Sunday, September 25, 2016

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout

A pastor confronts the sins of the world

Tyler Caskey, newly ordained Congregational minister, a local Mainer, is assigned to the small town of West Annett. At first Tyler is happy with his vocation, his lovely young wife and newborn daughter. But inexplicable tragedy strikes, and it takes time and healing before Tyler can lead his flock again. As he struggles with his weaknesses, his inefficacy, he muses often on the life and writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a minister executed by the Nazis, though the Nazis were unable to quench his eloquent witness. As the pettiness of his congregation's concerns, the gossiping ladies, the Christmas and Easter attendees, erode his patience, he finds a kindred spirit in his housekeeper, uneducated eccentric Connie Hatch. Tyler endures his sorrow and learns more about actual human nature, finding it increasingly difficult but necessary to love the deeply flawed residents of West Arnett.

I hated Olive Kitteridge, but I admired this deceptively simple story, which opens like a fairy tale or folklore. At opportune moments, the stakes were raised and surprises unveiled. All Tyler wants is to live his life as a devout Christian and teach his flock to live as Christians, but over and over he is confronted with surprisingly serious Ten Commandment level sins. At first he doesn’t know how to respond. The fully developed slightly comical characters of West Arnett are, most of them, ornery.  This novel also succeeds as the portrait of a town, a town with some resemblance to Peyton Place. The careful delicate prose was deployed effectively. As the novel proceeds, the story gets dark – even Tyler is guilty of serious things. The happy ending feels a little tacked on. I definitely will go back and reread Olive Kitteridge.

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