Saturday, April 4, 2015

Book Review: On Shifting Sand by Allison Pittman (2015, 4 stars)

On Shifting Sand
Allison Pittman
Tyndale House
2015

Official Back Cover Synopsis:

Long before anyone would christen the Dust Bowl, Nola Merrill senses the destruction. She's been drying up bit by bit since the day her mother died, leaving her with a father who withholds his affection the way God keeps a grip on the Oklahoma rain. A hasty marriage to Russ, a young preacher, didn't bring the escape she desired. Now, twelve years later with two children to raise, new seeds of dissatisfaction take root.

When Jim, a long-lost friend from her husband's past, takes refuse in their home, Nola slowly springs to life under his attentions until their reckless encounters bring her to commit the ultimate betrayal of her marriage. For months Nola withers in the wake of the shame she so desperately tries to bury, burning to confess her sin but wondering whether Russ's love will be strong enough to stand the test.

My Personal Thoughts:

This is my first time reading an Allison Pittman novel so I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. I did know what I was getting into, however, with the synopsis so nothing really surprised me. I knew Nola was going to be unfaithful to her husband. I knew they were living through the Dust Bowl, of which I knew practically nothing. And I knew that somewhere in this story, the seed of redemption and forgiveness would be planted. I was right on all three counts.

I suspect that a lot of readers will struggle with liking Nola and this book in general. I have a great deal of empathy for most hurting people, but she was starting to strain it about 2/3 of the way through the novel. As Ms. Pittman herself states, Nola is an unreliable narrator. She presents the reader with all these grandiose moments of suffering and sorrow and shame, but she continues on in her sin. She hates herself for it, and says she'll never do it again, but she does it again. It's painful to watch, doubly so because her husband, Russ, is affectionate and loving. And they are obviously, categorically in love. She never denies that point. So why the adultery?

Sometimes I think it is Nola living up to the expectations of her father. In his eyes, she will always be dirty, having sinned with Russ before their wedding. Yes, we have a preacher who slept with his girlfriend. I'm sure it's happened before and will happen again. Because her father had such low expectations of her and because Russ put her on such an impossibly high pedestal, all Nola wanted was to escape. So when Jim shows up in their lives, it was the ideal opportunity. Shame and guilt weren't enough to keep her from sinning.

There are so many nuances to this story. After she's committed adultery, Nola literally starves herself as a way to pay penance. She doesn't ever seem to have that specific a though about the starvation, at least not while she's undergoing it, but the reader knows that's why. And yet, even the starvation, is an act of selfishness, just like most of her other behavior. She would take from her children their mother and from her husband, his wife. All because she cannot handle the shame of what she's done. Nola even connects the dust storms that sweep through Oklahoma with her sin.

I can't say that I like Nola. What I can say is that Christians are not perfect, and even in her period of sin, she is still a Christian. She's walking in the desert of her faith, lost and searching, but unable to be honest with her family and with her God. So she's hiding, in the only place she knows, in her sin. This is not your typical feel good fare that usually adorns Christian bookstore shelves. It's honest and raw and very hard to read. There were times I wanted to grab Nola by her hair and shake her because she just wouldn't stop. And then I thought back to my own life and my own personal sins and realized that she and I aren't much different.

What I appreciated most is Ms. Pittman's absolute assurance that Nola is a Christian. She stumbles and falls, but God is there to pick her up once she genuinely reaches for him and stops hiding in her sin. It's beautiful. There is restoration at the end of On Shifting Sand, both of Nola with her husband, but also the promised restoration of the land. For people who have been there, in the valley of sin, I think this book will touch you in ways even you might not understand yet. God forgives and Nola is a prime example of that forgiveness.

When the opportunity presents itself, I will give Ms. Pittman's other work a try. I find she had a delightful and rare honesty in her work that strikes a chord in me as a reader. Even though On Shifting Sand focuses on a difficult topic, I found it made me pause and think, and give serious consideration to my own faith, how real it is, and what choices I need to make in deepening my relationship with my Lord and Savior. It was an excellent book to finish on Easter weekend.

~*~

These following questions are from an interview that Ms. Pittman gave, and I hope you take the time to read them.

1) The story is written from the perspective of Nola Merrill, who finds herself in an adulterous relationship. Why did you decide to write the story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator? 

I think we are all unreliable narrators in our own lives, especially when it comes to facing our sin. We justify our sin, proclaim ourselves victims, assign blame and downplay responsibility. We can bury ourselves so deeply in guilt, we’re blind to the idea of redemption, so we ignore what God tells us about confession and grace and mercy. We lie to ourselves the same way Nola lies to herself—and, thereby, to the readers. I have no doubt this character will make readers uncomfortable. She made me uncomfortable. They are going to be frustrated with her choices, disappointed by her actions, but I’m OK with that. I think Nola is the realest character I’ve ever created.

2) How does Nola’s Christian faith change throughout the story?

I think all of Nola’s faith has been something like Christianity by proxy. She’s been passive in her faith, relying on the judgment of her father and the spiritual calling of her husband to shelter her from facing her own need for a Savior. She knows the mechanics of confession and the concept of grace, but she doesn’t feel capable or worthy of either. As a result, her faith ebbs away, until she comes to the brink of losing her identity as a child of God entirely. Only when she chooses to face her sin, to confront it and confess it, do we see a true spark of faith, because she’s poised to lose everything she’s been trying so hard to hold on to.

3) Throughout the story we see Nola struggle with her desire for sin and her desire to be faithful to her husband. What do you hope readers will learn about the power of temptation and sin through Nola’s experience? 

I don’t know that I would say that Nola has a desire for sin—at least not that she would acknowledge. And that, I think, is the important lesson for readers. Nola would say that she was weak, that Jim took advantage of that weakness, that she fought her hardest to resist temptation, that God himself orchestrated the opportunity, that Russ, her husband, bears his own part of the responsibility. I think it’s a dangerous thing to deflect the acknowledgement of your sin. That’s what keeps us from true confession and redemption, and as long as we carry that burden, we’re just powerless. It creates a wedge between ourselves and our Savior. It chips away at our spiritual health, relational health and, often, our physical health. We lose ourselves, and we lose the person God desires us to be. He knows our sin; He knows our heart. He sacrificed His son to pay the price—to save us from all of the pain and heartache Nola endures. He gives us strength to overcome temptation; He lifts the burden of sin.

4) What truths do you hope readers will take away from On Shifting Sand

First, that you cannot run from your sin. You cannot hide from God’s ever watchful eye. You cannot commit any sin too grievous for His grace. You cannot thrive under the burden of guilt. Second, that you can learn from a character without necessarily loving her. Or liking her. You might not even believe that she deserves forgiveness—from God, or from her husband. But that is why I am so thankful to live as a child wrapped in God’s sovereign mercy.

* I received a free copy of On Shifting Sand by Allison Pittman from Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for an honest review, which I have given.

3 comments:

  1. Wow! That sounds really intriguing. I do like a good, difficult book from time to time.

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    Replies
    1. It's quite an interesting read, even though Nola started straining my patience halfway through. I think she strained it because, even though her sins and my sins are different, we both struggle with sin. Just like anyone else. It's just that we don't like seeing sins on display like this. She hides it from everyone else, but she can't hide it from the reader, making us her cohorts in a way that's quite painful. But it's good, really good.

      And because I like sharing, I'll send you my copy! I like to keep the books I get from publishers circulating. So I'll get it in the mail to you sometime in the next week! :)

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    2. Oh, Carissa, you are so sweet and generous! I accept :-) But please don't rush! You know my TBR list is several miles long. It'll be a while before I get to this.

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