A Feature Review of
A Story of Faith in the Dark
In the darkness of an endless Minnesota winter, Addie Zierman packs her kids (ages two and four) into a minivan along with toys, games, DVDs, and an elaborate tote system for clothing, and she drives, away from the darkness and the death and the emptiness, to Florida. It’s a familiar enough story: an epic road trip to escape a winter both literal and metaphorical. A mom a little worn down by the typical routines of everyday life. An adult who’s not quite sure what to make of faith in a life that doesn’t look like the big, wide, passionate life promised by church groups and Christian rallies for kids in high school. Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark isn’t all that different from a lot of the memoirs that line our shelves—Christian or non—it is, at its heart, a story about searching. But the thing that is different about this story and about Zierman, and the thing that makes this book refreshing and valuable is that she’s not angry.
In a lot of similar stories and memoirs, there’s the sense that the writer or the storyteller or the central character feels that they have been personally wronged by the church. They are hurt, and they feel lied to when their faith inevitably evolves, when the emotionally charged rally ends, when there isn’t a youth group to keep them accountable. When people find that they haven’t changed the world or haven’t kept the fire alive, or when the rest of the church doesn’t evolve in the same way they do, people tend to leave. And they tend to speak critically and cynically. They tend to get angry. But Addie Zierman doesn’t sound angry. She sounds confused. She doesn’t understand why she doesn’t feel God anymore.
Throughout her journey, Zierman and her boys stay with various friends and family members—or people she’s met online through her blog. Throughout her journey, Zierman has a lot of conversations, and she has a lot of time (60 hours of driving) to think. She thinks and talks and writes about the Acquire the Fire events her youth group attended in Chicago, when she was told that the reason she and her peers knew God is real is because they had felt him. She thinks about the close friends she had in high school, who were equally as committed and on fire as she was. She thinks about the way she used to, in high school, get up early to go to the beach to watch the sunrise and to find God. She thinks about the way she used to, when she was first married, get up early to go to a coffee shop to read her Bible and write in a journal. And she thinks about how, at a certain point, all of that unraveled. She stopped feeling God. She had an almost-affair. She entered a complicated relationship with alcohol. She was diagnosed with depression. At some point the fire went out, the sun went behind the clouds, and the darkness closed in.
But Zierman isn’t angry about any of that. She doesn’t blame the church; she blames herself. And she wants it back. She wants to feel God again, to know with absolute certainty that he’s real and close and good. She wants to be the happy, confident high school version of herself who went to the beach every morning to stare at the sun. She leaves dark Minnesota for Florida to see the sun and to seek the light. And when they get to Florida and it rains, she’s not angry about that either. She’s confused. She’s resigned. She’s searching.
As they head back home, Zierman and the boys are tired. Tired of driving and sleeping in guest bedrooms and searching. It’s getting colder again, and there hadn’t been much sun to begin with. Zierman decides to expedite the trip by driving into the night. And it’s there, in the darkness, under the light of the moon and the stars that she gets it. That light changes.
The book could have ended there—it would have been complete, except that it was the middle of the night in the middle of Kentucky. The trip wasn’t over yet, though the journey was. It would have ended nicely in the middle of the night under the moon with Zierman singing Glory along with her CD. Instead she takes us along to her parents’ house in Chicago, to the last stretch of the trip home, and then, nine months later, to another dark winter in Minnesota.
Nine months later, nothing much has changed, except that in the darkness of Minnesota, Zierman now recognizes that even if she can’t see the sun, even if the fire is out and she can’t feel God, there is still light in the moon and the stars, and there is value to simply knowing God. Life goes on, and God is present.
It’s okay that nothing much changed. This is, after all, life. Winter comes back. The sun goes down. The tides go in and out. We wake up, go to work, come home. These are the typical patterns of our everyday lives. And it would have felt fake had Zierman gone to Florida and found the sun. But we would have still gotten it had she left us in Kentucky in the middle of the night with the moon.
It’s the fact that Zierman goes to Florida that makes this book hopeful. It’s the fact that it rains in Florida that makes it refreshing. And it’s the fact that Zierman doesn’t have neat, expected answers that makes it relatable. Zierman has an MFA’s knowledge of how to craft a story—she weaves together ideas and symbols and storylines in a way that shows she knows craft. There’s light in all its various forms, and there’s an audiobook that she listens to over the course of the trip. She even ends the first and last chapters with the same sentence. But it’s not quite subtle enough to be well-done. The weaving feels forced, and even the night in Kentucky, despite having all the right elements, comes together a little too quickly and neatly to feel completely genuine. It’s as though she tries a little too hard to give an answer, even though it rained.
But at least she went to Florida. At least she showed that it’s okay to ask questions and not to have the right answers. At least she recognized light, not in the blazing sun but in the gentle moon. She went into the darkness and came out on the other side, more than once. And she showed that, despite the blinding lights and consuming fires of our youth, we don’t have to be afraid of the dark.