Wednesday, February 16, 2011

‘An Unlikely Blessing’ by Judy Baer – Book Review

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I have been an urbanite/suburbanite all of my life. However, I have an affinity for country/small town living. The latest book I have read, ‘An Unlikely Blessing’ by Judy Baer takes me to a place that I don’t visit very often – but love just the same.

Here is the synopsis of this novel:

An Unlikely Blessing is a heartfelt story about a new pastor and life-long city dweller Alex Armstrong, who reluctantly accepts his first assignment, a two-point parish in the wilds of North Dakota. Hilltop Township, a farming community, blooms from the prairie like a wild pink rose—lovely and prickly all at once, much like the people who live there.

Alex quickly finds that this lovely place is in quiet peril. Farmers are struggling to make ends meet: Jonas Owens, a faithful member of Hilltop parish, is on the brink of losing the farm. Alex believes that part of why God called him to Hilltop was to help turn things around, and steps in with ideas for saving the Owens' land. But can even God's minister help save this rural community?

There are a lot of firsts for the new pastor—the annual Hunter's Breakfast, julebukking (also called Christmas fooling), King Oscar's fish balls, and the melody of the musical saw. And the new, single pastor creates remarkable excitement among the unmarried women in the community. If you could die of hot dish overdose, Alex would be a dead man. Whether performing weddings, counseling his flock, or herding cattle by snowmobile, Alex soon discovers that his new church home has as much to teach him as he will teach them. Day by day, he falls more in love with the people of Hilltop Church. People may leave Hilltop, but Hilltop never leaves them. 

Here is the biography of this author:

Judy Baer was born and grew up on a farm on the prairies of North Dakota. An only child, she spent most of her days with imaginary people—either those she read about or those she made up in her head. Her most ambitious conjuring did not succeed, however. She kept a clean stall with fresh hay and oats for the horse she imagined would arrive. Unfortunately it didn't come, at least not until she was an adult. After she was unexpectedly given three horses, she bought even more and began raising foundation quarter horses.

She graduated from Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota with majors in English and education and a minor in religion. At the time, she was simply studying what interested her, but she now realizes that she was educating herself for her future career as a Christian writer. Her first book was written with a toddler on her lap. Judy would type a few words and say "Now, Jennifer." He two year old daughter would hit the space bar so Judy could continue writing. It wasn't the fastest way to work but it was a very cozy time. 

In 2001, Judy became a certified professional life coach. In 2008, Judy completed her Master's program. She studied in the areas of writing and coaching. Now certified in three coaching disciplines, Judy coaches primarily professional and aspiring writers. She is also a faculty advisor in the Department of Human Development at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis, MN.

Judy is the author of over seventy-five books for adults and teens. She has won the Romance Writer of America Bronze Medallion and has been a RITA finalist twice. She grew up in rural North Dakota and has done many of the things her Hilltop characters experience. She currently lives in Elk River, Minnesota with her husband and two daughters and three step children. This is the first book in the Forever Hilltop Series. Follow the Hilltop characters on Judy’s blog and find out more about Judy and her books at

In ‘An Unlikely Blessing,’ Alex’s first view of his new home was idyllic:

        So this was it.
Alex Armstrong pulled his van to the side of the gravel road and stared at the panorama before him. He gazed across gently undulating fields, past a small, glittering azure pond painted brightly with late afternoon sun, and beyond a flock of marsh ducks coming in for a landing. The mallards’ glossy-green heads glinted in the sunlight, and a tawny deer streaked from its hiding place near a stand of plump cattails as Alex fixed his gaze on a white outline butted against the horizon.
He squinted slightly and the structure took shape. A rectangle, with concrete steps protruding from the prow and an added-on shanty jutting from the stern, rested atop a slight rise in the prairie. A spire rose from the roof near the front of the building and seemed to disappear into heaven but for a wink of metal, a cross, piercing the sky. (p. 4)

His life had taken a major turn of late:

Now here he was, a tenured professor turned inexperienced minister. His former fiancée married to someone else. Starting over at age forty-two. Gazing helplessly at his first assignment, a tiny, two-church North Dakota parish situated at a sparsely populated bend in the road. (p. 5)

This book is full of wonderful word pictures. Ms. Baer takes us into her story with these lovely descriptions. Here’s a description of the church parsonage
where Pastor Armstrong will live:

The parsonage was a sturdy two-story structure with a green shingled roof. It was painted bright white, its radiance broken up by deep green shutters surrounding double-hung windows.
Peonies, tiger lilies, hostas, and salvia grew around the concrete block foundation, making the house look as though it had erupted in the midst of a patch of flowers. There were several hanging baskets of petunias and begonias blooming on the front porch, and the grass had been recently mowed. The windows were partially open, and sheer curtains floated on the gentle breeze. It was as if someone was expecting them.
So this was his new home, the one God had planned for him. The flowers made it look like Eden. (p. 33)

Hilltop Township is full of interesting people whose families had owned land in the area for over a century. One of his favorites is his church secretary; here is their first meeting:

She was slim, energetic looking, and of indeterminate age. Alex guessed her to be somewhere between forty and fifty, but he’d been wrong before. It was difficult to tell from the lumpy pink sweater and multicolored beaded necklace she wore or to see beyond the dramatic sweep of thick brown eyeliner circling each eye. With makeup that was more subtle, she could be quite attractive.
She noticed him studying her and her hands flew to her head. “Don’t look at my hair!” she pleaded. “My hairdresser said it would grow out in six months. I’m never letting my sister-in-law touch my hair again, I’m telling you. It’s a wonder that we’re still speaking. I should have learned after that time she accidently colored it orange. Turning the other cheek should not apply to perms and color treatments.”
Without giving him time to respond, she thrust out her hand in greeting. “You must be the new pastor. I’m Gabriella Andrea Dunn, your church secretary. People just call me Gandy, for short.”
Alex took a deep breath, hoping Ms. Dunn had not sucked all the air out of the room with her introductory speech. “Alex Armstrong. It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Dunn.”
She scrunched her brows together. “It’s Gandy. We aren’t terribly formal here in Hilltop. We’re all God’s children, right? That makes us siblings. None of my siblings call me ‘Ms. Dunn.’” (pp. 79-80)

The residents of Hilltop like to feed their new pastor. Ms. Baer included some recipes in her book, including one for Puppy Chow, which I hope to make for me and my husband, Fred, soon!:

Puppy Chow
From the Kitchen of Gandy Dunn

·         ½ cup butter (some people leave this out)
·         1 cup creamy peanut butter
·         2 cups chocolate chips (sometimes I use semisweet chocolate, which is good too)
·         Crispy rice or corn cereal squares (9 cups or a box worth)
·         1 pound powdered confectioner’s sugar (experiment – you can probably use a little less)
Melt the butter, peanut butter and chocolate in a saucepan. Pour it over the cereal, tossing it gently until it is well coated. (Hint: I put the chocolate-coated cereal in a large paper bag, seal it and shake it.)
          * It’s hard to ruin, Reverend, and I’d be surprised if you could do it. 
        (p. 84)

Sounds yummy to me!

Pastor Alex’s two congregations included a lot of unique people with interesting lives, including Bucky Chadwick, Will Packard, and Red O’Grady. One person who has a lot of hurt and had given previous pastors a lot of grief is Alf Nyborg. Alf’s wife, Betty, gave Alex some background and perspective on her husband:

        “Are you familiar with termites, Reverend?”
“I’ve never had them in my home, if that’s what you mean, but I know what destruction they can do.”
“My husband is like a house with termites.”
She smiled at Alex’s quizzical look. “From the outside, he looks sturdy and strong, but inside he’s being eaten away by termites, these thoughts that just gnaw at him. His memories are eating him up inside; and when it happens, there is no way for me to reach him or to get inside his pain.
“The guilt, loss, and fear are with him as much today as they were the day of the fire. It made him a driven man. He needs to do something to assuage the guilt he feels. In his need to do something, he’s managed to take everything about All Saints onto his own shoulders and, in the process, taught its people to depend on him for everything.
“He’s tried to replace his son with All Saints and thinks if he can be busy enough, he won’t hurt. It doesn’t work that way, of course. He needs to forgive himself and to trust that God can forgive him. He’s a man of the church who doesn’t know God, at least not the loving, gentle God we know.” (pp. 190-191)

It was really interesting to see Alex adjust to life as a pastor, and to see how interested and caring he was toward his new flock. This book is the first in the ‘Forever Hilltop’ series; I look forward to seeing how Alex’s new friends grow closer to the Lord and each other. I really loved Ms. Baer’s writing style, and look forward to reading more from her fertile imagination in the future.        

You can order this book here.

This book was published by Guideposts. I am happy to be participating in the blog tour through the LitFuse Publicity Group with these other bloggers.


Anne Payne said...

Andrea, I am LOVIN' the way you review books! Little tidbits from the story and the ones you select really make me want to get this book!! It sort of reminds me of Jan Karon's Mitford Series. I think I am going to learn alot from reading your reviews... about reviewing :) I will need all the help I can get.

Andrea Schultz said...

Hi Anne -
Thanks for the kind words! I write them the way I'd want to read them - some information on the author and some selected passages.
Thanks for visiting; please come back soon!
Blessings -

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