Where We Belong
It’s hard to part ways with a beloved author. However, considering the experience I had reading Ms. Austin’s previous book (Waves of Mercy) and after finishing Where We Belong I’ve realized I will not be reading her future works. While her backlist has afforded me much joy, these latest novels have convinced me that we are no longer compatible.
Rebecca Hawes is a wealthy, privileged young lady who chafes against the restrictions placed upon her by society. She finds clothes, boys and the things other young girls are interested in beneath her. She has no patience for others who don’t share her intellectual pursuits and she has little tolerance for those who aren’t interested in travel. As our story begins, Rebecca gives vent to her adventurous spirit by talking her sister Flora into skipping school and exploring the city of Chicago. During their day off, they find out the cost of traveling about Europe and present it in a report to their widowed father. My kids would have found their thirst for such clandestine activity rewarded with manual labor and a firm grounding but their father is more open minded about such things and rewards the girls with a French tutor and a summer abroad.
On the journey home aboard an elegant ocean liner they meet a destitute widow whom they fear has designs on dear old dad. The lady lives in Chicago and insists on pursuing the relationship once they return to dry land. Rebecca soothes her worries by once more insisting on exploring rather than attending school. This time she drags Flora to the tenements of the Irish immigrants where they buy apples for the street children and Rebecca begins a campaign against the local factory which employs some of those urchins. This time, the report they present to their father is about the evils of child labor, the plight of the immigrants and other such wrongs in the world. And this time their father reacts a bit more normally. He asks the widow, Mrs. Worthington, to step in and help his staff supervise the young ladies more closely and also to take an active hand in guiding the girls’ conduct in order to help them comport themselves in a more appropriate manner. There are lessons in dress, manners and etiquette but of course Rebecca holds this all in deep contempt. Her interests, presented as clearly superior, include disdaining Charles Darwin and ungodly evolutionists and researching and proving biblical history. A marriage between their father and Mrs. Worthington now seems inevitable but fortunately tragedy strikes.
Their father dies unexpectedly and Rebecca celebrates buries her grief by dragging her sister on another trip, choosing the Middle East for their latest excursion. Here they encounter love in very different ways. Flora falls for a British scholar determined to research the history of the bible and Rebecca falls in love with biblical archeology. It is this trip that sets the course for the ladies’ lives throughout the many years this book covers.
While the prose is good and the story coherent, my struggles with this book were legion. The largest problem I had was that I felt like I was being told about the story rather than reading the actual tale. For example, there is no heart or heat in the portion of the book where Flora “fell in love” with Edmund. Her reasons – infinitely practical – are that he is a Christian, is as interested in schools that taught the gospel alongside reading and writing as she is, and he will allow her the financial freedom to do as she pleases with her vast wealth. Those are all valid points but possibly hundreds of men would meet that standard. I never got why she loved him.
A few other issues I had concern that vast wealth. I’m married to an accountant, I know how much time the management of investments takes and yet Flora handles huge amounts of money with little input of time or effort. That just isn’t possible unless she is relying solely on others to supervise her investments, but the book implies that’s not the case. Also, at a time when most means of earning great chunks of money involved the exploitation of the lower class, how was Flora able to carefully conduct her business so that her wealth wasn’t involved in firms that did that? Additionally, I was confused as to how much of that wealth was being spent on charity and how much was being kept. Typically, I wouldn’t care but since this book was so very judgmental of those who did not use their wealth in a meaningful way and folks who took advantage of working men and women, I felt it would have been relevant to address this.
Another problem was with how the characters are established. For each of them, we learn their lives almost exclusively from their faith perspective. The majority of conversations center around God or theological issues. Having attended church and bible study my entire life, which has spanned more decades than I care to admit to, I can assure you most Christians do not behave in this manner. Not only do we have the same practical conversations as other people, but the vast majority of our conversations mention faith in a much more natural way. The intense debates about evolution, biblical historicity, and theology aren’t in the least typical even in a church environment, much less in a home or social one. Added to that, by showing us only such limited aspects of the sisters the author failed to establish their personalities in any substantial way. They were more like allegorical characters than fictional ones, lacking the depth that would move them beyond caricature.
I struggled with the history of the tale as well. The current American evangelical movement – for which these characters served as a mouthpiece – espouses extra biblical doctrines which would have been the antithesis of what the vast majority of Christians at that time would have believed. For characters that speak so often about God and church I found it hard to reconcile the lack of historically accurate beliefs with their acceptance into a faith community. Also, that faith community is never clearly defined, which is another point of confusion for me. Given their charity work and schools, things which are typically done at and through church locations, their affiliation with a religious establishment should have been clear. I think this is because the real people the characters were based on were Presbyterian and were “affectionately affiliated” with the Greek Orthodox church and neither group would be popular with non-denominational evangelicals. I could also write an entire paper on the bad theology used here.
Like other fiction, Inspirational fiction books are stories. 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 with Where We Belong. Full of bad theology, questionable use of the scriptures and caricatures rather than characters, I would recommend readers avoid it and instead perhaps check out Ms. Austin’s older works.