A Woman’s Place was the first book by Lynn Austin I ever read and I was thoroughly impressed. Set during WWII and dealing with the whole idea of a woman’s proper place in the world, the book becameto me the essence of what a great Inspirational novel should be. In fact, I loved it so much it made my Top Ten Romances list. And I used it in a blog about working class heroes and heroines. I also gave high grades to her Wonderland Creek and While We’re Far Apart. So it is with an extremely heavy heart that I admit that Waves of Mercy will not be coming anywhere near my favorites list.
The trip had been meant as a time of peace and reflection but for Anna Nicholson it quickly becomes the greatest terror of her young life. Caught in a storm on Lake Michigan she flashes back to her dreams as a little girl, nightmares of her and her mother dying as a ship sinks and they are overwhelmed by towering waves of water. When their battered vessel finally comes ashore and they check in at the Hotel Ottawa Resort, Anna feels numb. The last few weeks, which involved a broken engagement to a wealthy Chicago banker as well as her peril at sea, have been too much for her. More, as a result of visits to D. L. Moody’s evangelistic rallies and services at his Chicago Avenue church, Anna is worried about her immortal soul. She is not sure exactly what would have been waiting for her in eternity if the ship had indeed sunk. As she slowly begins her spiritual and emotional introspection and recuperation, she finds herself plagued by vague images from her childhood. As a result of them, she knows words in Dutch, a language which none of her family speaks and to which she has no memory of being exposed. As Anna probes into the murky waters of her toddler years as well as her spiritual confusion, she makes an unlikely ally in young seminary student Derk Vander Veen. Reeling from a broken engagement just as Anna is, Derk is able to offer some spiritual guidance as well as work as a sounding board regarding whether she should seek reconciliation with her autocratic fiancé. The two develop a tentative friendship which is very nearly blasted apart by the maniacal response Anna’s mother exhibits on discovering it. Determined not to leave Anna floundering in her search for faith, Derk decides to introduce Anna to his Tante Geesje.
Following God’s will Geesje de Jonge’s family leaves the Netherlands and settles in the Michigan wilderness. Years later, as the town of Holland celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, she is asked to write a memoir of the early days and how the small band of settlers she had been a part of turned the untamed forests of the new land into the community they now know. But Geesje has secrets she has no wish to reveal and memories she has no wish to relive. Should she refuse to share her recollections with those around her or should she tell the truth and hope others learn from her mistakes?
I very nearly cried when I gave this book a D but it has so many flaws I simply couldn’t give it a higher grade. The largest problem is that it feels more like a long gospel tract told in a kind of fable format rather than an actual novel. Like other fiction, Inspirational fiction books are stories, but they also include the element of showing us how having faith in God changes how we face life. The adventure, the romance, the mystery – whatever the purpose of the narrative – should still be front and center to the tale being told. That isn’t the case here. Everything in this particular chronicle points not to the characters and the events happening to them but to God and the importance of subjugating every decision in one’s life to his will.
Lest you think I am some sort of curmudgeonly atheist who cringes at the mere mention of Jesus let me assure you I am not. In addition to the numerous Inspirational romance novels I read every year (about 50-75 books per annum), I read numerous non-fiction books about the Christian faith, attend church, read the bible regularly, keep a prayer journal and participate in local missions. Jesus is a comfortable and familiar friend and someone I welcome encountering in the pages of an Inspirational novel. However, there is a huge difference between telling a story and preaching a sermon and this book seemed to really struggle with that. The dialogue felt like it was 90% homily and only after the preaching was finished did we get to hear anything about what was happening to the characters. Once something did happen to them, we got to hear another lesson on the appropriate spiritual response to said event. Unlike what you actually do get in a church exhortation, though, this wasn’t a simple one subject lecture with advice on how to put what you heard into practice in your everyday life. It was numerous instructions which left me feeling overwhelmed and frankly, a tad depressed. I wasn’t inspired by Geesje and Derk’s faith but exhausted by it. It wasn’t the light burden and easy yolk Christ promised but a cross of steel and stone designed to crush the bearer.
That was difficult enough to struggle through but the story itself is very, very sad. When it isn’t dealing with death and loss (and that is a rare moment) it is dealing with broken hearts and troublesome family relationships. It’s often said that God is good, but I felt like the characters were saying that through gritted teeth as a prayer against further calamity. There is no HEA here but a simple ending in which everyone moves dutifully forward into the future, careful to step only where they feel God wants them to go lest he has strewn landmines across their path which might blow them to smithereens. At least they know where they’re going if that should happen.
I’d love to tell you something about the characters but aside from the fact that they were afflicted by conflicted about their faith and God’s plans for their future there is nothing much to say. Anna doesn’t like fancy clothes and society’s strict rules and Derk likes sailing. That’s all I really know about them.
Waves of Mercy is a book about suffering saints. It left me feeling like Job’s wife, who advised him to “Curse God and die.” That’s what I wanted to tell the characters at times. Acceptable prose and rich historical detail keep it from being an F but it in no way save the story from being bad.
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