Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Isaiah 53

The Amazing Gift of Volunteer Love

Whether it was pessimism or lack of imagination, it never once occurred to me to ask God for a husband or a family. Maybe that’s why I value them as I do, for they are gifts that came to me, even though I lacked the good sense to pray for them. Cheryl Anne Tuggle calls this “volunteer love–so unlooked for, and yet so insistent.” (59) The love that found Jess and Gracie, their marriage and their life together, is only one strand of the story Tuggle has knit in Lights on the Mountain: A Novel.

As a young man, Jess was summoned into a contemplation of the numinous by Glory Light that rent the sky on a  distant peak, but tragedy changed his trajectory. He began to walk through the husk of his life half-asleep, placing one booted foot ahead of the other. Reading the borrowed adventures of Lewis and Clark by evening lamp light, he observed his own life from a careful distance, unable to feel either wonder or sorrow, but Gracie and marriage sharpened his blunted feelings.

Through Jess’s eyes, readers experience the peaceful labor of farm life in the mid-twentieth century, the tipping point between the old ways and “progress.” We are invited to roll up our sleeves and work alongside him as he tidies the barn. We nod good evening to the cows as they line up peacefully in early winter darkness, bags full of milk, awaiting the symbiotic ministrations of our hands. Becky the workhorse nickers her hard-working way into our hearts, showing up as a character rather than a prop in a life in which God is pondered more in the barn than in the church.

Subtle Characterization and Delightful Similes

With a pen like a paint brush, Tuggle has fashioned a cast of unique players, knit together by the rigors of agriculture and the accident of shared geography. The community observes and explains Tsura by their own terms, the girl who lives on the fringes but sees and knows the invisible and unknowable future. Margit and Opal practice casserole caring and lasagna love to fill in the gaps where words fail.

In a collision of cultures and in an era in which diversity was neither sought after nor discussed, western Pennsylvania farmers lived alongside Amish neighbors and navigated in-law dynamics with Russian immigrants.  In a mingling of faiths, prayer and worship, piety and ethics come on a bandwidth ranging from Jess’s rational materialist father to Gracie’s deeply observant Eastern Orthodox family.

Tuggle’s writing is enriched by subtle characterization and delightful similes that underscore the close connection between the words simile and smile:

Describing Pat the farrier:  “The man had to be tapped like a great old tree, and the sap ran very slow.” (15)

Jess’s concerned mother of his anxiety:  “You’re perspiring like a sinner at altar call.” (49)

Of Gracie’s ability to move in hope:  “[Jess] marveled at it from a distance, the way a man with no legs admires a circus acrobat.” (80)

The view of the Old Smiley place:  “An ancient wood frame, large and gaunt and set way back from the road as if it disliked being seen.” (94)

A comparison of the heart’s welcome:  “Gracie’s heart was a five-star hotel, had a smiling porter out front waving folks inside. His was the one-room shack.” (201)

Transformative and Purposeful Sorrow

Orthodoxy from the lips of everyday folk clarifies and enlivens truth, and sorrow suffered long and with patience leaves a road map for our own grieving. As Jess “abides” in grief, he sifts out the difference between a seasonal sorrow and one that comes to stay. He met himself on the road to healing, and readers will find themselves tracing and assessing their own path to wholeness. What if our suffering is transformative and purposeful, something to be learned from rather than something to be sidestepped or muted?

Learning to trust his love for his baby daughter, discovering that prayer may be nothing more (or less) than the release of a wordless ache, and realizing that often the reason God seems silent is that we have failed to listen with honesty sends Jess down a road toward the Light that is neither fleeting nor distant. As we grow in our understanding of where God is at work, the rear view mirror reveals that His presence has been seeded all along the path, and the place we have longed for is, after all, the place we most belong.

Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

Rejoicing in Hope because of the Light,

michele signature[1]

Photo by Kristine Weilert on Unsplash


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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

61 thoughts on “The Amazing Gift of Volunteer Love”

  1. This book seems like a little bit of a departure from your typical book review, Michele. I can’t exactly say why. It sounds inspiring and entertaining, an excellent combination!

    And I never prayed for a husband and children either. I guess I was too young and dumb for the thought to occur to me. I met Bill when I was 17!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is absolutely a departure, because I rarely review fiction here–although I’ve done more lately on purpose. There was a time when I rarely read non-fiction, and I love getting lost in a story, but that “getting lost” part makes it pretty hard to keep track of the things I might want to write about later. So I’m working at learning how to enjoy fiction AND also write about it.
      You guys got a good early start! We were a lot older (27 and 31) when we got married, but the years prepared us to appreciate one another.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m in the market for a good Christian fictional work, and this book sounds very good, Michele. The sample of similes made me smile. It sounds like there is a lot of substance to the story. You do a wonderful job writing a book review – something that takes a lot of skill. Whenever I write a short review of a friend’s book on Amazon I’m reminded just how difficult it is!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really enjoy reviewing non-fiction.
      I always sort of hold my breath when I have to review fiction, because the question is always, “How can I tell another person’s story without giving away the whole point?” So, it really has to be just the right book for me to tackle fiction for review.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like such a sweet story. Love the writing clips you shared. I especially like your closing lines: “the rear view mirror reveals that His presence has been seeded all along the path, and the place we have longed for is, after all, the place we most belong.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, some day maybe we’ll get to share our stories in person.
      And yes, this author just kept wowing me with her use of words. I’m so thankful for the gift good writing can be to a tired, mid-winter brain!

      Like

  4. I am adding this one to my list in Goodreads. I just finished the third book in the Mitford Series – I may take a break from these beloved characters to read this one!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. i’ve read them all 3x – how would you compare this one to Karon’s skill? I’m wary of Christian fiction… and yes, you need to change out Let’s have coffee in your sidebar – did you find it?

        Like

      2. Very different in style. More literary, but the richness of the characters in the community is similar. Of course, Jan Karon has developed hers over the course of several books.
        And Yes, thanks for the reminder. I got the sidebar updated.

        Like

    1. I have swung like a pendulum on this, going from reading almost exclusively fiction a few years ago to now reading mostly non-fiction. My heart loves a good story, though, so I’m making room for new fiction while also circling back and re-reading some favorites. It feels like a gift I’m giving to myself.

      Like

  5. “Volunteer love” is a very descriptive and fitting term. I also decided to put all my link ups in the sidebar, I think it looks better and allows people to see what’s out there more easily.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I like the characterizations. When Simon and I did Silas Marner, I created a sheet “WHO AM I?” with all the characters and it was so helpful to him (and me) as he worked through the quizzes and tests. You have helped me, teacher.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find myself circling the names of new characters when they are introduced. Especially when there’s a whole community of them, and then if I get confused, I can go back and remember who’s who.
      Any old port in the storm for these aging brains!

      Like

  7. Those similes sure did make me smile. Such beautiful writing! Thanks for another great review, Michele. (Visiting you from Jaime’s site, seems like we are both early birds.:))

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’ve been looking for a new book to read, as it’s the way I quite the to do lists in my head to fall asleep at night. I am so glad I stopped by! I will be looking into this book and your blog. Found you at the Moments of Hope link up. So glad I did!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for this review, looks amazing. I have to say this surprised me, “volunteer love–so unlooked for, and yet so insistent.” From your post title I thought volunteer love would be serving others in a loving and selfless way…volunteers. 🙂 This puts a new twist on it even in our own lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That term caught my attention, too, Karen, and it reminded me of another term: “borrowed love” and “borrowed faith.” God comes through for us, and He brings people into our lives who have extra of both when we really need them.

      Like

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