World War Two is one of my favorite historical periods and I love the cheesy films about the fighting forces made in that era and the decade immediately following. Meant to be more patriotic than accurate, they paint a glamorized, clean cut picture of the American soldier and the women they fall in love with. The Sky Above Us, book two in the Sunrise at Normandy series reads like one of those movies, albeit a very religious version of one of those films.
This works as a standalone story but I’d recommend reading book one, The Sea Before Us, first. The series tells the tale of three brothers who are estranged by a tragic event and who meet again in the weeks surrounding the Normandy invasion. Reading both books will give a clearer picture of the history and why each brother made the choice he made.
Violet Lindstrom wants to be a missionary like her great aunt but for now she is serving as director of a Red Cross Aeroclub in England. This is a tough adjustment for her; she’s homesick, she is disappointed to be working with soldiers rather than children, and she finds many of the men crude and immoral. The only bright spots are that she gets to serve with her friend Kitty and that the kindly Lt. Adler Paxton, whom she met on the boat ride over, is there.
When Adler meets Violet, he is attracted to her but determines to avoid her. A tragic decision during a family outing led to the death of his fiancée, and in the hours immediately following that calamity Adler made some decisions that hurt a lot of people he loved. Part of his self-inflicted punishment is to avoid taking joy in anything but piloting. Once he realizes that he and Violet will be living and working at the same Air Force base, he decides to be friendly but evade anything which might lead her to expect more. A sinner such as himself should be nowhere near such a saint.
Fortunately for Adler and Violet, Adler’s captain is a Christian who convinces him that Jesus can forgive all his sins, no matter how awful. God also works on Violet’s heart to make her realize she should serve, not judge, those around her. These spiritual renovations enable the two to come together as a couple until an explosive revelation puts both their faith and their love to the test.
Sundin has a campy, quirky style of writing that serves her well for these types of sweet, sappy nostalgic tales. She does a good job of putting together all her plot points – such as the dangers the men faced on their missions, and the vital work of the Red Cross – by keeping the focus on how these things affect the characters. In this tale, there is also a mystery that is perfect for the storyline and is ideally utilized to show growth by Violet. The love story suffers a bit because there is so much attention on the character’s individual spiritual growth, but when we do see Adler and Violet together, it’s absolutely delightful.
That spiritual growth which takes up so much of our plot tackles some really big issues. Adler needs to learn about forgiveness, both of himself and others, as well as humility and how to deal with envy/competitiveness. The Adler in the time period before the book, as well as at the very start of it, had a case of what is now called ‘toxic masculinity’. He pressured women for sex, got drunk, brawled, was violent, nastily competitive and a whole host of other things. Violet had a spiritual mentor who well-meaningly led her down a dark path which resulted in some wrong-headed ideas about serving God and a serious case of self-righteousness. At the start of the story it was sometimes hard to spend time with her because she could be such a pill. When the big conflict takes place, Violet reacts so vilely that it would have been easy to throw the book against the wall and quit reading. That wasn’t just due to Violet’s behavior, though. The conflict comes about because of some revelations regarding a woman from Adler’s past. While he later comes to say that he takes full responsibility for his actions and doesn’t blame that lady at all, in his initial reaction he thinks some rather unkind things about her. Both their immediate responses to the conundrum were bad enough but what really bothered me was the disparity to the response between Adler’s sexual peccadilloes and his violent ones. Adler came close to killing someone and that was easily brushed aside, but his sexual behavior was treated with a response I would imagine most people reserve for learning someone is a serial rapist. (For the record, his behavior was nothing like that.) That the problem wasn’t met with disappointment but a forceful disgust deeply disturbed me, especially given how the other issues were easily forgiven and put behind them.
I think I was especially disappointed by that because many Christian publishers and authors seem to be moving away from the shaming mentality that has for so long been a part of ‘Inspirational’ literature. I don’t at all mean moving away from Christian positions on ethics and morality but taking the far more biblical approach of grace and forgiveness being part of the confessional process. There is a big difference between recognizing and acknowledging that someone has fallen short of the standards and implying that a particular type of sin comes with a stain that requires the casting of stones.
And again, what bothered me was that the sexual sin was treated so much more seriously and severely than violent assault and betrayal of family members.
I’m a big fan of this author but these issues bothered me to the extent that I can’t recommend The Sky Above Us. I think those of us invested in the Sunrise at Normandy series may want to pick it up, as it contains has information which really helps us understand the problems within the Paxton family. Readers who like deeply Evangelical romances – or who at least don’t mind that theology having a strong presence in their books – might enjoy it but I would recommend they start with another story. This one just doesn’t showcase how great Ms. Sundin can really be.