Is it possible to forgive those who are unable to ask for forgiveness? Can the hurts of our childhood be redeemed? Can we ever sacrifice too much?
Charles Martin tackles deep questions like these in his sophomore stand-alone novel, WRAPPED IN RAIN. As he did in his debut novel, THE DEAD DON'T DANCE, Martin masterfully blends lovely prose, interesting characters, well-integrated faith themes, and a moving plot to create a powerful story that will linger long in the reader's mind after the last page is turned.
In rural Alabama, two abused boys find their only comfort and hope in the 45-year-old childless widow Miss Ella Rain, the only daughter of the son of an Alabama slave. She stands as a solid force between them and their evil, alcoholic, and wealthy father Rex. Beaten bloody by her boss and paid only minimum wage, she sacrifices her own aspirations and dreams to ensure that both Tucker and his half-brother, Matthew ("Mutt"), know they are loved.
Despite her best efforts, the boys' relationship with their father leaves terrible scars. Long after Miss Ella has died and Tucker has found fame as an international photographer, his bitterness toward his father makes it nearly impossible for him to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.
Thirty-three-year-old Mutt is now a schizophrenic, obsessive-compulsive paralyzed with fear at the thought of contact with germs, and committed by Tucker into a mental health facility, Spiraling Oaks. Mutt tries to scrub out his past failings by scouring everything around him clean with bleach and Windex --- cars, water towers, houses, his room at Spiraling Oaks. Kudos goes to Martin for his handling of the damaged character of Mutt, who evokes disgust, fear, sympathy, and finally deep compassion.
Tucker and Mutt's lives are about to intersect with their childhood friend Katie, now an abused wife fleeing her husband, and mother of the endearing little boy Jase. The relationship between Tucker and Katie unfolds sweetly and slowly. Wisely, Martin resists the need to tie up all the loose ends of their relationship, which has grown more complicated by the book's end. He leaves it in a strong moment --- with a love on Tucker's part that eerily echoes the sacrificial love of Miss Ella. And indeed, the ghostly voice of Miss Ella, speaking in italics to Tucker, is never too far away. "Forgive men and your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you don't, you're the one who will suffer."
Martin has a lovely way with words, thought sometimes a bit long-winded: "South of Jacksonville, the river's waist bulges to three miles wide, sparking little spurs or creeks peopled by barnacled marinas and long-established fish camps where the people are good and most of their stories are as winding as the river." In his hands, even a description of the residents of Spiraling Oaks and their medications reads like poetry: "Only a handful were ingesting lithium plus three. These were the lifers. The go-figures. The no-hopers. The why-were-they-borns."
Readers will have a few quibbles. Martin's greatest strength --- his characters --- is also his greatest weakness. He takes delight in drawing them for us, right down to the smallest detail, and the results are often rich, vivid, and compelling. We come to know them intimately --- what motivates them, what their dreams are --- and we care about the outcome of their stories. However, the descriptions of minor characters, such as Missy and Bessie, often get more than their rightful share of page space and description, which slows the story. In his attempt to portray the evil Rex, Martin overdraws him in a way that strains credibility. Readers also will find an occasional contradiction (the "wait time" at Clark's seafood restaurant "never dipped under an hour," yet later, characters are seated in 20 minutes).
But these are small problems. Martin's tremendous talent is evident throughout, as he shows the power of forgiveness and of sacrifice. The choices to do both are presented as painfully difficult, counter-intuitive --- but possible. And that is the beauty of WRAPPED IN RAIN --- that we can make these choices, if we dare let go of our bitterness, our anger, and our grief over the hurts of the past.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on January 24, 2011
Wrapped in Rain: A Novel of Coming Home