Book Review: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: A South Dakota Country School Experience

Book Review: A South Dakota Country School Experience by William E. Lass

By happy coincidence, shortly after finishing my review of a school book used in South Dakota country schools, I have found a book about being a student in one of those schools.

A South Dakota Country School Experience

Mr. Lass is a historian who attended eight grades at Emmett School in Union County, in the southeastern portion of South Dakota, during the 1930s.  (He wound up teaching history in Mankato, Minnesota for many years.)  While much of the book talks about his personal experiences, he also consulted historical records for the school and county to provide context.

The book is divided thematically, rather than chronologically, starting with a physical description of the school, then students, teachers and what they did there.  While some of Mr. Lass’ experiences are unique, Emmett School was fairly typical of a rural school of the time, and those who shared that education will no doubt be able to relate.  (He doesn’t seem to have had trouble with rattlesnakes, which were a problem in my mother’s area of South Dakota.)

It appears to have been plenty tough for teachers at these schools, teaching eight grades in the same room and trying to keep all the children busy!  For $585 a year, no less.

The book is handsomely bound and has some color illustrations, as well as black and white photos.  The language in most of the chapters isn’t too difficult, and could easily be read by a bright fourth-grader on up; the epilogue has more difficult vocabulary and is rather bittersweet.  There are reference notes and a list of suggested further reading for the serious scholar.

This would make a good gift for an older relative who went to a country school themselves, or has an interest in South Dakota, but also should be shared with younger readers to show them how school was done in their great-grandparents’ day.    Consider purchasing it directly from the publisher, Minnesota Heritage Publishing.  Highly recommended.

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