This novel, set alternately in Uganda and California, offers a paradigm of struggle between faith and the secular world.
Mendenhall’s (Michael and the Ice Princess, 2011) protagonist is Stephen O’Connell, a Mexican-Irish-American who’s a talented musician and actor. In the 1970s, he finds Christ and enrolls in Scholars Bible College, but it turns out to be a very conservative, rigid, airless place with teachers and students who often seem to hew the letter of the Bible, instead of its spirit. Stephen doesn’t last very long at the school, but during his time there, he does make fast friends, including Bryce Everett and Margaret Whitman, who reappear later in the story. Later, in the 1990s, Stephen and his wife, Julie (along with their son, Sam), are in Uganda as missionaries and AIDS workers. Readers are reminded that back in the 1970s, Uganda, under the rule of Idi Amin, was a place of unspeakable atrocities; in the ’90s, there’s genocide in neighboring Rwanda. As portrayed in this novel, Africa is a beautiful but tragic place, and the O’Connells are right in the thick of what’s happening within it. Other characters in Uganda include school headmaster Geoffrey Mahoro and his niece, Charity Ntambara, who was raped by Amin’s soldiers and bears the spiritual and cultural scars years later. Julie is nearly killed by a religious fanatic, and yet another religious fanatic comes after administrative assistant Madeleine Everett later, back in California. This is a complex book, and even the title itself presents a puzzle and a challenge. That said, the book is well-organized and engagingly written. Its characters are believable throughout, and readers will have sympathy for even the flawed ones (such as Madeleine). Mendenhall is a believer in the Christian faith, but her work doesn’t come across as Pollyannish or polemical. Indeed, there are no easy answers here, and certainly no deus ex machina. The O’Connells are the closest thing to true saints in Mendenhall’s world, but she still succeeds, for the most part, in making them seem human. Even non-believers will find this world engrossing, particularly as it may be one that’s new to them.
A demanding but rewarding religious story.