The cover of Christy, Catherine Marshall’s 1967 work of Christian fiction, has stared at me from a thousand church library shelves over the years. The original paperback version shows a young woman in early 20th-century dress seemingly dancing through a mountain meadow like Julie Andrews in the Alps. Catherine Marshall created Christy as a tribute to her own mother’s experience teaching children in the mountains of Tennessee. ‘Inspirational’ is the word most often attached to Christy and it set the standard for a certain type of Christian fiction for a generation.
Nicole Mazzarella’s book, This Heavy Silence, comes with a seal of approval as a 2006 Christy Award winner in the first novel category. It, too, has a gauzy, hilly landscape on the cover, but its protagonist, Dottie Connell, is no Julie Andrews. Dottie is a hard-bitten farmer who has been tending her Ohio family farm since her brother’s untimely death as a child. When we meet her in 1962 she is dealing with a fire that has killed her friend and friend’s husband on a night when their young daughter, Mattie, is staying over with Dottie, who is now managing the farm on her own.
Mattie changes Dottie’s life, resurrecting old conflicts and possibilities with Dottie’s old flame, Morris, who, with his new wife, want to adopt the child. Dottie resists the overtures, in part because the money Mattie’s mother had entrusted Dottie to oversee for her is a way to save the farm from villainous relatives. Momentous decisions made in the first part of the book come back to haunt Dottie in the second part, set in 1972, when Mattie reaches adulthood.
Paraclete Press re-released This Heavy Silence in 2018 following the success of Kate James’ 2017 breakout book, Can You See Anything Now?, which was one of our best reads of that year. Like Kate James, Mazzarella takes a small landscape and basic themes of life, land, and spirit to build her story. Also like James, she feels no need to create perfect, dare I say, inspirational characters. Nor are Christian themes on the front burner.
Instead This Heavy Silence gives us a main character who is difficult and at times unlikeable. Dottie becomes the person she has never wanted to be. There is an arc to her story, but it is not a superficial movement from darkness to light. The silences in her life ARE heavy and they are as entrenched in her as the routines which define her days.
But her love for the farm feels authentic and we get to revel in its textures with her. Her wounds are real and the isolation she experiences as a result is believable. When Dottie observes the simple lodging of Stanley, her hired man and unacknowledged companion, she is aware of what’s going on within her:
He washed himself and his dishes with the hose in the corner nearest the drain and left his bar of soap propped on a ledge above the hose; it filled the shed with his scent. In my youth, when the mysteries of men enticed me, I would have breathed answers in that smell. But I was older now and suspicious of answers. (46)
I am, too, and what I appreciate about this new movement in Christian fiction is its willingness to forsake Hallmark storylines for grittier stuff. There is light in these fictional worlds but there are complex people, too, who refuse to be stereotypes. Goodness and evil course through them all. They do things they don’t understand and hurt the people they love. And when they turn to God, it’s not to find a cliché of a proverb, but to open their souls.
“I’ve made a mess of things. I’m sorry.” It hardly seemed like a prayer, but it was the most honest thing I had ever spoken. (231)
I’m not the target audience for these books. I think the publisher feels that the female protagonists in these books are still going to speak primarily to women. But if we could just get some good cover art for these books that doesn’t suggest a cross between Little House on the Prairie and an Amish romance, we might say that the Christy Award torch has been passed to a new generation. And even men might pay attention.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.