Friday, October 15, 2010

Great Expectations: Revisiting a classic through a religious lens.

I wrote this little ode to my favourite Dickens novel quite some time ago. However, I knew that I wanted to post about Great Expectations at some point because one of my very favourite bloggers happens to be dusting off old classics and reading them for her Everything Old is New Again Challenge. I am jumping the gun: the binary reading of GE with Jack Maggs by Peter Carey isn't slated 'til next week. I have read all of the books she is partaking in for her challenge but Great Expectations remains my favourite and while I had shared of it on my other blog, it was as of yet uncharted territory here:

In the 19th century ( my niche and the subject of my degree), books were published with a high sense of morality: sunday school readers and children's verse and adult cautionary tales which drove home the same bleak and brimstone ideas as predecessing days of chap books and loose pamphlets. In fact, as long as there has been print, I think we can safely say that Christians have tried to devise a way to spread the Gospel to the masses--- through the filter of the written word. Some parable, some philosophical, sermon, epistolary, Biblical commentary and history..... we Christians have a long written tradition to meet our thriving oral and musical one.

The wonderful thing about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and living a lifestyle completely driven by Christian thought is your happily tainted eyes seem to find kernels of Christianity everywhere. You wear rose-coloured glasses that tip your mind's eye in a way privvy to any and all: symbolism, threads of grace, morality, Biblical reference, allegory, etc., that lead you back to the One who propels you forward.

Lucky for this Christian, I have the very great fortune of finding said Grace throughout my favourite era of literature.

Wholly conscious or not, the Victorians were steeped with Christian ideals and their literature is veritably drenched in it....

which brings me to the subject of
Great Expectations: a novel where threads of Grace are far more prominent through my rose-coloured glasses than the romance between a blacksmith's apprentice and the cold Estella; the illusory value of riches and the Cinderella-yarn of a young man coming into his own. No, Great Expectations always brings me closer to God because it is, above all, a novel of unconditional love.

Unconditional love is first represented through Joe Gargery: narrator Pip's brother-in-law: a simple and good-natured blacksmith. When Pip is a child, Joe explains to him why he decided to marry Pip's harsh sister and take on a family not quite his own. He explains how he immediately thought of the orphaned Pip left to be raised by his sister and knew that he could find a place for both of them. Constantly reminded of the treacherous way in which his abusive father treated him and his mother, Joe is willing to atone his father's past wrongs by embracing Pip and his sister. Pip mentions looking up to Joe " in his heart" as he deciphers that he was the main reason for Joe's marriage to his cruel and abusive sister.

As Pip grows up and starts to visit Miss Havisham's, his view of Joe changes. The callous Estella: brought up to wreak havoc on the male sex, drives Pip with negative force. First, Pip develops a disdain for his life at the forge and Joe's work and for his home : a place once sanctified by Joe, as Pip recalls, but now a reminder of his shamefully low circumstance.

When Mr. Jagger's informs Pip that he is a young man of great expectations, Pip far too eagerly leaves Joe and new housekeeper Biddy to establish himself in London. On one occasion when Joe visits Pip in London, we see for the first time the ramifications of Pip's wealth and status. Pip treats Joe abysmally and Joe bears it like a saint. At the end of a tragically awkward meeting, Joe tells Pip inasmuch as it is a pleasure to see him anywhere, he knows that their social circumstances are severed. He cannot blame Pip for his treatment of him because he believes it is a relationship now welded by societal norms.

As far as his love for Pip ..... it remains unchanged. It even remains unchanged when Pip returns for his sister's funeral --- choosing the Blue Boar in his hometown as lodging rather than the home of his youth with widower Joe. Pip's airy promise to visit often prompts Joe to show unabashed affection. No matter how ungrateful Pip is, Joe will never scorn him or turn him away.

Perhaps the most Christianized ( if I may pen a word) segment of the novel occurs near the end. Pip has discovered the benefactor of his great expectations and been driven to near-ruin and heavy debt. All of his friends have deserted him and he lays deep in an encumbered illness... lugubrious prospects awaiting him when he awakes.

Joe, of course, becomes Pip's steadfast companion and nurses him through the illness. Further still, hardworking Joe ( for whom money and life are hard come by due to the nature of his occupation) has willingly paid all of Pip's debts; debts accumulated by money squandered on seeming propriety and wealth.

The second testament of unconditional love is not as innocent and pure as Joe's love for Pip. It is instead proven by Pip for the oft unworthy Estella. Pip first meets Estella when he is ordered to attend Miss Havisham at Satis House: an instrument for her masochistic amusement. Rejected by a man on her wedding day, Miss Havisham has brought up Estella as a mechanization of destruction. Estella, beautiful and proud, will break hearts and afflict the same suffering Miss Havisham endured.

Pip falls hard for Estella as a boy...perhaps for no other reason than that she represents a life so beyond the one laid out for him as a blacksmith.

In fact, all of Pip's actions ( good and not so good ) are borne of something relating to Estella. Estella first inspires Pip to rethink the way he was brought up when she scolds him for calling knaves "jacks". From there, Pip knows that his life at the forge will never be good enough for a girl of Estella's pedigree.

When Pip learns of his great expectations he becomes blinded by his (false) assumption that Miss Havisham is prepping him as a life mate for her ward, Estella. Pip's ingratitude toward Joe and his extravagant lifestyle and blatent snobbery burgeon out of Pip's need to make Estella love him.

While Estella is far from perfect: cold, callous, heartless and more stone than woman , Pip loves her unconditionally. Even when Estella becomes engaged to Bentley Drummle ( a suitor as hopelessly detached from emotion as she), Pip waits in the sidelines for a turn of events.

Unconditional love is a theme oft explored in theology, in Christian fiction, in the Bible and in secular fiction. However, its resonance as a Christian principle remains intact in a book published more than a century ago.

I think the conviction at the novel's core stems from Pip's treatment of Joe and Joe's treatment of Pip---good-hearted and true. In turn, Pip's steadfast love for Estella in spite of Estella's inability to feel warmth or care.

When Joe pays Pip's debts and refuses to hear anything about how they were accredited, I am always reminded of intrinsic Christian theology. There is nothing in the world that Pip can do that would make Joe love him less----- a continual reminder of Christ's sacrifice and his unconditional love for us.

Courting Morrow Little by Laura Frantz

This is one spicy Christian novel. I loved Courting Morrow Little It shook up the tradition of historical Christian fiction quite a bit and was an earthy and passionate read. Morrow Little has recently returned to frontier Kentucke life following a stint in "civilized" Philadelphia with her dress-maker aunt. Back with her widowed father, Morrow tries to reconcile her future with the Shawnee Warrior attack that killed her mother and younger sister. Her brother, Jess, as is made apparent in an opening flashback, is never found. Though her minister father reaches out to the Shawnee ( especially Surrounded by the Enemy and his son, Red Shirt), Morrow consistently struggles with comprehension of a merciless act. How could an all-loving God expect her to forgive the warriors that stole such a vital part of her childhood?

Pursued by a dashing redcoat and many of the town's more affluent beaux, Morrow finds herself at a crossroads as she spends more and more time with Red Shirt ( so called as a play on British "red coat" when he acts as a spy for the British Army). As she inches closer and closer to forgiveness she finds the Shawnee way of life and adventuresome grasp of nature unsettlingly attractive. As Red Shirt reveals more of his past ( his mother was a white woman held captive by the Shawnee) and his decision to follow his father and embrace the Shawnee way of life, Morrow becomes beguiled by the people who once so repulsed and frightened her. Embracing forgiveness ultimately leads to a forbidden love. The chemistry between the hero and heroine of this novel was palpable.

Often Christian readers talk about Julie Lessman and how she ignites a passionate, physical spark in a relatively tame genre... I found Frantz's book to contain this amount of spice... and more. It certainly doesn't hinge on indecent, rather threads a passionate and physical attraction between two young people from opposite walks of life. A fun, sensual book, Courting Morrow Little reclaims a healthy normalcy often lost in overtly "preachy" Christian fiction. Morrow is a living, breathing human girl whose religious walk is made more believable due to her wrestling with growing attraction. Not once is God or Faith absent; rather woven seamlessly into the infrastructure of a playful and passionate historical romance. Frantz's attention to historical detail and dialect (especially in her knowledge of Shawnee language) was quite welcome. A sassy, intelligent read, Courting Morrow Little strays from conservative Christian historicals. Frantz has embraced a time and locale unique to Christian fiction and placed an indelible stamp on it.

As mentioned, I am privileged enough to be reading for the historical category of the INSPYs this year and immediately ordered this alongside The Frontiersman's Daughter when I learned of Frantz's appearance on the shortlist.

Has my reading ever sparkled this week!

Check out Laura's website: she likes the BBC North and South and ( as is evident from The Frontiersman's Daughter) has a thing for Neil MacNeill from Christy by Catherine Marshall. A literary kindred spirit, methinks. She also lists The Blue Castle as one of her favourite books and readers of this blog know that is a HUGE thing for me....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson

This is the first in the Gaslight Mystery series set equally in lower and higher society New York City at the turn of the 20th Century.

Historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Jacob Riis populate the book in a subdued way to give flavour to very well-researced murder mystery about the murder of a young socialite fallen-from-grace.

Frank Malloy has his own secret reasons for wanting to climb the chain of command to make Police Captain in an altogether hopeless police force: decrepit, shady and undermining any semblance of justice. Sarah Brandt is an intelligent widow who makes her living as a midwife: most often in the slums where residents of tenements can barely scrape together her fee.

Sarah comes from an upper crust family and immediately relates to the plight of innocent murder victim, Alicia Van Damme. Frank, whose hard demeanor and sardonic manner speak to tragic experiences in his recent history, finds Sarah’s interest in the case unsettling. But, together they bring the right ingredients to see the killer brought to justice in a largely unjust town.

The spark and fire between Frank Malloy and Sarah Brandt alone is what makes this intriguing historical mystery worth reading. Thompson is a very atmospheric writer and the sights and smells of gaslit New York spring perfectly to light… yet, it is the characters that jump off of the page. At first, seemingly having nothing in common, Sarah and Frank are oil and water; but the more they discover about their common interest to bring justice and the more they reconcile with the similarities in their pasts, the more they are able to harbour each other’s strengths and reach a common outcome.

I really enjoyed this murder mystery. The plot of the fallen socialite: found dead and pregnant and the snub of her family trying desperately to bury scandal is, albeit nothing new, very well-plotted. Moreover, Thompson’s obvious love for this period of history helps her etch the perfect setting for her grim tale.

I learned a lot about the police force and criminal justice of the day and Brandt and Malloy do a magnificent job of bringing a voice of reform that echoes their contemporaries Riis and Roosevelt.

Fans of Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy Mysteries will find themselves on common ground.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

While We're Far Apart by Lynn Austin

Over the weekend, I described Lynn Austin’s recent book, While We’re Far Apart, like an intricate symphony. It begins with a rather straightforward melody: Penny watches as the man she pines for leaves for War on the eve of the American involvement in WWII and offers recklessly to take care of his two motherless children in hopes of securing his love upon his return from duty.

Shaking feelings of worthlessness long instilled from her over-bearing parents, Penny steps outside the front door of the house she has always lived in and charges toward a new future.

On the eve of his departure, widowed Eddie Shaeffer tries to ignore the pleas of his two young children begging him to stay. They don’t want Penny to move into their Brooklyn Apartment and usurp their dead mother’s space. They, instead, want their father to stay home from the war.

Eddie leaves to converse with Jacob Mendel, his Jewish landlord and another tune strings in.

Jacob’s wife Miriam and Eddie’s wife Rachel were both killed in the same untimely accident. As ramification, Jacob has lost his faith in Hashem ---- God seems so far away although the rabbi and his wife try desperately to tug the former elder back to the life of the synagogue.

And then, climactically and with discordance, the local synagogue is prey to an act of arson and a seemingly faraway hatred is brandished like a cymbal- jolt into the present.

The tune evokes a haunting change as more instruments are melded into each deft cadence and more bars are added to prolong the unraveling symphony. Dense orchestration including the introduction of new friends; wisps of letters from Jacob’s son and his wife in war-torn, Holocaust Hungary, and deep whispers of secrets from loved ones near and far merge to create a seamless piece.

There are themes of love and pursuit; of anger, of hatred of a clashing war. Of the brisk touch of this world and the world beyond. It is an almost perfect rendering of a tumultuous time.

Austin never writes without an over-arching theme and in While We’re Far Apart, the seeming absence of God is most resonant.

Jacob followed and meditated on the words of the Torah steadfastly only to find the seams of his world tearing and his life falling apart.

Penny isn’t sure how to believe in God: when she repeats over and over again all of her shortcomings.

Young Esther and her wordless brother Peter go through the motions of a Sunday Schooled upbringing attempting to reconcile the death of their mother with the faith she seemed to inspire in them.

All lives collide and cross--- and yet the almighty seems painfully silent.

While We’re Far Apart is a magnificent exposition of God in all of his seeming silences. Is He there when we can’t hear Him? ---There whether in the materialization of Christian or Jewish tradition? Even amidst a Holocaust recalling the treacherous reign of Haman and the unlikely heroism of Queen Esther? Amidst persecution, death and unwarranted vandalism?

How can we pick up the pieces of our faith if we’re not sure where faith leads?

What is God doing behind the scenes and how are His silences even more telling than His revelation?

The end of the song, the end of the book, empowers the reader to think of God in a personal and enraptured way. He can handle our anger and our despair: our lashings out and our pain….. for it is in these moments that we test our faith to breaking point, shirk any complacency and recognize that years later, when the glass is undimmed, that He was there working out the technical aspects, the last strains and chords of melody and sewing together a music so beautiful our human ears could scarce imagine it.
Readers, I LOVE ME SOME LYNN AUSTIN! She is my favourite current Christian writer and those of you who hanker for some intelligence in your faith-based writing will be floored!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Naomi and Her Daughters by Walter Wangerin Jr.

With an influx of scripture and a nuanced stage of setting and drama, Walter Wangerin Jr’s Naomi and Her Daughters takes us back to Judges: a time and place before most fictional re-tellings of the story of Ruth take place.

Vividly and with a deft grasp of Biblical Knowledge and history, Wangerin weaves the story of Naomi primarily and later of Boaz ( into whose story Ruth becomes a major factor). This book is earthy, erotic, colourful and poetic. Wangerin’s language reflects the best of the psalms: infused with scripture yet with poetic cadences of its own. Its sing-song quality mirrors the story-telling Naomi is so good at.
Those who have a running knowledge of the Biblical story will find it a little easier to understand: especially when it dips into the tribes of Israel, the lineage of King David ( to whom Ruth and Boaz’s son Obed is born and, later, to whom Jesus Christ is born into ) and the customs surrounding Ruth’s appearance on the threshing floor and Boaz’s interposing as Kinsmen Redeemer.

This is a smart, thinking and intelligent take on my favourite Bible story. I often argue that Ruth is the most Romantic book of the Bible: our heroine, a kind-hearted outcasted Moabite follows her mother-in-law beyond the bounds of her own family and history and into the unknown. Leaving behind her religion and tradition she acts in the way she knows is right and the Lord rewards her highly. Any one who has ever acted on conscience and has thought their actions went unnoticed will be inspired by Ruth’s plight, endurance and ultimate happy ending. Her romantic lead, Boaz, is attracted to the light and goodness in Ruth’s heart even while the world scorns and mocks her.
Not every ounce of Christian fiction can find secular appeal; but readers of every faith, religion or no, should lose themselves in Wangerin’s master-craft.

This is poetically and lyrically moving: a wonderful and tense revisit to history.
Readers of Christian and Historical fiction will be mesmerized.
Any one who has tried Orson Scott Card’s Old Testament tales or the Red Tent will enjoy learning more about the customs of Ancient Israel and Old Testament life.
My sincere gratitude to Zondervan for this enlightening experience!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Hello all,

A few very exciting things!

First off, I am honoured to be a judge for the INSPYs: the blogger's award for excellence in Christian Fiction.

Read my exciting judge's bio HERE! Me, Rachel, a JUDGE ---excitement. I am judging the historical fiction category and was thrilled with the shortlist! Cannot wait to read those I have not read and re-read those I have!

Secondly, I have decided to keep A Fair Substitute for Heaven my primary blog. There, from now on, I will continue to post all of my non-Christian book reviews---- but will also be posting my Christian book reviews. AMALGAMATION

so, for the time being, I am synching the blogs into one. Please visit me there

And finally, exciting book news: my favourite book of the Bible, RUTH, has been retold in Naomi and Her Daughters and Zondervan was delightful enough to send me a copy. MY SINCERE THANKS!

Also, my favourite, favourite, favourite Christian writer, Lynn Austin, has a new book out this week! I just got my copy: order While We're Far Apart