Thursday, September 11, 2008

Difficult, Disparate Courage in Patience Makes Me Think

For six years, Ashley Asher endures the unthinkable at the hands of Charlie, her alcoholic stepfather. When she finally gets up enough courage to tell her mother about the abuse, she's shocked to find that the woman who is supposed to protect her more fiercely than anyone else, doesn't believe the accusations against her husband. Ashley's mom dismisses the whole thing, even suggesting that Ashley brought it on herself by flirting with her stepfather. Her mother's denial rocks Ashley to the core. "I broke into lots of tiny pieces on the inside," she says, "like if someone hit a mirror with a hammer, over and over again" (54).

Knowing she can no longer take Charlie's abuse, Ash turns to a trusted teacher. Before she knows it, CPS has contacted her birth father, David. Although Ash recognizes herself in his features, her dad might as well be a complete stranger. He hasn't been in the same room with her since she was an infant, when her mother gave up on their marriage and left with Ashley in tow. Now, she has no choice. She has to trust this man she barely remembers.

David takes Ash to Patience, Texas, where he lives in a log cabin with his wife, Bev, and her 12-year-old son, Ben. Although Ben's not too anxious to meet his stepsister, Bev takes Ash under her wing. With her new family, Ash discovers that she doesn't have to spend her life cowering in her closet. As she gets to know the Ashers, becomes involved in a summer English course, and reaches out to others, she feels herself healing - slowly, painfully, and not wholly - but at least making progress. Patience becomes a refuge for Ash, but even in backward East Texas, things are not always as peaceful as they seem. The better Ash gets to know Patience's residents, the more she realizes that abuse comes in many forms and that fighting it will take everything she has - and more.

Courage in Patience by Beth Fehlbaum was a strange read for me, and I still haven't decided if I like it or not. The subject matter - sexual abuse - always makes for a tough read, especially when recounted in as much graphic detail as Fehlbaum employs. Perhaps I'm one of those people who want to pretend that such evil doesn't exist - I don't know, but I felt like I understood what was going on in Ashley's home without having to know every ugly word and detail of her experience. Of course, the author wants to make her point that abuse is real, ugly and traumatizing. As a victim herself, she knows her stuff. It just went a little overboard for me.

Really, though, my biggest problem with the novel is that it moves too abruptly from one theme to another. The first part of the novel is all about Ashley, her abuse, her pleas for help, and the way in which she deals with the lingering effects of her molestation and rape. Then, suddenly, it turns into a diatribe against racism and censorship. The stories are connected, of course, but not well enough to flow smoothly. In Fehlbaum's defense, I think some of the problem results from the publisher emphasizing the sexual abuse aspect of the book on its cover. In an interview I conducted with the author, she insists that the book was never supposed to be just about abuse - its real theme is that freedom and healing come from truth. (Incidentally, another author who published through Kunati mentioned that the publisher labeled her book in a way that skewed readers' expectations. Interesting.) At any rate, I also thought the book was overlong and trying to accomplish too much with the various storylines. A strict editor could easily thin it out, creating a much more powerful novel.

You know me - I can forgive writing and plotting flaws if a book contains some good, multi-dimensional characters, people that I can connect with because they feel so real. Courage in Patience boasts a couple well-drawn players, but it also contains far too many who aren't. Ash's voice rings with authenticity. She's honest, edgy and vulnerable all at the same time, which makes her both sympathetic and admirable. Her story reads like a memoir more than a novel, because her narration is so forthright. The characterization problem really lies in the adult characters, almost all of whom are portrayed as being either 100% good or 100% evil. Charlie abuses Ash, so he is bad. We don't get much of a glimpse into what makes him this way. Don't get me wrong - I think anyone who takes advantage of a child qualifies as scum of the Earth - I'm just saying a well-rounded character needs more of a history, more of a backstory, so we can at least understand his actions. Another example is Bev's boss, Principal Walden. He opposes Bev's teaching methods, so he is bad. Again, we don't get to see any of the possible reasons for his negativity or any humanizing qualities - he could have an overwhelming need to protect his students because no one protected him; he could fear losing his job and being unable to pay bills; or his cowardice in the face of the school board could come from being bullied throughout his life. We don't know, because all we're told is that he's threatening a teacher, so he's bad. I also didn't understand why David got to be portrayed as 100% good, since he does, in fact, abandon his daughter, making little attempt to contact her until CPS forces his hand. Then, suddenly, he becomes Dad of the Year. So, yeah. Some good, some not so good on the characterization front.

Considering all this, I was ready to abandon Courage in Patience by the middle of the book. I didn't get why racism and censorship were suddenly the focus of the story. I really didn't want to read all the minutiae of the minor characters' lives. I found myself only caring about Ashley and how she was going to deal with the trauma she experienced. Thankfully, the last quarter of the book yanked my wandering mind back to the story. Although I found it predictable and not overly realistic, the finale provides the strongest, most moving portion of the whole tale. The idea of truth and freedom is one in which Fehlbaum strongly believes. By the time you close the book, you'll believe it, too. You'll also find yourself thinking hard about censorship - I certainly did.

So, I'm going to be brutally honest here - I didn't love this book. It does make some strong statements, and it definitely made me think. It made me ponder so hard, in fact, that I'm drafting a post on censorship and how this book made me reconsider some of my opinions. As a novel, however, it lacks a lot of things - tight plotting, subtle development of a theme, strong characterization, and unpredictability. Like I said before, a good editor could easily set it to rights, but for me, it just didn't quite work. As always, I try to be as honest as possible about the books I review, but mine are not the only opinions out there. Hard to believe, I know! Courage in Patience gets very high reviews on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble (where I got the picture), so check them out for more discussion of the book.

Grade: B-

Note: The back cover proclaims Courage in Patience to be "Suitable for classroom study" and free from "graphic content." These phrases come from the publisher, not the author. I think I've made it clear that these are false statements (in my opinion, at least) - so consider yourself warned.

5 comments:

  1. I was thinking this was a memoir until I was halfway through you review,and to tell you the truth I think I would be more likely to read it if it was as memoir. Hmm, not sure why I feel that way. You did a really nice job with your review and interview, and I so appreciate your honesty. I agree with you that this sounds maybe a bit too mature for classroom teaching.

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  2. Very thoughtful review and your honesty is appreciated. I also thought this was a memoir at first. Seemed too "personal" for it not to have been based on facts.

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  3. Great review, and I appreciated your comments (thought-provoking as always) on the subject of how much "graphic content" to include in a book with this sort of subject matter.

    I remember reading a book about a woman who developed Dissociative Identity Disorder (split personalities) based on severe sexual abuse she recieved at the hands of her father (this was non-fiction). She recounts the scenes of abuse in detail, and try as I may, I could not bring myself to more than skim them. It horrified me to think that these sorts of things that I could hardly stand to read about were actually happening every day to children.

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  4. Thank you for the review and the interview. I am gratified that the story I wrote provoked discussion, depth of thought, and, yes, discomfort, too, because it is so often through being confronted with what makes us uneasy that change is able to happen in society as a whole. I appreciate your tenacity in finishing the book and being able to see the hope and healing that begin to form in Ashley's being.

    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    http://courageinpatience.blogspot.com
    Book trailer & Ch. 1 online!

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