Shifting Sands: Life in the Times of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (2014), by Kathy Lowinger

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.5.

Lowinger-Shifting SandsWhen I first picked up this book, I thought it was a non-fiction account of these three religious figures. The subtitle at the top of the cover dominates, despite its smaller type; the title itself blends into the image below. (It’s the colour of the sky in the picture, and the colour of the type in the title, I think…) Regardless, readers should look past any assumption about the content and be prepared for three very human stories of young people living through three formative moments in history.

Dina is a slave in the House of Weavers who makes a difficult choice in following Moses and her people; Mattan is a farmer’s son who leaves his home and whose path crosses that of Jesus and his disciples; Fallah and his older brother have left their tribe and become victims in a conspiracy against Muhammad. Their histories twine seamlessly into the historical accuracy of Lowinger’s narrative, allowing readers to feel the insecurities of life the common people of these times endured. Although from our modern perspective we believe we know the benefits and dangers associated with the choices Dina, Mattan, and Fallah make, Lowinger helps us to understand how hard it would have been for simple young men and women to leave all that they knew and follow a new path, cutting themselves off from family and community. Little details of every-day life accentuate our narrative experience of history: the broken sandals Dina is given for her excellence in weaving; the small infected scrape that – with no antibiotics to prevent infection – kills Mattan’s sister Nirit; the dried fruit, nuts, and mare’s cheese that Fallah takes on the road. The minutia and the focus on human emotions and experience combine to give us powerful images of the effect these three religious leaders had on the people around them, and thus on the history of our world.

Where Things Come Back (2011), by John Corey Whaley: A response by guest reviewer, Rob Bittner

A (Hopefully) Thoughtful Response to Karyn’s Review of Where Things Come Back

Cullen Witter (whose name is in no way associated with Twilight, I can assure you all) is a likeable character, and one who is incredibly realistic, even if he does tend to overuse the term “ass-hat.” Whaley’s debut novel is beautiful, and my experience was no less enjoyable the second time around. The plot and various subplots, though perhaps random, are interwoven in a creative and mystical way. Some of the twists are not concretely connected, but the mysticism throughout the text allowed me to suspend my disbelief without any problem. Cullen’s story is the overarching narrative, interrupted with a secondary story and other mini-stories branching off here and there.

Perhaps where some people will get confused is in the subplot with Benton, Cabot, and Gabriel. Benton’s narrative begins when he is sent off to Africa on a missionary trip, but his expectations are disappointed and he is flown back home, much to the disappointment of his family, his father especially. Benton’s college roommate, Cabot, eventually finds and reads Benton’s journal detailing his experiences in Africa, his reading of The Book of Enoch, and his obsession with the fallen angels and the angel Gabriel. Once Cabot’s theological appetite is whet, he begins a journey of religious discovery that eventually leads him, through a winding road, to Lily, Arkansas, and to Cullen’s brother, Gabriel.

Unlike Karyn (though my reading is in no way more “correct”) I did not find myself at all troubled by the transference of Benton’s mission to Cabot due to the finding and reading of the journal. Karyn goes on to say that everything can be explained by rational means, but I have a hard time agreeing considering the amount of visions, dreams, and speaking woodpeckers that make appearances throughout the text. For me, the novel is a slice-of-life style of narrative; a novel that speaks to seemingly random stories and personal experiences that can be connected in when looked back on. And to answer Karyn’s question, “What was the point?” I say, why does there have to be one? Personally, I enjoy the type of ending that isn’t wrapped up in a pretty bow.

Should I mention that I double-checked my answer with the author to make sure I got it right? No? Okay, then, I most definitely did not.

Where Things Come Back (2011), by John Corey Whaley

This review is… difficult. I borrowed this book from my friend Rob, whom you all know by now, after he posted about it on facebook, and his friends all raved about how wonderful it was. With all their positive comments—such as “Oh! My! God! Where Things Come Back!!!! I think I’m in love.” from someone I have never met—I had to read it to review for this blog, and asked to borrow it. Be careful what you ask for…

Rob dutifully lent me his signed copy (and not just “To Rob, John Corey Whaley,” but with a personal message because they know each other!) last time we met, and tonight we are going over for dinner and I have to return it. So I guess I had better write something. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a bad book: I just didn’t connect with it.  Here’s what happened as I see it…

To begin with, I think that everyone, regardless of how hard we might try to avoid it, is influenced by others’ opinions pre-reading. I recall, though, the pleasant anticipation of a fascinating, heartwarming reading experience, and was prepared to enjoy myself (and the book); indeed, there is ample reason for me to have done so. Where Things Come Back is very well written, with well-rounded, well-constructed characters, and interesting—if at times random—plot elements. The story is set in a small town in Arkansas, Lily by name, where initially things disappear… closure of a sort is achieved by the end, for the town Where Things Come Back.

The narrator, Cullen Witter (is this a nod to Twilight? I seriously hope—and think—not), introduces himself by telling us: “being seventeen and bored in a small town, I like to pretend sometimes that I am a pessimist” (5). But the truth that we are shown throughout his narration is that, as he says, he “can’t seem to keep that up for too long before [his] natural urge to idealize goes into effect” (5). This fluctuation between pessimism or sometimes downright despair and an unquenchable optimism is both honest and refreshing: we like Cullen, and we ride the emotional waves of his troubled adolescence with him, hoping—as he does continually—that his lost brother will come back, and life will return to normal in Lily.

The teens in Lily have their local mythologies, such as that dating Ada Taylor was tantamount to a suicide, as her two previous boyfriends had both died in accidents; that Russell Quitman, her current bully-boyfriend, while still breathing, would eventually succumb: another point of closure by the end. Cullen and his best friend Lucas are typical teenaged boys: interested in girls; uncertain of their futures but more concerned with their present; hanging out; being, well… adolescent boys. Cullen’s younger brother, Gabriel, on the other hand, is not typical in any way, and Cullen idolizes him. Their relationship sets the reader up for a misinterpretation of what follows, and this perhaps is what bothered me about the book… I am not sure if I felt that the author manipulates the reader, but if not, then what was the intent of the Gabriel-Benton-Alma-Cabot subplot?

This is what unfolds: the initial pages of the book are narrated by Cullen; the next section switches to Benton, an evangelical missionary set on Mission to Africa, who sees in a vision “a boy standing on the water with one hand, his left, held into the air … God’s voice introduced the boy to Benton. ‘This is the angel Gabriel’ … Just before the boy opened his mouth to speak, a large bird flew overhead and landed on the angel’s shoulder” (18). The reference is unmistakable, linking Gabriel, Benton, and the rediscovered Lazarus woodpecker, thought extinct but now claimed to have been seen in Lily only days before Gabriel Witter disappeared apparently into thin air… What is troubling about this set up is that Benton’s vision is transferred in some way to his college roommate, Cabot, who is the active agent in Gabriel’s disappearance. He studies the apocryphal Book of Enoch, following in Benton’s path, and ultimately comes to see Gabriel as an angel, although the vision was not his. His actions are motivated primarily by sexual jealousy. The religious overtones smack of psychosis, but why? And Benton’s initial vision could only have been real, in some sense, for he cannot have known about the Lazarus woodpecker, or Gabriel Witton, out there in the African village. So there is some motivation for Benton’s actions that are external to his psyche, motivations that seem to have been transferred to Cabot, but with no rationale for the transference. Ultimately, everything—everything—can be explained by rational means, and yet the author gives us visions and associations—including numerous comments by the people of Lily about how special Gabriel is or was—that suggest something more. If that is the point—that there is nothing more in our world—then I feel manipulated. If not, what connection am I missing? There is a suggestion of power in Lily, the town Where Things Come Back, but I could neither feel it through the characters’ understandings, nor rationalize it out of the narrative. So I am left wondering —as obviously others are not—despite the excellent writing, and despite the fabulous characters: what was the point?

It troubles me still… I think I will ask Rob to write a guest review, so you can have his side as well.


There Will Be Wolves (1992), by Karleen Bradford

Karleen Bradford has recreated the People’s Crusade with a careful attention to historicity: her characters are believable and stay true to their medieval sensibilities.  Even in the end, Ursula’s view of her world remains consistent.  It is a monumental achievement on the part of the author; creating believable characters from such a harsh, unforgiving period of history is no easy task.  The plot itself skims over much of the actual pilgrimage, focusing on essential points to help the reader understand the changes that occurred in the atmosphere of the Crusade and the attitudes of the People Crusaders.  I would recommend this far before Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy (1994) in terms of representation of this period; it lies between the comfort of Cushman’s novel and the graphic warfare of John Wilson’s Heretic series (also exceptional).  For the more sensitive reader, Bradford is perfect: the reality is reflected, the horror is portrayed, but the graphic details are minimized.