Maybe you’ve been feeling very upbeat and happy lately. Perhaps you’re a little too happy and would like to come off of your natural high, but really aren’t sure how.
I have the perfect solution: read “Abide With Me” by Elizabeth Strout. This book will knock you straight out of your happy place in about three chapters. No drugs needed.
Tyler Coskey is a gentle mannered Congregational minister in rural 1950’s Maine, who has recently lost his young wife to cancer. Not just any old cancer, but a brain tumor that left her debilitated and angry. This, coupled with the fact that she hated being a minister’s wife and was a spoiled, angry woman to begin with, makes for painful reading.
You might think that the congregation of Tyler’s church would be warm and fuzzy, the love of Christ flowing through their very souls. Not so. They are a gossipy, sad, group of flawed people. (I’d like to say that they are different from the many Christians I’ve encountered over the years but I can’t. Maybe that’s what made it so exasperating to read about them).
At one point, they even gossip against Tyler. Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down.
Then there’s Tyler’s mother, Meg. She is someone who is so cold and frigid that I wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley. When Tyler has a mini nervous breakdown at one point in the book, Mrs. Deep-Freeze is not kind and supportive. She’s humiliated and shamed. I wonder if she would be able to see her reflection in a mirror.
Meg Caskey also doesn’t like Tyler’s eldest daughter, Katherine. In fact, not many people like Katherine, including her Kindergarten and Sunday school teachers.
Not that Katherine is a likable child. She has stopped talking and screams to get attention, clearly traumatized by her mother’s death. However, the level of the animosity toward this child is truly heartbreaking.
The psychologist assigned to “help” Katherine finally decides that her Oedipal instincts have taken over and calls Tyler in for a conference. Explaining, in painful detail, Freud’s theories on child psychology, she ends with the declaration that Katherine feels guilt because she believes that she killed her mother. That made for a really interesting and enlightening chapter.
The storyline of Tyler’s Caskey’s demise is depressing enough. But wait, there’s more…
Strout throws a couple of tragic characters in, just to make sure that you are feeling good and distressed. There’s Charlie Austin, a war damaged veteran, whose angst and depression ooze out of the pages and into the reader’s mind. His infidelity and self-loathing are a lethal combination. Or, there’s Connie Hatch, Tyler’s housekeeper, whose sad life and sadder secrets make for true despair.
Speaking of despair, I think that’s the whole point of this book. Despite the suffering and despair in this world, there is God, who will forever be there for his people. In the end, all is forgiven (well, for most characters) and there seems to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon, no matter how dim.
Too bad that I had developed such an aversion to many of the characters for ME to forgive them. I just wanted the book to end so I could leave the bleak winter chill of Maine 50 years ago and return to the present.
I have another one of Strout’s books downloaded on my MP3 player, just waiting for me to listen to it. Not sure if I can. Personally, I think her books should carry a warning label on them.