When Terracotta Summer arrived for review, I could see immediately that I was the obvious choice to review it. It’s a religious novel with mostly Mormon protagonists, and I am the lone Mormon at AAR. I wasn’t too far into the book before I realized that I was also the only person on the staff who could understand it. Throughout the book there is Mormon terminology that only a member of the church (or someone very familiar with it) would comprehend.
On the title page we are informed that “Disaster, a mission, and romance stretch the O’Shea’s (sic) apart. Faith and Terracotta pots bind them together.” That’s not really an accurate representation of the book, which has no real closure, and the terracotta pots of the title are more an affectation than anything else. The story shifts back and forth between three primary characters, all living in the UK in 1963.
Ruth O’Shea is on her way to America. For years she’s been living on her own after running away from her abusive brother’s home. While she sails to America she meets two men aboard ship. One is a Mormon, whom she likes, but is afraid to trust. Apparently the abusive brother was also a member of the church, and she has trouble separating his behavior from church doctrine. The other man is a little more daring and bold, but he’s also a little dangerous. In between all this there is a plot involving Ruth’s cabinmates and a drug deal.
Another main character is Ruth’s cousin, Ken O’Shea. Ken is on a labor mission in Scotland, which means he is there to work rather than to proselytize (in other words, he’s not one of the guys you see riding bikes and wearing suits). Ken is helping build a new chapel in a small town, and he has to combat local prejudices against Mormons. Meanwhile, he meets two girls, both of whom really like him. One is the daughter of a policeman who is interested in the church, and the other is the daughter of a lapsed Mormon – and an abusive alcoholic.
The third protagonist is Ken’s younger brother Patrick. When his family moves to Northern Ireland, Patrick decides to stay on his own in Manchester. One bad decision leads to another, and soon Patrick finds himself deserting all the ideals he once thought were important. He’s drinking, falling prey to temptations of the flesh, and even bizarrely involved with the IRA.
The book rotates between these three main plotlines, and generally each chapter has a cliffhanger ending. The effect is really more choppy than anything else, but I still found the book to be a quick read, and I was interested in the characters, even though some of them are a little simplistic. Patrick was the worst in that respect. His headlong tumble into sin and perdition was so quick it could hardly be believed. Ken’s story was far more interesting, and apparently parts of it are actually based on real events and experiences of labor missionaries in the 1960s. Part of what interested me is the time period itself, which is an unusual and interesting choice. The protagonists were about the age that my parents were in 1963 (like Ken, my dad was on his mission right at that time).
The problems I see with this book are two-fold. The first is that as I mentioned earlier, you would have to be a Mormon to “get it.” Would you understand references to sacrament meeting, labor missions, and the Ensign? Would you understand why the author refers to Ken’s mom and dad off and on as “Brother and Sister O’Shea”? All these references make perfect sense to me of course, but none of them are explained in the book. This would drastically limit its appeal to any kind of wider audience, and this book would be a horrible place to start if you wanted to learn something about the Mormon church.
The other problem is more general. When I classified this book as inspirational fiction, it was really for lack of a better term. Most inspirational fiction follows a certain arc, with characters perhaps questioning their faith and reaffirming it by the end. Terracotta Summer isn’t like that. Part of the reason may be that there is a sequel, because this reads like half a book. Nothing is resolved for anyone at the end. Ruth hasn’t chosen between her two men or decided to join the church, and Ken is in similar romantic limbo. While the book has some romantic and spiritual undertones, neither of these aspects emerge as a coherent part of the plot. Maybe it all come together in the sequel, Chamomile Winter. But since this is written for a very narrow audience, I don’t think most readers will be there to find out.