Sunday, November 2, 2014

Book Review: The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate (2014, 5 stars)

The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When a mysterious manuscript from the forbidden slush mountain arrives on book editor Jen Gibbs' desk in New York, she knows she should put it right back where it obviously came from. That enormous mountain of paper in the conference room is absolutely forbidden to touch, and here she has a piece of it. A significant piece of it as it turns out because once Jen starts reading the decades old manuscript called The Story Keeper by an unknown writer, she is hooked. Not only because of the poignant tale of Rand and Sarra in the Appalachian mountains as they try to escape the evils of men in the 1880s, but also because she is reminded, strongly, of her own ties to the Appalachians, her painful childhood that she escaped at the tender age of 18 and has done everything possible to forget. With the blessing of George Vida, head of Vida Publishing House, Jen heads back to the place she thought she had left behind forever, Looking Glass Gap, and the memories it contains, in the hopes of tracking down the man she suspects is the author of the story, Evan Hall, who made it big in the publishing world as a teenager and that stopped writing. Evan's style is just like this mysterious manuscript, and the story itself even predates the Time Shifters novels that he wrote and which became a world-wide phenomenon that eventually sent him scurrying into seclusion, the inevitable popularity proving too much for his youth. Jen is forced to face her own memories and fears during this pursuit of a brilliant manuscript, and along the way she might just discover that God is more than the limiting and belittling God her father always preached.

If I were to pick a single word to describe The Story Keeper, it would be . . . fulfilling. I don't say that often, about very many books. I'm actually a hard critic on literature because I hold writers to a very high standard, the same standard I hold up to myself as a would-be-writer. And lately I have been disappointed in Christian literature time and again because these books could be brilliantly compelling and instead are merely so-so. That is not the case with Lisa Wingate. I enjoyed Wildwood Creek when I read it earlier this year, but it is The Story Keeper that grabbed me, kept me reading from one chapter to the next, wishing I didn't have to go to work the next day so I could read into the wee hours of the night, wondering about Rand and Sarra's future as Jen researched them, hoping against hope that Jen would find healing by returning to her hometown. I invested myself in Jennia Beth, in her story, in the story that Even Hall had penned and Jennia Beth had found. I even wished that Evan's hit book/movie series, Time Shifters, was actually real because I am, in fact, a geek and would have loved them, probably gone to the Renaissance Festival dressed as one of the characters, and maybe even made a trek out to Looking Glass Gap for the twice a year festival that fans of the series indulge in.

The Story Keeper caught me and held on tight, refusing to relinquish my imagination or the little ache it created in my heart. Jennia Beth couldn't have escaped her life of spiritual oppression and legalism on her own. It took the intercession of an older woman in the community, Wilda Culp, to show her a new world, to broaden her horizons, and to give her the courage to make a run for it, to create a new life, to make something of herself, and to not be bound by the terrible experiences of the past by growing up in a depraved misrepresentation of Christianity. Wilda Culp set her free, and I love that. I also love how Jennia Beth realizes, albeit slowly, that maybe, just maybe, the god of her childhood church, is not God Almighty. Because God in Heaven loves her, just as she is, and He does not speak and reprimand and whip through the hands of the men in the church, oppressing the women of the congregation into insane heights of submission. Jennia Beth finds healing from her past, and if she can do it, so can anyone else. She realizes the bitterness, the anger, and the fear, and she finds wholeness. It's beautiful and precious to see unfolding, and I cherished every moment of her healing. I also loved how the book didn't revolve around romance. Sure, there is a spark of connection between Jen and Evan, but that's not the focus of the story, and Ms. Wingate never makes it the focus. She has proved to me that excellent Christian literature can be penned and have absolutely nothing to do with the ooey-gooeyness of excessive romantic inclination.

In other words, I can't thank her enough for delivering The Story Keeper to a reader desperate for a new kind of story. I am excited to try some of her other books, but I don't know if they will touch me as deeply as The Story Keeper. This book is a winner in my eyes and in my heart, and so I give her my heartfelt thanks for writing it.

- I received a free copy of The Story Keeper from Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for an honest review, which I have wholeheartedly given.

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