Lynn Austin. While We’re Far Apart. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010. See here to buy the book.
While We’re Far Apart is set in World War II New England. Eddie Schaffer is about to go to war, and the shy Penny Goodrich, who has been infatuated with Eddie since the two of them were children, offers to take care of his kids, Esther and Peter. Peter cannot talk after his father leaves, and Esther resents Penny, thinking that Penny is trying to take the place of Esther’s late mother, Rachel, who died in an accident. Penny also has to contend with her elderly parents, who are overly protective and continually berate her. Meanwhile, there is the Schaffers’ landlord, a Jewish man named Jacob Mendel, who lost his own wife in the same accident that took Rachel Schaffer. Jacob is angry with God and has refused to attend synagogue, and so, when the local synagogue burns down after he has an argument with the rabbi, the authorities suspect him of arson. Jacob is also worried about his son, Avraham, and Avraham’s family, for Avraham went to Hungary to study at the yeshiva, and there is news that the Nazis are invading Hungary.
Mysteries emerge in the course of the book. Penny learns that she is actually adopted, and she is curious about the identity of her real mother and father. Esther and Peter know absolutely nothing about their late mother’s side of the family, and they are curious about them. Then there is the question of who burned down the synagogue. The mysteries definitely propelled my reading of the book. I especially liked the road trips that characters took in search of answers. (I think of the show, Brothers and Sisters: “Road trip! Road trip!”) The resolution that particularly surprised me concerned the burning of the synagogue: I was not surprised that one of the characters did it, but I was surprised that a certain character participated.
What most intrigued me about this book, however, was the author’s portrayal of Judaism as a path to God. Or so it seemed to me. This is an evangelical Christian book. Lynn Austin in other fictional works, and even in this one, says that the death of Christ is what brings people forgiveness. Yet, the sources of spiritual wisdom in this book were two non-Christian Jewish characters: Jacob’s rabbi, who encourages Jacob to return to faith, and Jacob himself, who finds his faith again as he helps Esther and Peter to cope with the death of their mother, and the challenges after that. I usually do not read Amazon reviews of books I have read until I have written my own review, but I wonder if any right-wing evangelicals have taken Lynn Austin to task for this.
A theological question that recurred to me as I read this book, and which comes up often when I read Lynn Austin’s books, concerns God’s activity in the world. Does God protect us and our loved ones when we pray for protection? If so, how can we account for the bad things that happen to people? Lynn Austin seems to vacillate on this: she appears to believe that God protects, but she also does not think that God is a genie who does whatever we ask. She thinks that God can bring good out of bad, and she also maintains that God respects people’s free-will, and thus they, not God, are to blame for evil. I was thinking of a point that I read in atheist Robert Price’s The Reason Driven Life: that many Christian pastors advertise that God protects people, but later they have to deal with fallout after something tragic happens to someone, and that person comes to the pastors for answers. As I read Lynn Austin’s book and saw that some people survived, and some did not, I wondered if the people who survived really did so as a result of divine protection, or if it was simply a matter of chance: that people should be happy that they are alive, for things could have easily turned out differently. I still pray for God to protect people, however, for maybe God does; plus, doing so makes me feel better. In addition, I believe that God protects me, even if I die, for I believe in an afterlife: that I am safe in God’s hands, whatever happens.
In reading this book, I learned about Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman who saved Jews from annihilation by giving them fake papers portraying them as Swedish nationals. As it did with Oscar Schindler, the Israeli government declared Wallenberg to be one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” And so he was. So many people turned the other way or minded their own affairs when the Nazis were persecuting and killing the Jews. For someone to stick his neck out for his fellow human being was not only righteous, but heroic.
My favorite line in the book is on page 405. One of the characters is Roy, a likable, happy-go-lucky serviceman who strikes up a friendship with Penny on the bus. Penny helps Roy write love letters to Sally. Later in the book, Roy says: “I finally realized why I always had so much trouble telling Sally how I felt. It was because what I felt wasn’t love. A man in love should have no trouble at all. Even if he’s tongue-tied, he should overflow with ways to express how he feels. I never felt any of that. I was dazzled by her beauty and by the fact that she would even look twice at a guy like me.”
What I appreciated the most about this book was the development of relationships. Esther did not care for Penny and treated her shabbily for a long time, but they came to care for each other. Jacob Mendel was alone in his bitterness, until Esther, Peter, and Penny came into his life, and he did what he could to help them out.
This book won a Christy Award. No surprise there!