Book Review: Every Hill and Mountain by Deborah Heal
Disclaimer: I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it. This review will contain heavy spoilers.
This is the third in a trilogy about Abby Thomas, a denominational college student on a summer service project to be a tutor to economically disadvantaged eleven-year-old Merri. They discover that Beautiful House, a program on Merri’s computer, allows them to view (and experience!) past events in old buildings. They soon draw in a young man named John Roberts, who starts a romantic relationship with Abby while helping them explore the history of Merri’s house, once a station on the Underground Railroad.
In this volume, Abby’s revealing of this information to her college roommate backfires when said roommate, Kate Greenfield, shows up with her fiance Ryan Turner in tow. It seems Kate has run into a brick wall in her family research. An ancestor named Ned Greenfield was born at Hickory Hill in Equality, Illinois–but that’s all she can find on him or his parentage. She asks Abby to help her using the Beautiful House program.
Equality, once a thriving salt mining town, seems friendly enough at first. But the townspeople become considerably less welcoming once the subject of Hickory Hill comes up. Abby and her friends soon discover some painful truths about the past. But God is in the business of redemption, and makes all things new.
This book is aimed at the Christian young adult market, so there is quite a bit of God-talk. An exact age range is a little harder to pin down. The topics of rape, torture and the cost of human lives of slavery may be a bit heavy for younger teens, while the sexual prudishness of the protagonists will probably have older teens, particularly ones not raised in more conservative Christian communities, rolling their eyes. Conservative Christian parents, on the other hand, are likely to approve of Abby and John’s chaste relationship.
There is a brief cameo by real-life evangelist D.L. Moody, the author of The Overcoming Life which I review here: http://www.skjam.com/2014/01/26/book-review-the-overcoming-life/ .
The book has some serious flaws, which I will talk about in the spoilers section below. I can only recommend it as an introduction to the history of slavery in Illinois–there’s a list of further reading books in the back that are more to the point on the subject.
The biggest problem I have with this book is the villain of the modern section, Ryan. Abby takes an immediate dislike to him on first meeting and it’s easy to see why. The man is a horrible excuse for a human being, consistently putting his worst foot forward. He has zero appealing personality traits. Which would be okay if this were a different kind of story, one where the villain is mostly offstage so that the stalwart heroes only see him when he’s opposing them.
But instead he’s a tag-along for the group, in most scenes, repeatedly failing to show any redeeming characterization. By the time of his “sudden but inevitable betrayal” Kate looks less like an impulsive young woman in love, and more like someone who’s really, really stupid and needs it spelled out to her in large letters that Ryan is bad news. Tellingly, the one time Kate mentions what, specifically, she likes about Ryan, we aren’t allowed to hear it.
Ryan would have been a much better character if he were allowed to show positive character traits, reasons why Kate might have chosen to be his fiancee or special skills that made him valuable to the group. Even having him make valid criticisms of the protagonists’ actions might have helped. In this way, his final betrayal would have seemed less inevitable and more of a heartbreaking experience.
Looking at it another way, some in-story evidence suggests that Ryan may be either brain-damaged or not actually from Earth’s culture. (Seriously, a college student who is unfamiliar with libraries?) If this is the case, he’s less villainous than pitiable. And his reasoning for having sex with Kate shows the perils of abstinence-only sex ed and purity culture–a more streetwise woman than Kate would have noticed how bogus the logic was.
A more excusable flaw is that the protagonists don’t really follow logic chains. They know from repeated experience that Beautiful Home only works when it (or possibly God) wants to, and only shows them what it (or God) thinks they need to see. Yet they constantly worry about the program being abused or falling into the wrong hands. If God is showing Ryan women in their pajamas, then there is obviously some reason why God wants Ryan to see women in their pajamas, and you shouldn’t fault Ryan for that.
But hey, people are illogical like that in real life.
I’m also a little skeptical about exploring the issue of slavery and its ill effects from the point of view of privileged white people (Merri considerably less privileged, of course.) It worries me that the protagonists are surprised by an integrated church in the 21st Century, and that John has never seen a church that allows black people and white people to worship together before.
I see this book was self-published–the author may need a stricter editor to work out some of these problems with.