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A Feature Review of
The River Caught Sunlight: A Novel
Paperback: Koehler Books, 2014
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Reviewed by Leslie A. Klingensmith
Followers of Christ have forgotten how to talk with one another. We talk to each other. We talk about each other. But as far as talking with each other for the purpose of building relationships and mutual understanding, we are failing in dangerous and tragic ways. As a “slightly left of center, socially liberal and theologically generously orthodox” Presbyterian pastor, I have made some effort to develop friendships with my colleagues who term themselves more “evangelical” than I am. I have a couple of those friendships that I especially treasure, for when I spend time with those women and men I am reminded all over again that we are all children of God. Despite the issues that divide us, we are more alike than different and (most of the time) we are making a sincere effort to follow the teachings and example of Jesus. Despite what I know about the desire we all have to serve Christ, I am also sinful. I publicly confess here to gravitating to authors whose viewpoint is more in line with my own, to not subscribing to evangelical publications, to rolling my eyes and hitting the “power off” button when prominent evangelicals are featured in the media, and succumbing to smug certainty that I am right and everyone else is wrong. Unless I am intentional about cultivating the relationships with people whose theology is more conservative than my own, I can easily become dismissive of their perspective, which is not helpful to me or to them or to the whole people of God.
The gift of Katie Andraski’s The River Caught Sunlight is that through fiction she humanizes a moderate evangelical, reminding us that no group should be inexorably associated with their fringe extremists. Andraski’s protagonist, Janice, is a sincere person, seeking to serve Christ through her vocation, who is horrified by extremism and the violence it causes. When, through her work as a publicist for Christian authors, she begins encountering people who have about them the whiff of the unhinged, she begins to understand the power of rhetoric to move people to a place where violence seems normal, even necessary, or even faithful. To Janice’s credit, she does not go there, but her association with those who advocate bombings in the name of Christ immediately plunges her into an ethical and spiritual crisis.
The second chapter of Andraski’s book is chilling – Janice Westfahl is having lunch in a seafood restaurant with right-wing activist and author Jeremiah Sackfield and another activist who is donating money to have free copies of Sackfield’s book sent to evangelicals across the American South. Up to this point, Janice has done her part to promote the charismatic Sackfield’s work – she may not agree with his talk of revolution, but she figures she is just doing her job. But when, over lunch, Matthew Sparks pulls out a handful of blasting caps, she is shaken. Sackfield dismisses the gesture in a later conversation with Janice – says the guy is a blowhard just trying to show off. A pragmatist, he points out that they need the guy’s money but do not have to condone his proposed tactics. Janice cannot get the image of the blasting caps out of her mind, and it is at that lunch that her conscience begins to trouble her. She starts to see that her work as a publicist could indirectly contribute to people being injured or even losing their lives. Throughout the rest of the novel, Janice struggles to reconcile her genuine desire to use her talents to serve God with her increasing concern that she has aligned herself with people who use their faith as a tool to hurt other people, under the guise of remaining faithful to Jesus’ teachings (or their understanding of Jesus’ teachings).
Andraski also skillfully weaves family dynamics and the pull of home on Janice as she must cope with her mother’s terminal illness and death, followed by her father’s unexpected death just a sort time later. Long buried tensions explode between Janice and her older brother, Lucian, who has stayed behind in upstate New York to tend the family farm and his dying mother while Janice moves to Chicago for her dream job. Janice is torn between the biblical commands to honor our parents and what she sees as a vocational calling. The situation is even more complicated because Janice’s parents order her to keep her job, as they believe she is fulfilling a sacred mission. Through her struggle we get a glimpse of the various facets of our lives as the people of God – family, friends, career, sexuality, stewardship of the environment, and participation in public life are among the varied pieces that both compete with each other and complement one another to construct a moral life. Anyone who is making a concerted effort to integrate faith with all aspects of life will identify with Janice’s indecision. Wherever she is, she wonders if she is in the right place. Eventually, she has to claim the truth that the love of God is present wherever she is, both with her and those she loves.
By the end of the novel, Jeremiah Sackfield’s followers have crossed a line, venturing into tactics and activities of which Janice cannot be a part. We have a sense that Janice is at a new threshold, both spiritually and vocationally. Katie Andraski has created a character about whom we are able to care and with whom we are able to empathize. Janice can be irritating – her theology at times seems too simplistic, although part of her anguish throughout the story has to do with layers of mystery and uncertainty being added to her theology. The relationship between Janice and Caleb (the farmer who toys with her affections) is an odd one, and the reader is left wondering what it is they each want from the other, really, underneath all the teasing and innuendo that mask their sexual hunger. Another hurdle for me to get over was some of the evangelical lingo in the dialogue – not only is it off-putting to a non-evangelical, but a non-evangelical sometimes has trouble figuring out what the characters really are trying to say. And yet, in spite of these foibles, Janice is a character you find yourself rooting for, hoping that she will find a way to use her gifts and still maintain her integrity. Even more importantly, one wants Janice to be set free from what is holding her back and feel able to become the woman God created her to be. She is just on the verge of new challenges and new possibilities when The River Caught Sunlight ends. Janice has a whole lot of adventures ahead – this book is crying for a sequel, and I hope Katie Andraski one day will give us one.