Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Christy Awards: Hidden Places by Lynn Austin

publisher: Bethany House

I have decided to read a selection of past winners of the Christy Awards in anticipation for the 2009 ceremony in July.

I started with Lynn Austin's well-deserving Hidden Places.

In Hidden Places, Lynn Austin has crafted a near-perfect novel. I am surprised I had not read this before now because, as you are well aware, I am a fan of Austin's and I recognize this as a modern classic of the genre.

Eliza Wyatt is hit hard by the Depression, especially after her husband and her father-in-law pass on leaving Eliza and her children with the vast responsibility of maintaining Wyatt Orchards and its on-property homestead.

Just when it seems that her faith(already on tinterhooks) is going to droop completely, Eliza is sent an angel( well he might as well be an angel). In human form, he is Gabriel Harper: an enigmatic presence who vows he is a journalist riding the rails capturing the stories of out-of-work, hard-on-luck nomads. He knows everything about farming and the Wyatt Orchards and may be the answer to the prayers Eliza is reticent will ever be heard. ( Note: this "angel" figure put me in mind of Cramer's Sutter's Cross)

But, there is something familiar about the "angel" Gabriel---something that Eliza cannot put her finger on. It could be that he is the elusive Matthew Wyatt: the rightful owner of Wyatt Orchards who can, at any moment, remove Eliza and take ownership of the land.

Although the aforementioned plot is at the core of this exceptionally-structured novel, we are given leave to open the dusty curtains and delve into the past of Wyatt Orchards and the people who have seen it through hardship and prosperity; war and peace; abuse and love.

One major component of the story focuses on the eccentric Betsy: now christened Aunt Batty a bookish old woman and an epoch of faith who, due to an unfortunate storm, finds herself nestled in a family-in-embryo with Eliza, Eliza's children and Gabriel.

Batty's story, for me, was the most poignant and exceptional testament of Austin's resounding faith. Like W. Dale Cramer, Austin need not rely on evangelizing us --- rather she uses her gift of prose to slowly unfurl a gripping family saga with roots in Charity, Hope and Love.

There are certain authors whose works so transplant you there is an immediate connection: a kinship that makes you feel that the author is speaking directly to you---sitting across from you---treating you as a confidante ---voice rushing so quickly in utter need to reveal every detail that the turning of pages cannot keep pace.

Austin is an author whose words spill lucidly. She restores my faith in everything: colours seem brighter after reading her, nature is more noticeable and I walk around giddily replaying some of "gasp!" moments she imparts on her readership.

From a literary perspective, Hidden Places is far more than a Hallmark escape into romance and love. Though the heroes of Lynn Austin novels always see heroines as more than they see themselves, the real love of the novel is founded in an acceptance of God's purporse. Austin weaves this deftly, yet its impact is powerful

Batty's faith is the most resonant in it solidity: "God didn't have to make apple trees and peach trees burst into flower and fragrance", she explains jubilantly, "But God just loves to splurge. He gives us all this magnificence and, if that isn't enough, He provides fruit from such extravaganze!"

Her warm heart and brainy mind are well-suited to Walter: the bookish and sickly man she recalls marrying. "Don't ever settle for any other life except the one for which God created you." Walter insists of her.

Lynn Austin allows her characters to be splayed flawed and humane on each page. We are supposed to take note and example from their successes in Christ as well as recognize the common threads that link us to them: just another way Austin pulls us into her world and confides in us as if we were a part of the drama unfolding.

Hidden Places could refer to the family secrets deeply rooted in the orchard and burrowed on each page; to a scripture verse quoted; to Batty's money hidden in her vast library; to a clue from Gabe's rucksack as to his true identity; to what the erudite Walter sees in the self-proclaimed homely and awkward Batty; to the secret furrowing Eliza's brow with guilt and shame.

For me, the title was most resonant when little gems of phrase or humour or literary reference were spilled onto pages unexpectedly---Like the time when Batty pretends she has been reading Les Miserables to charade her sadness over a seeming rift with Walter.

I have a feeling each reader will glean something unique from this exceptional novel.

I highly recommend it and hope to bring more Christy Award winners to light as we approach the 2009 event this July.

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