Ain't No Valley
Ain’t No Valley is proof that the inspirational sub-genre is expanding its horizons. Sharon Ewell Foster has little in common with Lori Wick. Her characters are more flawed, more urban, less traditional, and certainly less white bread. The bread here is thick, warm, and full flavored. Unfortunately, the plot, such as it is, meanders, drags, revisits, and veers, and Foster has a tendency to preach.
Naomi is a dentist whose life is steadily eroding. Her husband left her and took the kids. Her work is dull and she feels like she’s a servant to the HMO’s. When she gets an opportunity to audition for Wheel of Fortune, it seems like a lone bright spot in a sea of darkness. And then she wins big! But then she loses her job as a result of her spur-of-the-moment vacation. Unwilling to go back to the nothing she sees as her life, Naomi winds up in a boarding house in Bodega Bay, California rooming next to Ruthie, a hippie Jesus freak. But Ruthie, unexpectedly, has hidden depths and something to teach. And Naomi sure has a lot to learn.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, Anthony gets canned from his high profile job and shortly thereafter from his relationship. Telling himself he’s “taking some time” and “finding himself,” he goes off on a whim in search of Sly of the Family Stone. Supposedly Sly’s brother Freddy is pastoring a church in the Napa Valley, and Anthony thinks he might as well stop there on his route to nowhere. He always did like to play the guitar…
A number of other characters and their adventures take up a good deal of space in this book. Most of them seem to have featured in previous books of Foster’s. There’s Mary and Moor, who are engaged and about to marry in California; Latrice and Thelma, who, along with Naomi, are Mary’s best friends; and a whole host of people from Jacks Creek, NC who also aim to come to the wedding. This is a community story, much like Robyn Carr’s Grace Valley series or Marilyn Pappano’s Bethlehem books. Unfortunately, this book lacks the focus of a central character or romance. In fact, there is no romance, and there really isn’t a single central character. Much of the book feels like Foster is tying up loose ends from previous books. That might be all right for the reader who is invested in Mary and Moor or Garvin and GoGo, two of the couples whose stories were told in previous books, but for the uninitiated reader, this is a very large cast, and there’s too much going on.
Ain’t No Valley does have a central theme, though. It’s that of the parable of the wedding banquet (found in chapter 22 of the Gospel of Matthew). In this parable total strangers are rounded up for the king’s banquet when the invited guests fail to show up. The wedding here is Mary and Moor’s, and a whole bunch of people who don’t even know them wind up traveling cross country to be a part of their special day. This works more as as allegory but in reality – where few people, no matter how strong their sense of community, would make the long drive from one coast to another for the wedding of strangers – it doesn’t make a lot of common sense. Foster spends a good deal of time trying to make the parable fit the story. This leads to some good ole fashioned preachin’ that wears thin by book’s end.
What is interesting here is the glimpse Foster gives into the Black Christian community. Most of the characters here would consider themselves Christians, but they practice their faith differently. Latrice, a single woman, is a man-eater for whom the concept of celibacy is foreign. Her friend Thelma also likes to party. Ruthie, Naomi’s hippie friend, is “groovin’ with Jesus” most of the time. Anthony starts going to church, but only for the music.
Several other things stand out here. More than one character is overweight and comfortable with it. Foster touches on the perspective of those who are single and don’t want to be; people who feel left out during a wedding and are unsure of why God isn’t answering their prayers for Mr. Right. Another nice touch is the dialogue – it realistically and naturally captures the voices of the characters, with slang and cultural references.
Ain’t No Valley was a mixed bag for me. There were too many characters and too many side sermons for me to grade it higher than a C, but the characters were interesting, as was the peek into another Christian tradition. Foster’s first book, Passing by Samaria, was a stronger story and better displayed this author’s talent. But those who like community stories and are looking for a different kind of inspirational fiction might find something to read with this series.