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Abide With Me
Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl
Written with a pastoral sense akin to Wendell Berry's works, Strout's novel easily creates both a sense of longing and an ache in the reader's being. Set in the late 1950's in a town called West Annett, Maine, the main character is a newly widowed Protestant preacher named Tyler Caskey.
Strout has a keen eye for the time period in which she sets this work; women's changing roles, the life of a rural congregation, the home conveniences, news events, all work together to describe a thoughtful preacher of that era who loves his people and lives doggedly among all the difficult questions he cannot answer.
Tyler struggles to raise a rebellious five-year old while also finding himself at odds with his mother, who keeps his other child with her. His housekeeper gets caught up in a police issue, and pastor and parishioners deal with problems, sometimes in sad ignorance of one another.
The author's eye for revealing the past throughout the book is more than simply the use of flashback techniques. We see how the past can impact, even crush present hopes and efforts. Tyler's now deceased spouse is described in terms of their courtship and marriage. She is revealed for what she was, and that which she has left to Tyler to contend with as a result.
Clearly Strout is well read in the area of theology. As a counterpoint and voice in his growing misery, Tyler reads and re-reads portions of Bonhoeffer's works and biographies.
"Tyler sat with his Bible on his lap, staring out the window of his study. He was picturing the young fiancée of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a girl with her dark hair pulled back from her earnest face, intelligent face, walking boldly into the prison to visit him. Since Bonhoeffer's death, Maria von Wedemeyer had not made public their letters, and this moved Tyler--that she would hold their love privately to her heart." (99)
As Tyler struggles with his sorrows and deepening depression he chooses other even more somber reading. "Tyler went into his study for his morning prayer. It was Friday and Connie would be here soon. He read from Winkworth's translation of the Theologia Germanica: When a man truly findeth himself utterly vile and wicked and unworthy, he falleth into such a deep abasement that it seemth to him reasonable that all creatures in heaven and earth should rise up against him. Tyler glanced at his watch, thinking perhaps Connie had had trouble with her car in the snow. And therefore he will not and dare not desire any consolation." (137)
This book is full of much of the pastor's solitude, including the moments when he works on his sermons. Daily life in all its gritty reality is crisscrossed with major theological events and mysteries. The major crisis of this book occurs near its end on a Sunday morning in church. Leaving this for the reader in its entirety, this reviewer only quotes this much of the incident:
"For a moment he had an image of them all dressed in colonial clothes, here to watch a public hanging. He looked down at his sermon, the words from Isaiah. He looked back up. They waited. He walked away from the pulpit to the center of the chancel. He would say, "Why have you come today to the house of the Lord?" But no words came from his mouth." (271)
This is a lovely, articulate book based on the poetry and faith of daily life. Whether it is the harshness of relationships falling apart, or people in the process of healing, or a mix of both, the story of this parish pastor applies to the realities of faith leaders and parishioners in all times and places. You will not be disappointed in this lyric story of belief.