Monday, September 29, 2008

Lookin' Back Texas; Leanna Ellis

Ms. Ellis is a new to me author who is published by B & H Publishing. This is her newest title, a Christian contemporary women’s fiction novel set in a tiny Texas hamlet. This is my first foray into contemporary Christian fiction, and I found my viewpoint as a reader changed a little bit as I read this. When I read secular fiction, the morality of the characters, their viewpoint and their actions is less of a factor. I don’t set morals and ethics aside, but unless there is an egregious event I don’t weigh the characters’ morality. While reading Lookin’ Back Texas, though, that I filtered events and people through the lens of my faith in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise.

The plot is superficially uncomplicated: one sunny California day Suzanne Mullins takes a brief, mysterious phone call from her father, Archie Davidson, who lives out in Luckenbach Texas. Worried and perplexed Suzanne flies back to Texas the next day and shows up on her childhood doorstep unannounced only to find her mother receiving condolence callers offering sympathy for Archie’s death. The dad Suzanne spoke to just the day before. Ms. Ellis plots a tight storyline with quickly developing events that, while are a bit much to swallow in such a short time frame, is also realistic and believable given the setting of such a tiny town.

My impression of Betty Lynne Davidson (Suzanne’s mother) is of an overly controlling, perfectionistic, high strung, manipulative woman who is primarily concerned with her place in the local social strata, secondary to all would be the nurturing of her husband and daughter. While Betty Lynne leads Suzanne around by her heartstrings, Suzanne reverts to her traditional childhood role- mediator. It’s a universal issue, family controversies often lead members back into their childhood roles no matter that they’re adults now and this reversion is less than helpful. Back in Texas Suzanne finds that returning to visit brings to light a secret she herself has papered over and tried very hard to bury. When Mike and Oliver, Suzanne’s husband and son, show up unexpectedly Suzanne’s anxiety ratchets up immeasurably.

The themes of deception, secret keeping, truth and lies and the requirements of duty are tightly woven into the narrative. I was troubled by Ms. Ellis’ choice to have Suzanne fret so much over honoring her father and mother and less over bearing false witness and hypocrisy, specifically in relation to the example Suzanne sets for her son Oliver, but also in relation to her duty to the community of Luckenbach. Scriptures tell us that hypocrites aren’t to be borne and that it is the parents’ responsibility to teach a child faith ethics and morality. Ms. Ellis’ emphasis on taking responsibility for one’s actions and the importance of truth in all things ultimately rings true, even if I found Suzanne’s motivations and actions troubling.

If you throw several large stones consecutively into a pond they will make overlapping ripples and unexpected patterns that travel over the surface of the water. Lookin’ Back Texas is like those ripples- some of it is expected and some of it isn’t. Ms. Ellis has written a tightly plotted, believeable story with characters that one may find hard to like, but who are always human beings whose life journey is both rocky and smooth and, at the end, healing and redemptive. I would be very interested in a future novel with Suzanne and Mike and Oliver if it deals with the fallout from this story.

Image found on Ms. Ellis' website, click link in title above.

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