Lynn Austin. Wonderland Creek. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2011. See here to buy the book.
Wonderland Creek won a Christy Award, which is an award for evangelical Christian fiction. I really enjoyed other Christy Award-winning Lynn Austin novels that I read, specifically Candle in the Darkness and Fire by Night, both of which are about the American Civil War. For a while, I had a difficult time getting into Wonderland Creek, which is set during the Great Depression. But, somewhere near the middle of the book, it grew on me, and the ending left me with a sweet feeling.
Wonderland Creek is about Alice Grace Ripley, a minister’s daughter who is in her 20s, and whose nose is always in a book. She enjoys her job at the local library, considering it a perfect fit for her after she failed at teaching. But her boyfriend breaks up with her because her nose is always in a book, and she loses her library job due to cutbacks. She decides to deliver donated books to a little library in a small Kentucky town, expecting to volunteer there. Her uncle and aunt drive her there on their way to a spa, and Alice meets a wooly man in the library named Mack. Her uncle and aunt drive away, and Mack chases them because he was not expecting for Alice to stay!
Mack gets shot, and he tells Alice to get Lillie, who is in her 100s and was a slave before the American Civil War. Lillie is the healer of the town and is a devout Christian. Lillie and Mack decide to fake Mack’s death so that Mack can investigate, and also so that the person who shot him will not return and finish him off!
There are tedious parts of the book, such as the part in which Alice was learning how to ride a horse so she could deliver books as part of a WPA program. For a while, I was enjoying Lillie’s spiritual wisdom, even though Lillie did get on my nerves a bit because she could be snarky, opinionated, judgmental, and occasionally scatter-brained. I was also intrigued by Maggie, a warm, pleasant, and refined woman from Boston who married someone in Kentucky. Lillie warns Alice about Maggie, I was wondering why, and that kept me reading!
For me, the turning point in the book—-the point where I really started to feel something—-occurred in the middle. Alice is waiting for her uncle and aunt to come and pick her up so that she can go back to Illinois, where she can read all day and enjoy her warm bed, electricity, and hot water. Lillie keeps telling Alice that she will keep a look out for them while Alice is out delivering books. Alice keeps waiting, wondering if they will ever show up. Lillie then tells her that they already showed up, but that Lillie told them that they can move on, for Alice is helping out there and is having an adventure of her own. Alice is shocked to hear this! The reason that this part stood out to me was that Alice got to the point where she was wanted and needed in that small Kentucky town. She may not have been enthusiastic about being there, but she had a service to perform. People were depending on her, and she needed to think beyond her own comfort.
Bethany House is often considered to be a conservative Christian publishing house, so it was refreshing to read a book from it that was largely positive about the New Deal, unions, and the need for safety rules for coal mines.
The book was also good because it conveyed that there may be more to people than meets the eye. Mack looks like a wooly mountain man, but he is actually an educated person who came back to the area to help it out. Maggie is a good woman, yet she is harboring a lot of bitterness. Alice’s aunt is a bit ditzy, but she has wisdom about romance and living life to the full.
In terms of spiritual lessons, the book talked about a variety of themes: the problem of evil, forgiveness, the perseverance of the saints, and how the love of money is the root of all evil. Lynn Austin talks about some of these themes in other books of hers that I have read, but this book did have a unique twist on them (which I say based on my reading of Austin’s books so far, and I have not read all of them). Lillie says that Jesus commands us to pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” because, otherwise, we would not forgive our debtors! Jesus is being pretty practical there and is giving us a command to help us out spiritually! When Lillie says that God sent Alice to help out, Alice wonders why God allowed Mack to be shot in the first place. Lillie says that God never promised a smooth road, yet prays for things to go smoothly at times. On the issue of perseverance of the saints, Lillie predicts that Maggie will return to God, notwithstanding her anger with him, for Jesus said that nobody can snatch the saints from his Father’s hand (John 10:28).
The book is largely about Alice’s growth—-how she became less selfish and decided to experience real life more, as opposed to just reading (which she still did). I could identify with her in areas, even though I sometimes found her rather immature. In the end, Alice reflected that she came to see church as a place where she could gather with others who serve God and allow God to tell her what he expects from her. That does not entirely resonate with me, for I see church as a place where I can learn about God and experience God’s love—-I don’t just see God as my boss, but as a loving friend and Father. Still, I do appreciate how Alice learned the value of serving others and thinking about their needs.