Wednesday, April 21, 2010

‘The Returning’ by Ann Tatlock – Book Review

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The Returning,’ by author Ann Tatlock, deals with a difficult subject – the return of a husband to his wife and three children after five years in prison for vehicular manslaughter. 

Here’s the book trailer to this very compelling novel:

The book opens with John Sheldon being dropped off at home by his brother-in-law Owen; John would not be allowed to regain his driver’s license for another year.  His family is living in a small cottage on Conesus Lake in upstate New York.  He is greeted by his loving wife, Andrea, and their six year old daughter, Phoebe, who has no recollection of his man, who scares her initially.  Andrea has successfully held her family together during his incarceration – albeit not without problems.

The middle child in the family is sixteen year Rebekah.  She had been the apple of her daddy’s eye as a little girl.  She rebelled and was very resentful of John after his drunken driving accident.    

The oldest child of John and Andrea is Billy, soon to turn eighteen.  Billy was born with Down Syndrome.  Billy was the rock in Andrea’s life; his eternal optimism and bright smile were everything to her, and sustained her over the years.

The author states that she based that character on actor Chris Burke, who starred in the ABC TV series, ‘Life Goes On,’ from 1989 to 1993.  Chris and his mother, Marian, graciously read the manuscript and offered feedback.  Chris praises the book:

“I was delighted to become acquainted with Billy in The ReturningHe is a thoughtful, ambitious, and warm young man.  Tatlock has successfully described the essence of a person with Down Syndrome.  Great story!”

I couldn’t agree more, Chris!

While in prison, John came to know Jesus as his personal savior.   Here is how John explains the process:

Only after thirty-three months and probably a hundred talks with Pastor Pete did John realize there was something about the human heart that could make a man do even things he didn’t want to do.  Only after all those months of being locked up did he come to understand that there was something to the idea of good and evil, and if you didn’t choose the one, you’d be chosen by the other.
That was when he surrendered, seeing himself for what he was and knowing he’d go on spiraling downward if goodness didn’t intervene.  God broke in then – safety net, savior, life itself.  (p. 116)

As he returns home, the only other believer in the household is Billy.  He took it upon himself to start attending church a couple years before – and He knows Jesus well!  None of the other members of the family attend with him.  Rebekah is openly hostile to his jail house conversion; she doesn’t expect it to last.  And she is being influenced spiritually by her wiccan friend Lena.  Andrea is apathetic – as she seems to be about many things. 

John has vowed, after the tragic death of the hitchhiker he had picked up, and then killed due to his negligence, never to touch alcohol again.  He pledges to rebuild the relationships in his family which were so damaged by his actions.  He’s offered a job as a bus boy at Owen’s restaurant – the same position held by Billy.  It is truly a humbling experience for John, who struggles to provide for his family with that low wage.

Despite John’s vow to restore his family, he made some poor choices, allowing his sinful nature to guide his steps.  He succumbed to some of his weaknesses, potentially destroying that precious family structure.

John had a counseling session with the pastor at Billy’s church, Pastor Larry.  Larry asks John if he is familiar with a poem called ’The Hound of Heaven’ by Francis Thompson, who lived from 1859 to 1907.  Larry explains:

“It’s the story of Thompson’s own life, how he tried to outrun God.  He spent years running and during much of that time he was a homeless tramp, addicted to opium, which was the popular drug back in his day….
          I believe God stayed with him, inspired him, used him even. (pp. 267-268)

I had heard of the poem before, but had never read it in its entirety; I decided to seek it out online.  I spent many years running from God; He was relentless in His pursuit (thank you, God!). If you would like to read it, you can do so here

The end of the book is highly climactic.   I will not spoil it for you, but tragedy is averted and all – that’s right, all – of the members of the family coalesce and realize the blessings that are theirs.  I was highly satisfied and happy to read that conclusion!

This is my first encounter with the writing of Ms. Tatlock; she has written six other novels prior to this one, including the Christy Award winner in Contemporary Fiction, ‘All the Way Home.’  I thought she handled the tough issues – alcoholism, teen drinking, and adultery – with gracious authority.  Most Christian-oriented novels would not necessarily attempt to tackle such volatile issues.  But Ann doesn’t flinch in doing so, and she deals with these issues with sentiment and compassion.  I greatly enjoyed this book, and recommend it highly.

You can order this book here.

This book was generously provided by the author.

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