Immediately after finishing My Hands Came Away Red, I searched the internet to see what other books Ms. McKay had written. That should tell you something about the quality of this compelling story of a Christian youth missions team in Indonesia. Eighteen year old Cori decides to spend her summer in Indonesia, building a church, out of mixed motives. Yes, Cori is a Christian, and she wants to do something meaningful in God’s service. She also wants to get away from her confusing relationship with her boyfriend, Scott, and she just wants to experience her own adventure. Since the book runs to 386 pages, Cori obviously gets a lot more meaning and distance and adventure than she expected.
And I got a lot more than I expected out of reading this novel. The story represents really sophisticated and deeply significant Christian fiction. Ms. McKay is not afraid to tackle the hard questions: why does God allow suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? How do Christians pray when it seems as if God isn’t listening? How is Romans 8:28 (“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”) true? Is it true? Really?
Not only does the book deal with these and other hard questions, the writing is also courageous enough not to give simple, easy answers. There’s no ending, or at least no ending that ties up all the loose doubts and uncertainties and issues and presents them to the reader in a neat little package.
But at the same time it’s not a hopeless diatribe on the stupidity of simple faith. Cori and her team of five more teens from the U.S. have a horrible encounter with evil and with danger, and they react in all the myriad of ways that a group of young, somewhat immature Christian young people would react. They cry, and they get angry. They are scared, and they sometimes manage to be incredibly brave. They do and say stupid things. They argue, and they support one another. They doubt and become angry with God, and sometimes they experience something that renews their faith in Him. Looking at faith in the face of atrocity and making fun of that faith is easy, but the reality is not that simple. In My Hands Came Away Red, the characters are not allowed to give up on life or on God, even when they do.
Lisa McKay has a degree in psychology, and that background shows in the novel’s vivid descriptions of the psychological trauma that the young people in the story experience. The author has also served on a missions team in the Philippines, and that firsthand knowledge of how Christians really do behave and talk and act like normal young adults also makes the book’s character portrayals authentic and engaging. As I judge in the young adult fiction category for this year’s INSPY Awards for “the best in literature that grapples with the Christian faith,” I will use use this book and a couple of other faith-driven books as the standard by which I judge the entries on the shortlist for this year. It’s that good.