I finished reading Richard Paul Evans’ newest release, Grace, last week. I held off on writing a review because I wanted to ruminate on the novel awhile, let it roll around in my head and “marinate” heart and soul. I also wanted to take my time because you can’t rush a review of Grace. It’s not that kind of book. Here’s why:
When I read the Author’s Note regarding the 1874 child abuse case of Mary Ellen Wilson, I almost put Grace back on the library shelf. I can’t get near that topic without one of two reactions: dissolving into a soggy heap of tears, or wanting to personally thrash the stuffing out of the perpetrators.
As the mother of four boys and the Children’s Ministries Director for our church, child abuse enrages me beyond words. It also rips my heart out. Frankly, I wasn’t up for either emotion the day Grace came into the library (It took awhile. I was #23 in the “On Hold” queue). Tempted to put it back, I refrained from doing so for just one reason: I own every title Evans has ever written. So, on the strength of Evans’ prior work, I decided to trust him with this new book. I stuffed Grace into my bag en route to the YMCA with my youngest. Poolside while Josiah splashed down the water slide, I gingerly withdrew Grace and started reading.
Grace opens with a recap of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl and some grandfatherly reflections from protagonist Eric Welch on Christmas Day 2006 (p.5). Told in the first person, the story unfolds in flashback fashion during Eric’s teen years and moves from October 1962 to early January 1963.
Eric’s father, a construction worker, is unable to work due to Guillain Barre Syndrome. The family of four, which includes Eric’s ten year-old brother and best friend, Joel, is forced to move from southern California to a rundown, low-rent part of Utah. (I have a good friend with GBS. This is the only time I’ve seen this debilitating disease appear in a novel.) We struggle with Eric through the first four chapters as he endures the slings and arrows of being “the new kid” in middle school and all the attendant traumas and woes that unhappy scenario typically includes. In Eric’s case it’s exacerbated by being poor and from out-of-state to boot.
We meet fifteen year-old Grace in Chapter Five. She’s foraging for food in a dumpster behind “McBurger Queen,” Eric’s part-time (scum bag) employer. On page 34 we find out that Grace is a runaway: “I’m not going home.” But she has no where to go. Besides, there’s something about Grace (and grace) that’s …unexplained. Mysterious. Something that causes us as well as Eric to pause…
Unwilling to leave Grace roaming the streets alone on a cold October night, Eric brings her to the “clubhouse” he and Joel built behind the family’s sprawling, dilapidated home. The next 240 pages detail the tender uncertainties of First Love, selflessness and sacrifice, courage in the face of overwhelming odds, the Cuban Missile Crisis, family and emotional struggles, and Eric’s rage at the people who “coulda, shoulda, woulda” protected young Grace from her predacious stepfather – but didn’t. The willful ignorance of neighbors, school officials and law enforcement receive a withering indictment that’s all the more effective for its understated subtlety: “I sat alone staring at the back of a pew while people who didn’t really know anything about Grace talked about her as if they suddenly cared.” (p. 292). Evans gently but unequivocally shows how any willful blindness or ignorance makes us all complicit when it comes to crimes against children:
“You killed her. You and Dad and Joel and her pathetic, worthless mother and those stupid, idiotic policemen who just couldn’t wait to be heroes. … You all killed Grace…’ (p. 295)
If the story stopped here, it would have been poignant, but Evans doesn’t let it go. Not quite. He doesn’t leave us outraged, wrung-out, hopeless and helpless. Instead, he subtly intertwines themes of God’s grace, redemption and restoration throughout this carefully crafted story of a teen runaway (see the bottom of page 296). This reaches its zenith in an Epilogue that is both hopeful and heart-wrenching. It is in these final, gripping pages that we see how tragedy transforms a painfully shy, self-conscious fourteen year-old boy “with acne and a bad hair cut” into a tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners prosecutor whose life is forever and irrevocably changed by those late autumn and winter months of 1962 and a girl named Grace:
“I have spent my life hunting down and prosecuting people like Grace’s stepfather. I carry Grace’s locket into every trial. I’ve earned a reputation as a fierce courtroom combatant who takes every case personally. What Grace saw in the candle was true of me as well. I am feared. … Today I continue my crusade. I have testified about child abuse before state lawmakers more times than I can remember. I’ve lived to see child advocacy become a public concern. I am grateful that the world finally has the courage to open its eyes. My wife asks me when we can retire, but I tell her I’ll die in the saddle. With my last breath I’ll continue to fight for these children. I cannot save them all, but I can save some of them, and that’s worth doing. There are other Graces out there.” (p. 305, 306).
I was relieved that Evans avoids any graphic details regarding Grace’s family history, relationships or the experiences that led to her running away from home. Consummate storyteller that he is, Evans drops subtle clues and hints throughout the story and allows us to fill in the blanks without assaulting us with additional traumatic narrative.
In terms of format and style, Grace features Evans’ usual short chapters and his trademark “diary entries” that preface each chapter. The style is vintage Evans, luminous and evocative, introducing us to three-dimensional characters whom we come to know, love, and miss as plot, climax, and conclusion unfold with great sensitivity and sagacity. The book closes with A Letter from Richard Paul Evans detailing practical help readers can provide via The Christmas Box Initiative and Operation Kids. Web sites and a toll-free phone number are included.
All in all, Grace is a fast – but not a light - read. I read the book cover-to-cover in an afternoon. I wanted to stand up at cheer by the final page and plan on a "return visit" – just as soon as I restock my Kleenex stash.
By Richard Paul Evans
Simon & Schuster, 2008