This second book in Johnson’s (Encountering God, 2015, etc.) trilogy revolves around the correspondence between his parents during their courtship in 1930s Colorado and North Dakota.
The news of the day was considerably dark: Armies were moving in Europe, and the shadow of unprecedented economic hardship stalked America. Young Walter Johnson and Margaret had recently become engaged but were far apart from each other, connected mainly by two things: the post and their shared Christian faith. Their letters are unrelentingly, almost endearingly somber, full of earnest professions of mutual devotion and copious quotations from Scripture. As in the trilogy’s first book (thanks to Johnson’s skillful editorial presence, any new readers can start with this volume and not feel like they’re missing anything), the mood of intense young love is lightened occasionally with talk of potatoes, livestock, and the low-key but persistent pleasure both Walter and Margaret obviously took in the beauty of their natural surroundings. But their main concentration in these letters was decidedly otherworldly. Each began almost every letter with a quote from Scripture, proceeded with frequent allusions to their faith (Margaret took the lead here), and closed with a blessing. It’s not empty piety. Their conviction was obvious, and it’s balanced by a good deal of pragmatic detail, but both the letters themselves and Johnson’s lengthy interpolations leave no doubt: This is as much a Christian colloquy as it is an epistolary memoir. “I am glad the future is veiled,” Margaret wrote in a March letter. “I used to long to know, but God has led me thus far, and He will continue to do so if I but put my trust in Him.”
This amount of stiff piety can make for occasional tough going. The Scopes Monkey Trial was still a living memory for Walter and Margaret, and the state of their world—with Nazis abroad and Depression at home—gave them the feeling of a radically unstable world for their faith and perhaps a concomitant urge to overcompensate (at one point Walter confesses that he can’t always think of a Scripture passage to start a new letter, for instance, and then immediately writes that when he’s stuck, he prays about it, and God suggests something). Curiously, the book’s main strength comes from Johnson’s decision to broaden and deepen this questioning in his editorial commentaries on his parents’ lives and faith. He respects the fundamentalist simplicity of their beliefs but also gently interrogates it. He adds welcome texture to their literal biblical faith, expanding on their views with discussions of metaphorical interpretations of things like Noah’s Flood or the Tower of Babel and contemporary concerns like climate change or the threat of nuclear war. Johnson sees the faith of his parents as a main theme in their courtship, and his own views of the separate “magisteria” of science and faith make for every bit as interesting reading. Includes black-and-white photos of the letters.
A fascinating although occasionally stilted setting of old-fashioned Midwestern faith in a wider modern context.