Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review: "On Shifting Sand" by Allison Pittman

Rating: 5 Stars

Review:  I could almost feel the sting of dust particles as I read Allison Pittman's newest release "On Shifting Sand."  Novel after novel, Pittman proves herself more than adept at creating plots that will impact readers into the depths of their hearts.  Every aspect, from the history to the setting to the characters, is created in fully-developed detail.  I never know what path one of Pittman's novels will take, but I know that I will always find history, pain, depth, hope, and faith along the way.  

Set during the Dust Bowl, "On Shifting Sand" brings the period of history to life.  Although the Dust Bowl is a topic I remember learning about in history classes, I never realized how significantly the people who lived through it were affected. Pittman doesn't spare readers from the loss and suffering that defined the Dust Bowl.  The dust is as much a part of the story as any character, always present with a sense of foreboding.

Nola Merrill's self-destruction is as constant as the dust storms that plaque her community.  Her sins accumulate like the dust, and it is hard to witness her decisions. The burden of her choices weighs heavily on Nola, and heavy on readers as well.  Pittman digs deep into the the topics of betrayal and adultery.  As readers, we watch Nola choose to break her marriage vows.  Through her, we witness the strong temptation to sin and the equally strong guilt that accompanies that sin.  Anyone looking for an idealized, happy read won't find it in the pages of "On Shifting Sand."  What Pittman delivers is heart-breaking, but so much more memorable and powerful for its directness.  Nola's story is not sugar-coated, nor does it end with a tidy epilogue of perfect lives.  When I finished reading the last page, I hoped to read more about Nola and her family. It seems like their story could continue for at least a few hundred more pages. Though readers may be left contemplating the future of Nola and her family, "On Shifting Sand" closes with a promise of hope and forgiveness of all who seek it, and those are promises that will endure longer than any story.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale House Publishers through their book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Summary from Tyndale House Publishers: Long before anyone would christen it “The Dust Bowl,” Nola Merrill senses the destruction. She’s been drying up bit by bit since the day her mother died, leaving her to be raised by a father who withholds his affection the way God keeps a grip on the Oklahoma rain. A hasty marriage to Russ, a young preacher, didn’t bring the escape she desired. Now, twelve years later with two children to raise, new seeds of dissatisfaction take root.

When Jim, a mysterious drifter and long-lost friend from her husband’s past, takes refuge in their home, Nola slowly springs to life under his attentions until a single, reckless encounter brings her to commit the ultimate betrayal of her marriage. For months Nola withers in the wake of the sin she so desperately tries to bury. Guilt and shame consume her physically and spiritually, until an opportunity arises that will bring the family far from the drought and dust of Oklahoma. Or so she thinks. As the storms follow, she is consumed with the burden of her sin and confesses all, hoping to find Russ’s love strong enough to stand the test.

Tyndale's Author Q&A: 

1. What inspired you to write On Shifting Sand?

This is always the hardest question to answer. I loved writing about the dynamics of marriage with my Sister Wife series. But then, a story of a marriage needs conflict, and I’ve yet to see a CBA novel really tackle the idea of adultery in a way that showed it to be a conscientious, willful sin, disassociated from the circumstances of the marriage, or the relationship between the husband and wife. Too often, it was a backstory to justify a divorced character. Or it was a series of close calls, but never fully realized. I wanted to portray it as sin. Pure and simple, but unique in the fact that it reaches beyond the sinner, and carries with it a risk in confession. And then, I wanted to write a story that follows through a journey of restoration—not simply coming back to Christ, but coming back to life. It took a bit for all the pieces to come together, and so many of them weren’t discovered until I was buried in the story. More than any of my books, inspiration for this story came bit by bit.

2. The story is written from the perspective of Nola Merrill, who finds herself in an adulterous relationship. Why did you decide to write the story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator?

I think we are all unreliable narrators in our own lives, especially when it comes to facing our sin. We justify our sin, proclaim ourselves victims, assign blame and downplay responsibility. We can bury ourselves so deeply in guilt, we’re blind to the idea of redemption, so we ignore what God tells us about confession and grace and mercy. We lie to ourselves the same way Nola lies to herself—and, thereby, to the readers. I have no doubt this character will make readers uncomfortable. She made me uncomfortable. They are going to be frustrated with her choices, disappointed by her actions, but I’m OK with that. I think Nola is the realest character I’ve ever created.

3. Why did you decide to set the story during The Dust Bowl? 

When I knew I was going to write a story about adultery, I was determined not to have the adultery resulting from any shortfalls in the characters’ marriage. No neglect, no alienated affection—none of the usual internal problems that might lead a wife to make the choices Nola makes. I needed an external enemy. The Dust Bowl gave me that. The circumstances made it impossible for a woman to fulfill her traditional role of keeping a clean home. The poverty of the Depression made it difficult for her to feed and care for her family. All of that chips away at Nola’s sense of self-worth, and makes her vulnerable to anything—or anyone—for validation. However, it wasn’t until I was in the middle of writing the story that I realized the real power of these storms. The dust and the wind becomes the voice of Nola’s unconfessed sin. It tortures her and follows her. The more photographs and film footage I saw, the more desolation and hopelessness I saw. It was a time and place in desperate need of rain, just as any sinner is in desperate need of Jesus Christ, the Living Water. The setting of the Dust Bowl took on a dimension greater than I imagined at the outset, and grows over the course of the story—just as the storms themselves did.

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