Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review: ROOM FOR HOPE

Title: Room for Hope
Author: Kim Vogel Sawyer
Publisher: WaterBrook
Pages: 352

It is 1936 in Kansas, the time of the Great Depression. It was a time when the crippling of the economy had put most families into a state of severe penury, and it is to the backdrop of this deprivation that Room for Hope plays out.

Neva Gaines Shilling is the perfect wife and mother, devoted to her husband, Warren, and 14-year-old twins, son Bud and daughter Belle. Warren is an itinerant salesman, who is on the road for weeks at a time. His salesman’s skills and Neva’s housekeeping and shopkeeping skills at managing the Shilling Mercantile have kept the family afloat through the Depression. Neva misses her husband a lot, but is patient and loving, in spite of being, to all practical purposes, a single mother to her children.

The day Warren is to return home, Neva receives a surprise. Law official Jesse Caudel comes to her house with Charley, Cassie and Adeline, the three children of Warren and Violet Shilling, who have died. Jesse tells her that her “brother” Warren has died and that, before his death, he had left instructions that his children should be sent to “Aunt” Neva.

Stunned by her husband’s infidelity, Neva and her children struggle to cope with the changing dynamics of life, even as Neva seeks to hide the truth from the people of the town, fearing their censure.

Bud cannot bring himself to accept his father’s other three children. Nor can he accept the truth about his father’s betrayal. He runs away from home. 

Will Neva ever get her son back? Will she be able to trust another man, after Warren’s faithfulness? Will she learn to accept her husband’s children, or will they be sent to an orphanage? How will the townsfolk react when they come to know of Warren’s unfaithfulness?

Meanwhile, neighbour Arthur Randall, widower and father of two sons and successful businessman-owner of a furniture shop, has an eye on Neva’s shop. He wishes to expand his own business, and appropriating Neva’s property seems like the most logical thing to do. At first, he uses any means necessary, be it coercion or charm, helping Neva out even when she doesn’t ask him, or even when she doesn’t want his help.

Jesse, who has become Sherriff of the town, finds his faith in God growing in the face of the circumstances in Neva’s life. He also feels compelled to make his peace with his adoptive family. He has an interesting back story and it comes to us in bits and pieces.

Most of the characters, the Shillings, in particular, and also Jesse and Arthur, undergo a tremendous upheaval. Through the course of the book, they undergo a transformation. They make their peace with God and learn to become better people.

Warren’s actions affect the others, even though he is only a presence. We never see him alive but his actions have a great impact on those left behind.

We tend not to see too much of Belle either, but that is because she picks up the slack on behalf of the others, and gives Neva some much needed respite against the onslaught posed by the other characters and the difficulties of running the mercantile.

Sawyer looks at all the characters with a gentle eye. Nobody is really bad here. Even Warren, the bigamist, is spoken of in glowing terms by the town at his memorial service. Neva, who has been wronged by him, does not really rant or rave against him. Arthur, who could have come across as manipulative and greedy, is only trying his best to cope with the circumstances of the time.

Neva’s own strength of character comes through the pages as she seeks God’s help to do the right thing by everyone. We come to know of the kind of person almost at the same time as Arthur does, and very often it is as if we are getting to know her through his eyes.

The story has two strong male characters, against the weakness displayed by Warren. Jesse goes out of his way to help Neva, even unwittingly stepping up as a father figure for Bud. While Arthur changes from being a “moneygrubber” to putting Neva’s and the children’s needs above his own.

For much of the book, we don’t know which of these two strong men will stand up and offer Neva the support she so richly deserves. Ultimately, Sawyer makes the right choice on Neva’s behalf.

Descriptions of the food cooked by Neva spill on to the pages, exuding warmth and enabling the reader to enter the cozy picture.

I enjoyed reading about Neva’s relationship with her twins. I also felt a sense of compassion at the plight of the three innocent waifs. Our hearts go out to them. The plight of the orphans, then as now, was pathetic as they depended on the state’s diffused largesse, while their greater hunger for love and affection goes unrewarded.

It was a desperate time and many families chose to give their children away, unable to care for them.

In the midst of the difficulties of the time, the Christian message is strong: When sorrow overwhelms, trust in God.

The story is written from the third person viewpoint of Neva, Bud, Jesse and Arthur. The writing is warm and charming, comforting in its simplicity. Sawyer creates a word picture of the conveniences of the time, the Frigidaire, etc, appliances, which form an important part of the story, as events make themselves known.

The writing evokes the era: the old-fashioned use of ‘visit with,’ panged as a verb, as in “my heart panged.” Archaic variants of words, like deviltry, are also in evidence here.

Sawyer does not feel compelled to give Neva a typically happy ending. Even so, the loose end feels satisfying and leaves room for hope.

"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

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