be really bad at something to keep her grounded in reality. Nobody does everything that well.

Bennett finds a measure of healing out on the farm, away from the pressures of the economic collapse, but he can only hide for so long. Though he had no hand in the nation-wide failure, his investment choices were all his own. He has to, as they say, face the music. And that music, played by people whose money he lost, is about as pleasant as screamo combined with reggae accompanied by nails on a chalkboard.

Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to predict the ending. Longpre stays firmly within the established Christian/historical fiction/romance formula. There was very little chance that Bennett and Larson would not end up together. To her credit, however, she threw in a few twists and turns, providing a little bit of freshness. For fans of this genre, Amazing Grace is the broadly good endeavor of a first-time novelist.

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Review: Isaiah’s Daughter

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. …

You shall no longer be termed Forsaken,
Nor shall your land any more be termed Desolate;
But you shall be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah;
For the Lord delights in you…

– 2 Kings 21:1, Isaiah 62:4 (NKJV)

I discovered Mesu Andrews over the summer, when my mom loaned me a book that she thought I might like. That book was Pharaoh’s Daughter. I was immediately hooked. In just a few short months I have devoured all but one of the books that Andrews has written and that only because I can’t get my hands on it. Andrews spends years researching her novels, placing faithfulness to the test of Scripture over and above her desire to tell a good story. And she is, without doubt, an excellent storyteller. Her ability to delve into the richness of the Bible and explore how people lived, how God moved in their lives is one that I have encountered in only a few other authors.

Isaiah’s Daughter, releasing in January 2018, is both a stand-alone novel and a continuation of the story begun in Love in a Broken Vessel (a fictionalized version of the book of Hosea). Those who have read the former will recognize characters and themes in the latter, but understanding and enjoying the book does not hinge on knowing what came before.

Andrews opens in 732 B.C.. Soldiers from the northern kingdom of Israel have attacked Judah, destroying towns and carrying off hundreds of captives. The reader meets 5-year-old Ishma and her friend Yaira, who are among the captives. The trauma they have experienced has rendered Ishma unable to speak. Yaira attempts to care for her on the long journey, but she, a child herself, cannot ease the fear in Ishma’s heart. This fear is a central theme of the novel.

Yaira’s brother, the prophet Micah, finds the two girls. He is unable to raise them himself due to the nature of his calling, so he takes them to Jerusalem and settles them in the house of Isaiah – fellow prophet and royal counselor who has just been demoted to tutor after angering Judah’s king, Ahaz. The girls expect to be taken into service, but Isaiah and his wife, Aya, embrace them as daughters. A new world is opened to them.

Queen Abijah is part of this new world. One day, she brings her son, Hezekiah, to the prophet’s house. He, too, has suffered trauma. Abijah is desperate for his healing. Nothing she has tried, no prayer or remedy, has made any difference. Ishma is drawn to the little boy with the sad eyes.

Since all of this happened thousands of years ago, it’s not spoiler alert territory to say that Hezekiah grows up to marry Ishma, who is renamed Hepzibah. Normally I loathe a predictable romantic tale, but Andrews masterfully weaves together threads from the 2 Kings narrative, the prophecies of Isaiah and historical record to breathe a freshness into the standard “boy meets girl” formula. Hezekiah and Ishma grow up in dangerous times. Theirs is no easy, simple pairing, before or after their marriage. Andrews writes them as the flawed people they are, a man and a woman who wrestle with what it means to obey God.

My one complaint is in regard to Ishma/Hepzibah’s characterization. It’s a little uneven. As she grows, she discovers a love of learning and nature, both of which help to heal her heart. Then, upon reaching adulthood and marriage, the fear comes crashing back in. As one who battles anxiety on a daily basis, I understand completely how this kind of thing happens. Yet, as a reader, I wanted to see Ishma/Hepzibah become tougher. I wanted her to experience the fear but grit her teeth and battle through. Instead, in a few scenes, she becomes the damsel in distress, weeping in the arms of her husband. Crying is never bad and of course spouses should support each other, but there was just something “off” about that to me.

Part of the unevennness may be rooted in the viewpoint changes that occur each chapter. The story shifts between Ishma/Hepzibah, Hezekiah and sometimes Isaiah. Though we are reading the story of a woman, it’s not completely told through her eyes. I’m not sure why Andrews made this decision. It does work, for the most part, only becoming an issue in later chapters, when, as I pointed out above, I wanted Ishma/Hepzibah to grow more than she did.

Minor issues aside, I wholeheartedly recommend this book (and all of Andrews’ other novels). You will be intrigued and entertained from the first pages. You will be prompted to think and to search the Scriptures. Most of all, you will be moved to worship the Lord, who teaches us to live in this light:

“We must keep our eyes on eternity, my friend, for today is sometimes more than we can bear.”

– p. 318

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I RECEIVED A FREE COPY OF THIS BOOK IN EXCHANGE FOR MY HONEST REVIEW.