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,

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Photo by Kristine Weilert on Unsplash


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