It was very good. Ms. Strout apparently knows something about small town life and about being a pastor or a pastor’s wife, even though the blurb says she lives in New York City. Abide With Me tells the story of Pastor Tyler Caskey who is serving in his first pastorate in the community of West Annett, Maine. The novel is set in the late 1950’s, about the same time I was born. Lots of period details give life to the story and make it seem real. People are worried about Khruschev and the Communist threat, building bomb shelters, how to survive a nuclear attack. Then, there are the more immediate concerns of the village, such as a new wife for Pastor Caskey whose wife Lauren died a year ago and what’s to be done about the pastor’s five year old daughter Katherine who’s misbehaving in church and in kindergarten. Tyler Caskey has his own thoughts and worries: should he support the church organist’s bid for a new organ and how can he please his congregation, his mother, and everyone else, including God? And will he ever experience The Feeling, that indefineable sense of God’s presence and blessing, again?
Abide With Me is novel about grief and about maturity. Tyler Caskey is a protagonist who reminds me of Engineer Husband; he wants everyone to be happy. Sometimes, if things are not right, he wants to pretend that they are. He’s not a man to make waves, to disturb the universe. Unfortunately, life doesn’t cooperate; suffering comes; and Tyler finds himself finally unable to cope with the trials of his congregants, the needs of his family, and his own grief and guilt over the death of his wife. Things come to a crisis on a Sunday morning, as Tyler is supposed to be preaching, and the inhabitants of West Annett receive an opportunity to give grace and mercy to the pastor who has tried to give them the Word of God in spite of his own brokenness.
Elizabeth Strout’s second novel reminds me a bit of Marilynne Robinson’s second novel Gilead. There’s the same gently descriptive writing, the same delight in the natural world and the dailyness of life, the same sort of pastoral protagonist, although Tyler Caskey is much younger than Robinson’s Reverend Ames. Both men are humble servant/leaders, reluctant to claim that they have all the answers or know the mind of God. If you liked Gilead, if you are a pastor or a pastor’s wife, if you are interested in an account of living a Christian, but imperfect, life, you should like Abide With Me. It’s the best book I’ve read this year so far.
From a sermon by Tyler Caskey (never delivered):
“Do you think that because we have learned the sun does not go down, that in fact we are going around at a dizzying speed, that the sun is not the only star in the heavens —do you think this means that we are any less important than we thought we were? Oh, we are far less important than we thought we were, and we are far, far more important than we think we are. Do you imagine that the scientist and the poet are not united? Do you assume you can answer the question of who we are and why we are here by rational thought alone? It is your job, your honor, your birthright, to bear the burden of this mystery. And it is your job to ask, in every thought, word and deed: How can love best be served?
God is not served when you speak with relish of rumors about those who are poor in spirit and cannot be defended; God is not served when you ignore the poverty of spirit within yourselves.”
Tyler says in the book that this sermon excerpt breaks one of the cardinal rules of homiletics. Do you know what rule he breaks? (I didn’t even know there was such a rule; I’m going to be listening carefully to my pastor’s sermon next Sunday to see if he ever breaks The Rule.)