Saturday, January 14, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout

Well, I started off the year with a plan. It wasn’t carved in stone, but I did think I would read more than 2 of my intended books before getting sidetracked. Instead, after Olive Kitteridge and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, rather than continuing to tackle my enormous pile of previously purchased books, I went to the library for one that was not even on my TBR list.

But I had a good reason! A fellow blogger, Sherry from Semicolon, commented on my Olive Kitteridge post with a recommendation to read Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout. (Her review can be found here.) I thought Olive Kitteridge was an amazing book, so I intended to read more of Strout’s work eventually. But Sherry’s review really grabbed me. I went ahead and requested it from the library and it came in only a couple days later. So, I settled in for the read.

This is also a small-town-New-England novel but this one is set in the past, in the late 1950s. (Hurray! I can use it for the historical fiction challenge.)

Skillfully employing an omniscient narrator, Strout takes us inside this close-knit New England community and opens it up to us, warts and all. The book focuses primarily on Tyler Caskey, a young pastor who came to be minister to the small congregation as his first job out of seminary. He is warm and affable, a man who loves to preach and who is sincere in his calling. Most of the town takes to him immediately. The only fly in the ointment is his beautiful young wife, who does not adjust well to the role of minister’s wife, but we learn about that in due course.

As the book opens, the wife is about a year dead; Tyler is a widower. His youngest daughter is being brought up by his mother in a different town. His older daughter has just begun kindergarten and is emotionally troubled – she’s causing problems at school. These problems start a ripple effect throughout the community, threatening the way Tyler views his flock, his role there, and himself.

The book moves back and forth in time and takes us deep into the psyches of several of the townspeople, as well as exploring the thoughts of Tyler’s five-year-old daughter Katherine. We see how much harm people can do by pettiness and gossip. And we see how far even a little kindness can go. We see faith tested and restored.

Once again, Elizabeth Strouth does a superb job of presenting fictional characters as real human beings. Their flaws are so glaring because they are so ordinary and believable. The ordinariness of their strengths is what makes the book reassuring. It’s a beautiful book, and I’m glad I took the detour to read it.

This is book number two for the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry. It's interesting for me to read a book set in such recent history compared to the historical fiction I generally read. There are very obvious differences between the time period of the book and now, and yet, compared to medieval fiction, the book is practically contemporary. When do you think historical fiction stops and contemporary begins?