Molly is excited about Easter! She gets to go to Aunt Jenny’s house and search for plastic Easter eggs hidden in the barn!
But something is BACKWARDS this year. What will happen? Will she learn more about Jesus and about how much He loves us?
Meadow Rue Merrill’s latest Lantern Hill Farm children’s book--THE BACKWARDS EASTER EGG HUNT—is now available from Hendrickson Publishers. This delightful bound book (also a board book version is available) will excite young readers and will thrill parent and grandparent readers with its clever story, its vivid illustrations, its opportunity to teach the Christian message, and with its focus on children being participants in the story but not the focus of it.
The focus is on God’s great love for us all, the kind of love which, in Molly’s thoughts, “makes you brand new and sparkly, too.”
I had been delighted with the book myself and so I deputized my oldest granddaughter as my test reader. She’s seven (ALMOST EIGHT!), and she’s an expressive reader. She had loved Merrill’s first Lantern Hill Farm book, THE CHRISTMAS CRADLE, which introduced the same characters—Molly, Baby Charlie, Mama and Papa, Aunt Jenny and Uncle Gerry, and friends—when it appeared last year. (Three additional Lantern Hill Farm books are slated to appear this year.)
When I handed my granddaughter THE BACKWARDS EASTER EGG HUNT, she was excited to have a new story about Molly. One of her comments to me about the Christmas book had been a thrilled interjection as she read it the first time, last fall, and was almost all the way through—“Grandpa, they already know about Jesus!”
I smiled. This time, I was certain, my granddaughter would find that Aunt Jenny already knew the real story—and she would help Molly and the other children discern for themselves—the real story of Easter. And that is what happened.
She handed the book back. “How did you like it, sweetie?” “I LOVE it!”
I handed the book to my second reader, my oldest grandson, at six. He snuggled into my lap, gathered his next younger sister, at almost 4, and he did a good job reading the story to us—except for words like though and through, which certainly no one should be required to sound out.
My youngest grandson liked the book, too. He's one-and-a-half. He chewed on a corner of the book meditatively it for a bit and then tossed it away and went to build a block tower.
Meadow Merrill grew up on a farm in Oregon and now lives with her husband and children on a farm in Midcoast Maine. She is an experienced journalist with many credits and is the author of the award-winning inspirational memoir REDEEMING RUTH.
My friend Meadow and I were writing our memoirs at the same time, each of us trying to find a few hours here and there, and each of us enjoying life on the coast of Maine. My memoir was published and gained some attention, and I determined to do what I could to help promote REDEEMING RUTH...which is magnificently done as a memoir, deserving of its awards.
The result of my effort was reported in this blog. Here's the link, from May 2017.
A child went into the forest and became lost. It seemed to him that he had been lost for days. The child tried to follow what appeared to be pathways through the trees, but each pathway came to its end at an impenetrable place, just when the pathway seemed that it might open up further and lead to an exit from the forest.
What the child imagined would be the case when an exit from the forest was found was that a landscape of openness and beauty would be revealed. This landscape, as imagined by the child, would be a place where the child’s difficulty of escaping from the forest would be forgotten and instead happiness would reign.
It would also be a place where whatever was real was actually, really, real.
What would be important about this new landscape would be its provision of truth. If the day were sunny, then the actual sun would actually shine, and the sky would be blue—actually blue—and the sun would not be named something other than “sun” and the sky would not be colored chartreuse, which no one would be able to spell nor to define as a color.
The child had gone into the forest originally because the mother of the child had died and the father of the child had married another woman who was mean-spirited and who would not tell the child the truth.
This woman came from a different part of the country where different things were believed—in fact, some people in that different part of the country believed in nothing at all—and so trouble existed everywhere in that different part of the country. The trouble which existed there in that other part of the country explained why the step-mother had become mean-spirited in her maturity, although she was beautiful, which is what had impressed the father.
One time the child asked the step-mother, “What color is the sky?”
“The sky is whatever color you think it is.”
“The sky is blue.”
“You are a fool. The sky is whatever color anyone wants it to be.”
“But it can only be the color that it is.”
“No, fool. It can be whatever color anyone wants it to be. There is no such thing as it is. The sky does not have a color. You are free to make up its color to suit yourself. You are the authority. Not it.”
The child and the father and the step-mother lived in a small cottage next to the forest, where the father went each day to cut fire wood to sell at the market.
The child had sometimes gone into the forest with the father during the work day, particularly after the mother had died. Now, with the step-mother not telling the child the truth, the child was all the more inclined to go inside the forest and to speculate about finding what might be a more truthful landscape on the other side of the forest, if a way to such a place existed and could be found.
So one day the child went into the forest with the father. As the father was setting out his axes and saws, the child asked, “Father, what is on the other side of the forest?”
“I have never been to the other side of the forest, but I know men who have been there, and I believe the tales they tell. They tell of a place that is what it is—truly what it is. I am told it is a beautiful place where men and women, as well as children, can be safe because power exists there for rightness. It is power for the truth.”
“Father, I should like to go there sometime.”
The father chuckled. “So should I. But now I must work. You go along and play, but don’t wander off.”
The child did wander off and soon became lost.
Days seemed to pass. The child felt hungry and tired. The child missed the father. The child did not miss the step-mother. The child hoped soon to break through a final barrier and to emerge in the beautiful place of rightness and truth on the other side of the forest.
One evening, the child, who was exhausted, lay down and slept. In his sleep, he dreamed a dream. In his dream, a barrier at the end of a pathway through the trees did, at that moment, open up. What once had been confusion and difficulty for the child—what had been scratching and thorny to push through—suddenly broke open, and the child was able to step out from the forest and, in his dream, to stand where bright white sun shone in the blue sky.
A spirit being appeared. The spirit radiated light and truth and love and a deep urgency of welcome.
“Welcome Home, boy,” the spirit being said.
“Is this my home? I must return to my father.”
“This will be your Home, in time. For you and for your father.”
“I cannot abandon him.”
“Of course. But first, before you go back, look around. What do you see?”
“I see….” The boy looked around and thought. “I see…what I see is what always has been. What always has been…and is true.”
“Is it true now?”
“It is true now.” The boy looked around some more. He took a breath. “It is true for always and forever.”
“Good! That is good, boy. I will send you back to your father, who otherwise might miss you and worry you are lost.”
“I was lost.”
“No longer. Here’s what I charge you with. Help your father talk to his wife about what is true, here, on the other side of the forest. Your step-mother is lost as well. Perhaps all three of you may someday come Home.”
The child stretched and rolled over and opened his eyes. He was in the clearing where his father was cutting wood. His father smiled at him. “Nice nap?” he asked.
“Let’s go home and talk with Mama,” the boy said.
Last week I asked for recommendations of good memoirs for me to read…since I’m writing another one which I desire to be good. Who knows if my new memoir will turn out to be good, but recently my wife Channa gave me excellent critiques, on two levels.
So there’s hope!
One level of Channa’s advice was structural. That is the easier critique to address. The other level posed a greater challenge. Her advice was conceptual. Here's the advice. Take out anything—and she pointed to some things—take out anything that is, in the end, self-indulgent.
Hoist with my own petard!
When I mentor writers who struggle to produce their own memoirs, the first exercise I assign to them is to tell me what their memoir is about--in a single, short, snappy sentence. I don’t want their story at this point; that’s not what I want to hear. I want a billboard, not a book report.
In my experience, this is the single hardest piece of writing for many of them undertake. Me, too. However, when successfully undertaken, that single, short, snappy sentence becomes the memoirist’s lodestar. ANY writing that DOES NOT fall under its direction—however delightfully personal and engaging to the taste of the writer—is SELF-INDULGENT.
It must be taken out!
And here I was writing happily along while being guilty of that same fault! Bah!
Good on Channa!
You readers answered with suggestions—in Comments and on FB, or when we ran into one another during the past week—for which generosity, I thank you! Last night, one reader expressed curiosity about the list of books, so I said I’d present it in this next post. I’ve edited it a bit. Several of you listed one book among your lists…some strange book whose title begins with The Time Mom Met Hitler.
I’ve excluded that one. I wasn’t looking for lurid histories about discreditable social events!
What I also received were delightful statements from you among your suggested titles. For example, here’s a favorite--
Regarding the list of suggestions, one person characterized them as “All non-whiny memoirs of challenging childhoods with deeply flawed but not cruel parents.”
How enticing a blurb is that!
So here’s the list. (So far: you’re welcome to send more suggestions, anytime!)
Jesus, my Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts – Ian Morgan Cron
All Over but the Shoutin’ – Rick Bragg (mentioned twice)
Through the Eyes of a Lion – Levi Lusko
The Fire of Delayed Answers – Bob Sorge
As Soon As I Fell – Kay Bruner
A Man Called Ove – Fredrick Backman
Educated – Tara Westover
Don’t Let’s Go the to Dogs Tonight – Alexandra Fuller
Glass Castle – Jeanette Wall
Liar’s Club – Mary Karr
Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson
…and add one historical fiction – Becoming Mrs. Lewis – Patty Callaghan.
I write memoirs in order to bring religious seekers closer to God and to gratify believers who wish to be re-enthused.
Most readers of my recent memoir are Christians, but some are not. The same applies to readers of my blog posts. Some are; some are not.
My point is that, irrespective of the religious stance of readers, I write from the perspective of a believing Christian who happens to be a Lutheran by denomination.
A memoir is a variety of writing that differs from, but is a sub-category under, autobiography. At a higher level, each is non-fiction.
Autobiography is an organized, factual, narrative recounting of the events that comprise the writer’s life, usually presented in order as they occurred. On the other hand, while a memoir also draws from the writer’s life, the word memoir has been traced back to a Persian term for “that about which we ponder.”
That Persian word is mermer.
The person who writes a memoir does relate factual events, indeed, but he or she devotes attention not so much to the events themselves or to the order in which they occurred, but to the ponderings which arise from the events.
The ponderings may be happy or sad. The pondering reveals the book’s theme.
The reader of memoirs experiences something that is more subtle and more nuanced than the reader of autobiography. Memoirs are closer to poetry than they are to general non-fiction. The reader of a memoir is engaged with the writer’s mind, imaginings, and soul.
During past centuries, published memoirs generally were written by persons of high achievement, or who had encountered some event of great significance as viewed by their entire culture. Near the end of the last century, and into our own, with self-publishing available, memoirs have exploded as a variety of published writing.
(My Amazon search just now, using the single word memoirs, pulled up over 60,000 titles…of course, my search was not nuanced, but that’s a lot of books that Amazon’s algorithm categorizes as having some relationship with memoirs!)
What is lamentable in our age of social media me-me-me-ism is that many persons who have lived their lives are stirred to write and to publish their memoirs, whether of general interest or not.
As a man who has written one memoir (and who is nearing completion of another), I am aware that I might be chided for deciding on my own authority that it is important to the world that I ponder in print on the truths of my life.
Who do I think I am, after all?
All I can say is that, manifestly, some memoirs rise above the ordinary into the significant. Since I write anyway, and am always working on another book, writing memoirs ought at least to be worth a try.
As a writer of memoirs, I am hungry to read them. What I want to gain from the reading of any memoir is two things. One, what is the story about? Two, how does this writer do the memoirist’s job?
I ask for your suggestions. What should I read?
As I select memoirs, especially I like to read--
I am eager for suggestions from you regarding memoirs you recommend, memoirs which have moved you, memoirs that are significant. Please give me a title or two and a sentence about them.
Particularly, coming from those of you who are Christian readers, I’m interested to read the “almost theres.”
In my language, an “almost there” is a memoir written by a serious-minded, skilled writer, who is pondering on the page about the nature of his or her life. Often there is a tone of anxiety. There may be an illness, or a relationship problem, or something else that produces a sense of wretchedness or emptiness of the writer’s soul.
A Christian reader of such a memoir may have a sensation that the writer suffers from lack of hope.
As a Christian, that reader has hope due to redemption provided by God through Jesus Christ. See, for example, 1 Peter 3:15, which speaks of that same hope.
When I finish reading an “almost there”, I may admire the writer’s skill, but I am left with sadness. The book is over. The life that the book depicted does not climax with the hope that is in me as a Christian, and which is available, through Christ, to all.
Of course, anything can happen for the Lord’s glory, and Channa and I ourselves came late in life to Jesus Christ. To those who knew us beforehand, perhaps our progress would have been judged unlikely, too.
I am left only with hope that another memoir might come from that same writer, whose craft I admire. I would welcome a new memoir that would reveal that the writer is no longer almost there, but there.
And still pondering….
So, my friends, what should I read?
Sometimes people wonder to me where a writer's stories come from. Stories are everywhere. There’s no end of them.
I can’t remember where I got this image. It’s been my screen saver for a couple of months. I like it as a screen saver because having it means that each time I boot up, I pause for a moment before going along to email and think “Who are those guys?”
I don’t know yet who they are, where they’re headed in their boat, why they’re going that way, whom they left behind, what they’ll find when they get to their destination, and what problems they carry with them as they plow through the sea.
This image already is a story; I just don’t know what the story is.
I have ideas.
From the design of the boat and from her rig and sails, I can speculate about time and geography—perhaps 18th century, maybe Dutch.
From the apparent calmness of the two sailors, I speculate that this trip they’re on might be a routine cargo transfer—what cargo and, more importantly, will their delivery or pick up proceed as expected or will a problem occur? What might the problem be?
On the other hand, from their apparent indifference to the lack of trim of their flying jib, I speculate either that they may be engaged in some intense discussion or argument right now and have not noticed the lack of trim, or that a sudden squall has caught them by surprise. In either case, this illustration might be the snap-shot of a possible crisis—in human relations? In commercial expectation? In nautical competence?
Are the sailors men? I assume so—that’s a massive, unwieldy rudder and tiller to manage, and lots of sheets for trimming the boat’s five sails (only four of them set at the moment). Women could sail the boat, but it would be less common than for the sailors to be men. If the sailors are men, where are the women who fit into this picture—possibly below decks? Ashore with children? Nonexistent?
What are the ages and characters of the two men? Are they young and energetic and beginning a commercial or fishing career? Are they old and tired and rheumatic from endless cold and wet and wish this all were over? Is one older than the other and more experienced than the other? Did the younger marry the older’s daughter and angles to inherit the boat?
I’ve glanced at this image many times. Dozens of stories are there about the men, each of which could be told and probably never will be.
I used to write fiction when I desired to read a novel about a story such as any of those speculated above, and, since I couldn’t find such a novel, I needed to write it myself.
What stories excite you enough to write them out, taking the time and exercising the discipline to follow whatever literary path along which they take you?
Don’t allow 2019 to pass by without writing at least one of those stories through to its end.
My two cents.
[Sometimes I am approached by those who want to write a book. Often their excitement is delightful. When it is their first attempt, they may not be as alert to the difficulties of writing a book as I wish they could be. I don't want to discourage them, but I don't want them to be blind-sided either. I posted a piece like this a few years ago and thought I'd update it now because these encounters continue to happen.]
You came to me and said you want to write a book.
I applaud you. I’m excited for your excitement. May your excitement carry you through.
Yes, here’s one way to write a book. Sit down and write five pages each day for two months.
How hard can that be? Only two months.
It’ll take discipline, but in sixty days, you’ll have a manuscript that is 300 pages long.
My most recent book that I had published also came from a manuscript that was about 300 pages long. However—different from you—writing that book took me ten years!
The new book I am close to completing today has taken about two years, and that includes the six months I knocked off writing all together because I couldn’t figure out how to pay attention both to my family and to the book at the same time, for the benefit of each.
When you are done with your two-month manuscript, then I will be happy for you as a person.
I will be happy because evidently you are a person who has had a very strong sense of three things during your past two months. The first thing about which you have been strong was where your book came from inside of you. The second thing about which you were strong was where your book was each day, while you pushed it along, page after page. And the third and most important thing about which you were strong was where your book was going to end up--that is, what it is about.
That’s impressive; very.
I had none of those assurances while I wrote any of my four books. I thought I had, but I needed to do the books over and over again to work these issues out, especially the third issue--what is the book about?
You are able to work quicker than me; good for you!
However long it ends up taking you—whether two months or maybe three—one day, your manuscript will be done.
Or anyway you’ll think it is done.
Because it had better be done.
Because you really, seriously need it to be done.
You really, seriously need it to be done because your brain will hurt just as my brain hurts when I am done. My brain hurts with a hurt that isn’t assuaged by two fingers of bourbon and a night’s hard sleep.
My brain hurts because, having re-read my manuscript five times over again since I deemed that it was done, I still can’t tell whether it’s any good or not.
Maybe you’re different. Probably you are different because it only took you two months to write your 300 pages. It’s likely that you do know your book is good.
By the time I finish my new book, I will not want even to see one more word. Nor will I want to create anything. All I will want to do is to absorb.
Even the smallest act of creating will make my brain hurt. Instead of creating, I will desire to absorb that which has already been created…and not by me.
I would gaze upon that which is pure and upon that which, being pure, is holy.
Perhaps I would gaze with the same intensity as that beachcombing, rusticating, French painter, Paul Gauguin, when he gazed, in the 1890s, on the maidens of the far South Sea. Those same maidens were the ones he used as icons while he wondered upon his canvas, wondering at his answer to the same three questions you mastered during your two-month book— Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
After my last book was published, we moved from Maine to the Blue Ridge of SW Virginia. We chased our first three grandchildren—now there’s another one here and one in New York, too.
Pretty soon after the move, I started out trying to capture the voice for my next book, the book I’m close to finishing now.
Took me a while to get it right—took writing three times deep into the book to decide what the voice is that should tell it—and now does.
Each writing-in brought me closer to understanding what my book is really about, since each of the now rejected earlier voices told the story in a lesser way than the present more robust and straight-forward voice does.
I envy you if you knew what your book was really about from the get-go. Lotta people don’t, like me.
Regarding your book—indeed you may finish your book in two months. People do. I hope you do, proving you know the answer to these three vital theological questions and can work your answers into the weft and warp of your tale.
Write it all down, my friend.
Write it all down and tell us about it.
We need to know.
Thank you...and--I mean this deeply--may you prosper!
[A cousin who is a poet and novelist requested a short writerly reminiscence of life with my father. It was to be part of a presentation she was making on the west coast, in honor of what would have been Dad’s 113th birthday—which he did not attend, having died 12 years before. I posted it last year, but many writers are new subscribers to my blog, so I present it again, slightly modified.]
Dad was prominent as a poet. When I was young, I longed not to be a poet.
I’d be anything—a quarterback, an FBI agent, a ship captain. But in my soul, I knew I would end up as a chip off Dad’s block. Alas, I was a word-smith, too.
So I watched Dad, to learn how.
Read, read, read.
Read any style, content, genre, author, date—it doesn’t matter.
“We pour our souls into these words, Dikkon. You need to learn to identify writing that’s worth that effort and writing that’s not.”
Once, after Dad breezed through an erotic novel I showed him, drily he responded, “Chaucer did it better.”
"I can’t write it,” I moaned, regarding my short story assignment in high school. “It’s too hard!”
Dad caught Mom’s urging eye, put down his pipe, and asked me, “What’s your story about?”
“When they’re choosing up teams, the boy wants to be picked first but maybe he won’t be.”
“I don’t know! Maybe he isn’t picked first, but maybe he hits the home run.” And then I blurted, “It’s due tomorrow!”
“Try making the story about his thoughts.”
“About his thoughts?”
“Yes. Try starting with the word ‘maybe.’” Dad grinned. “Maybe the story is about maybe.”
So I wrote the story and submitted it on time. Its first sentence was “Maybe I’ll be picked first but maybe not.”
Bring the reader in.
“Do you like it?” Dad asked.
“Not what I asked.”
“Then, no. It’s boring.”
“Do you think maybe the author’s just writing for himself and maybe for his closest friends?”
I hadn’t thought of that as a possibility. The author was a major name in modernist English fiction—the focus of my college class.
Dad pressed on, “Don’t you think it’s important that you be drawn in?”
“You’re his reader, aren’t you?”
I laughed. “I wouldn’t be his reader, not if I could help it.”
“So…that’s my point. Yes, the reader must come to the writer, but the reader will come to the writer only when he’s drawn in, not forced in.”
“That’s not happening here.”
“So when you’re a writer….”
I nodded. “Bring ‘em in.”
Don’t go to sleep until you know what happens next.
“No,” Dad said. “I don’t believe in writer’s block.”
“It’s my first novel, Dad. I can’t get past the point where I am. You’re a poet, not a novelist. How could you know?”
“What’s the last scene you wrote?”
I told him.
“Go back and write it again.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Doesn’t matter. Probably nothing. But write it again--create it over again. Your juices will begin to flow again, and you’ll speed on.”
Turns out he was right—I sped on.
Don’t let it fester.
I called Dad.
Two days before, I had finished my second novel, doing its last sixty pages in an eighteen-hour burst of ecstatic—almost holy—writing. “It’s done, Dad.”
“Of course. Get a rest.”
“Of course. So…what’s next?”
“I read it over. I think it’s good. Gotta do some tweaks.”
“Do that. But then—get it off your desk.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t let it fester. Get it out into the world. If you tweak it too much, you could kill it. Now let an editor tell you what to do. ”
HERE’S A BONUS—one more thing—BECAUSE YOU KEPT ON READING!
A Sixth Thing I Learned, but not from Dad
Sitting in our garden one day, Robert Frost turned to me and remarked, “Dikkon, the work of the poet is to write at least one single poem that they can’t get rid of. They’ll try. But don’t let ‘em.”
If You are Not a Writer,
God has blessed you with a different burden.
But your rules are just the same.
Steep yourself in all available wisdom.
Begin, even when you are afraid to begin.
Engage with those outside of yourself by understanding what they desire.
When stuck, allow your spirit to be refreshed by starting over.
When finished, bring the others in.
And a Bonus!
Keep working. Work hard. But take The Longer View.
You may win.
You may not win.
But you tried.
The hardest moment when you are beginning the writing your new book comes when you are at the end of your first chapter. That’s when your enthusiasm about your first chapter—this fresh new story and fresh new voice that is so exciting—that’s when you are skunked.
Chapter Two confronts you not only with a blank new page but with an entirely blank new chapter.
In writing a new book there’s a second hardest moment, too.
That’s where I am right now with my new memoir. I’m into it to the tune of about 37,000 words (160 pages as laid out on my screen), with six of its seven parts written.
I’ve been writing this book for close to two years, minus the months I took off earlier this year when my wife had broken bones, I developed a minor cancer, and I was uncertain where the book intended itself to go at its end.
Today I believe I know the book’s intent for its end.
Memoirs have the difficulty that you are writing about yourself, and you yourself are not done. I had a birthday this past week, and all my grandchildren who live close to us here in Virginia (four of our five; the fifth lives in New York)—they all guessed right about my age now, except our three-year-old granddaughter who missed my age by one year. I’m not seventy-one, I’m seventy-two, and I’m not finished yet.
But the book needs to be finished. A proper memoir purports to be about its author’s story—that’s what draws the reader in—but the reader only stays in if it turns out that the theme of the memoir relates to the reader.
I’ve discarded about ten titles for my new memoir. The discarding of a title is an act that occurs, by me, when I have learned one more thing than I knew before concerning what my memoir is about. Each title is a billboard, and when I learn something new about the book, I need to change the billboard.
I said I’m at the second hardest moment right now. My present idea for the title has remained and has not been rejected during most of the last rewrite up to the spot where I am now. When a title remains that long, I realize I am close enough to the end of the book that maybe I really do know what the book is about…or at least I think I do.
Being that close to knowing what my book is about produces both a heady feeling of excitement--it’s all downhill from here—but also of nervous anxiety.
What if it’s not all downhill?
Those 37,000 words are in their fourth complete rewrite, to here. Obviously, that includes their third rewrite, which was necessitated when my wife told me, “No, Dikkon. You’ve got the voice all wrong. Fix the voice, and you might have a good book.” Once she explained what she meant, I could see of course that she was right. The voice did need to be fixed.
I believe I have fixed the previous voice. Having fixed the voice, now I’m in my fourth rewrite and, as I said, now I think I know what my book is about.
Now, it’s about my story as told to a reader in that voice.
Since it’s in that voice, the world of the story now is one step further away from the world the story was in using my earlier and less disciplined voice. That distance now provides increased room for the reader’s interest to live in.
People read memoirs pleasurably when they find that the memoirs are about themselves. Any reader of a memoir is captivated by himself or herself—not by the author—and wants access to truth as it applies to the reader.
Now, obviously, the subject of a memoir is its author. However—to the reader—the function of a memoir is to interest its reader by the fact that the memoir’s story—what the memoir is about—is closely related to the reader’s concerns.
Readers want truth in their lives, and they study memoirs when the theme of the memoir mirrors the struggles or the joys in their own. A relationship is forged on the page--did that thing that happened to you, too?
Oh, goodness, I must read on!
So I’ll continue writing downhill from here, in that voice.
See how it goes.
I hope that it goes well, in that voice, because I need to be done.
Not because I have a deadline—I never do contracts until I’m done, just in case I not really done—but because I want this memoir to be finished…because I have a burning idea about the next book after this one…and I want soon to experience its heady, first-chapter excitement!
Some of you who are reading this piece are writers, and some among those writers write memoirs. Tell me—am I correct to identify those two hardest moments? I’m curious to know your experience.
Some readers may remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” It is a long poem from 1798, an early example of English romantic poetry. The poem recounts the adventure of the Ancient Mariner, who tells the tale. His story is of fate, chance, guilt, endless wandering, and perhaps redemption.
Those who remember the poem will probably recall its opening lines--
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?
The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.'
He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!'
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.
My post today is about a novel in which, akin to the ancient mariner who stoppeth one of three, its narrator reaches out and grips my arm while I hurry along to the wedding feast or to whatever other event attracts me, and he compels me, instead, to stop and to hear his tale of supernatural and saga-like truth.
The teller of this novel is aware that his story is an old-fashioned kind of a story in which he recounts elements of miracle and of faith interspersed with events of daily life in a way that doesn’t get told much in fiction nowadays. His tale is of a sacramental kind; it draws upon the Christian supernatural to show life’s richness and to reveal the nature of God.
Like the wedding guest, I am captivated by this “ancient mariner” and cannot tear myself away from his tale, not only because of the fascinating events he describes, but because of the extraordinary mastery of English prose that the teller has at his disposal and reveals to us.
Further, I am a man familiar with the Bible, and I am one who wonders, as some other readers of the Bible may do, what life would have been like in a world and time when miracle and faith—and journeys prompted by miracle and faith—simply occur. In biblical time, miracle and faith were woven within the weft and the warp of reality. They reveal the nature of God, in all its surprise.
As a modern man, I know, of course, that nothing akin to the biblical experience, say, of Abraham, who is called by God to go on a journey--and without argument or insisting on explanation just does so—nothing of this ancient kind can happen in our modern world and time.
The world and time we encounter in Peace Like a River is indeed our modern world and time.
Minnesota. North Dakota. Rural. Mostly winter—deep winter. 1962. And later.
This is a story about family, and about a family.
It is about an admirable father who must raise two boys and a girl alone. A shooting occurs. The older son, at sixteen, hard headed, defends his family and is forced to flee. The father, the second son—at eleven—and the daughter—at eight—are called to a journey of miracle and faith.
It is the eleven-year-old son who plays the part of the ancient mariner, and who reaches out and grabs me by the arm and compels me to listen to his first person tale. His name is Reuben Land. He is asthmatic; sometimes the full and easy wind does not blow through his lungs as it ought.
His sister is Swede, a poetic savant even at age eight, who loves and literarily inhabits the Old West and its romantic hero tales (I can imagine that Swede may already have memorized Coleridge’s poem as a precursor of such western myths—though with mountains and desert, not ocean—as written by Zane Gray!)
To those readers who have not read this tale, I plead with you. Allow yourself to be fed and exuberantly nourished by this story. If you have already read it, here’s a call to read it again.
Peace Like a River was published in 2002 by author Leif Enger. People were captivated. The book is a best seller.
Readers are divided in their response.
Amazon shows 1,013 reviews, 854 of them extolling the book as a masterpiece, and 159 of them saying “boring,” “too slow,” “unbelievable characters,” “too wordy,” and asking “what’s the point?”
I’ve read through most of the 159 negative reviews, and I’ll react to some of them below.
But first: Peace Like a River resonates with each of the qualities I expressed above. It resonates with a sacramental revelation of miracle, of faith, of human decency, of family cohesion, and of wonder.
Furthermore, most Christians (and even some others) probably know the title of the hymn, and its refrain, that is evoked by the title of this novel – It is well with my soul.
Having read nearly 159 negative reviews, my reaction is this –
With due deference because I cannot know another person’s heart, and speaking with humility because I do not seek to impose my literary taste on another, I need to say – those poor people; they just don’t get it.
I cannot read this captivating tale and not be powerfully acquainted that, due to my hours and hours spent following the journeys of father Jeremiah Land, oldest son Davy Land, middle child Reuben Land, and daughter Swede Land—and reading with breathless joy and surprise, it is well with my soul.
…and with the souls of 854 other reviewers, too.
Reuben speaks to us as an adult recounting the tale of his family as he saw it through his eyes when he was an eleven-year-old.
Some negative reviewers complain that eleven-year-old Reuben would not speak with the sort of diction or vocabulary that he does. Two answers to that complaint.
One, he isn’t eleven. He’s an adult.
Two, how do you know he wouldn’t?
At eleven, he’s a boy raised by a father who has most of the King James Bible in memory and who speaks to his son, sometimes, using the King’s English. Furthermore, Reuben’s little sister, with whom he most intimately communicates, actually is a literary savant, and that rubs off on Reuben.
Reuben is charming in his tale, sometimes by going off on tangents, and he is self-deprecating. I like to listen to him. As for his supposed unbelievable felicity with the English language, he makes it clear that Swede far surpasses him in that respect. And she does.
“Too slow,” some reviewers grumble.
Just because there’s a shooting and a journey does not mean that modern taste for flash-bang thriller pace is warranted.
Read Peace Like a River and exercise your taste for slowness, thoroughness, contemplation, and charm.
Discernment is Ruben’s effort as he tells us his tale. Regarding the Land family’s uncommon supernatural experiences, Reuben doesn’t agonize in our modern way over why; he just tells us what happened. Make of it what you will (this is a line that is repeated in the book).
And Reuben tells us what happened while he—as an adult—draws us in, entices our minds, tickles our fancies, and leads us along what appear at first to be verbal tangents that humanly enrich the story’s attachment to duty, honor, self-sacrifice, and love.
“What’s the point?”
There is a point.
It would be a spoiler to tell you what the point is, so I won’t.
But think Bible. There’s a point in that book, too. But you might not imagine the whole of the point when you first pick it up to read.
Now, of course this novel is not the Bible. But remember I enticed you to follow this post because I am interested—and you may be interested also—in the subject of what the nature of biblical times were, when what we term miracles and what we understand as faith were part of the weft and the warp.
What if life could be that way now—or now, as of 1962 and afterwards on the wintery northern plains of the everyday USA?
What if it could?
If it could—listen to me now: if it really, truly could—then after I hear Reuben’s tale, it is well with my soul.
Make of that what you will.
Five hundred years (and four weeks) ago, Martin Luther did the equivalent of tweet his accusation that the Roman Catholic system of Indulgences was a shame on the Gospel.
Poor fellow, he lacked the Internet at the time (and social media in general), so he was confined to posting his accusation on the door of his local church, which served as a community bulletin board for his town where people posted notices to reveal their thoughts.
Luther’s accusation was intended as an appeal to his ecclesiastical and academic colleagues that they should all debate the Indulgence issue he had just raised.
His argument included ninety-five logical points—every one of them longer than 140 characters.
As you read today’s post, it has been half a millennium (and—as you’ve heard—four weeks) since Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
This act initiated the colossal cultural change which has been termed the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation changed the western world, taking it from its medieval structure of hierarchy and social stasis to its modern freedom of personal flexibility and willful intent (albeit bringing forward freedom’s inherent dangers and sins).
My wife Channa and I came to Christ as Baptists, but we are Lutherans now—and glad of it.
I am especially glad today to be a Lutheran, since last week I finished reading Eric Metaxas’ brilliant new biography, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.
In honor of what was to be the up-coming quincentenary of the Ninety-Five Theses, I have undertaken to read three Luther biographies during the past fifteen months.
First, I read Andrew Pettegree’s 2015 volume, with its wonderful subtitle, Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation.
Whew! Excellent book. Do not neglect it.
Next, I began to re-read Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand, which was originally published in 1950, and which I first read, happily, back in my seminary days.
Bainton’s 400-page book is an effective biography, well researched, excellently tuned as to the pace of its story-telling, and presented to the reader with literarily stylish writing. The edition I have is also attractive because of its lavish black-and-white illustrations of sixteenth century life, which are informative and sometimes humorous.
When I was about 200 pages into Bainton, my birthday occurred. My birthday is October 30. Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on October 31…1517.
I’ve always felt emotionally close to Luther because of the coincidence of important days for each of us.
As a birthday gift, my son Sam gave me Metaxas’ new book.
I’d known about the coming of Metaxas’ book during most of 2017. The publication plan was to bring it out in early October in order to coincide with the Reformation anniversary. Some of you know that Metaxas and I did four national radio interviews earlier this year—discussing my recent memoir—and he described his new project to me during breaks between tapings of the interview.
Here was Eric Mataxas, author of those wonderful, big biographies about William Wilberforce (Amazing Grace) and also about Bonhoeffer, and he was doing a book on Luther--I couldn’t wait!
So, on October 30 when Sam gave me the book, I put Bainton down (yet shortly now to be picked back up again), and I took up Metaxas.
In the way of this master crafter of Christian biography and generally of the weft and warp of western and Christian history, Metaxas’ Luther is readable, intriguing, detailed, personable, admirable, witty, and moving.
Metaxas is able to make the intricate inner battle within the soul of Luther, that is between the forces of God and Satan, lucid—and particularly so for readers in the twenty-first century.
On a regular basis, Metaxas addresses today’s readers directly. He says it is important for our full awareness of the struggle Luther experienced that we stand aside from our commonplace, contemporary understanding of theology as well as of sixteenth century life in general, and to expand our awareness.
With a few succinct sentences, he helps us to do just exactly that, and then he takes us back to the moment at hand in Luther’s on-going story.
Each character in Luther’s story is fully fleshed, with Luther of course at the center of it all. Each moment in the confrontation between Luther, accompanied by his intellectual and theological followers, and the Pope and his supporters within the Catholic Church, each moment is detailed with precision and is made vivid by well-chosen quotations from letters, sermons, tracts, and speeches.
At the same time, Metaxas lets the oddities of the story remain. He lets them remain as oddities (after all, he is the author of an excellent book called Miracles.) Just to take one example, it is almost unbelievable that Frederich III, Elector of Saxony and a lifelong Roman Catholic, who singlehandedly protected Luther from the worst consequences of his revolutionary statements and behavior, for more than a decade, and who resided close by, never in his life met Luther. Yet it is so. It is so in the way that oddities occur regularly in human life—to be wrestled down into logical submission or no.
I adored each page of Metaxas’ biography; I recommend the book strenuously to you. My most intimate comment is that as a reader I got to know Luther.
Not just the theologian Luther, not just the “Here I stand” Luther, not just the translator of the New Testament from Greek to German in the Wartburg Castle Luther, not just the man horrified at the viciousness of the Peasant’s Revolt, inflamed by its use of his own name Luther.
No. The just plain human Luther.
Here is the Luther who, as a young and strenuously pious man, almost confessed himself to death (and exhausted his confessor) while nearly starving himself in his urgency to work his way into God’s grace. Here is the Luther who so reviled the selling of indulgences by the papacy that he scarcely considered the medieval political implications of throwing his fury at this behavior up onto his church’s door—thinking that Pope Leo X would be pleased to be straightened out!
Here is the corporeal Luther, suffering from depression, the Luther whose stomach and digestion gave him such trouble he almost died sometimes. Here is the Luther who suffered so deeply at the death of his almost teenage daughter that he could hardly understand that such parental love as his was possible. Here is the Luther who delighted in sex with his wife so much that he wrote to a friend that they should organize their martial intercourse with their wives to correspond in time, to produce all the more imaginative joy.
Here is the Luther who—during the worst of the Peasant’s Revolt, when friends and followers of his own theology were arrested and burned at the stake for their agreement with him—agonized deeply that he himself had not been found by God to be sufficiently strong in his theology as to be allowed by God to become a martyr, a reward which his fortunate friends had been granted.
When you hold Metaxas’ biography in your hand, its heftiness will impress you and perhaps even make you wonder whether its 450 pages are really for you.
After all, you already know about the Protestant Reformation; really, aren’t you okay enough on Luther and all that?
Shy away from that dismissiveness. That’s that my advice.
Read Chapter One.
The rest will take care of itself.