Eight-year-old Mark Cloud's family moves from Fort Worth to Ohio just when California's flower children are spreading their message of peace and love throughout the country and beyond. It's a challenging time for the whole nation --- and for Mark, whose Texas upbringing did little to prepare him for the hippies he observes, the black neighbor he befriends, or the homeless woman he meets.
The woman, whom Mark dubs the Creature, makes curious and disturbing comments that keep him coming back for more. In a lucid moment, she tells him a chilling story that will have ramifications throughout his adolescence --- even after his family moves once again, this time back to Texas and the tiny community of Fred. By now, though, Mark is a preteen who has adopted the clothing style of Ohio's hippies, something that does not set well with the jeans-and-cowboy-boots crowd in his new school.
Mark makes periodic stabs at trying to fit in, even to the point of using less-than-perfect grammar. But as a PK (preacher's kid), the situation at times looks pretty hopeless, even after he converts to denim. Worst of all, he begins to question the very existence of God, placing him squarely in no-man's land, a place right smack between the world and the kingdom. The clouds part and the sun breaks through, though, when his father announces that the family will take a summer vacation to California, the Mecca of Mystical Hipness, the place where Mark is sure he'll find the answers to all those adolescent questions that plague him.
What ensues is a comedy of errors, the kind of car trip that makes participating parents ask each other, "What were we thinking?" There are the usual car problems that become unusual in a PK's world and strange encounters with even stranger people. And Mark's father's unwavering trust in the professional courtesy of one clergyman to another results in a priceless visit with "Elder Nelson." Finally, the family reaches California --- where an unlikely link to the Creature jolts Mark out of his state of spiritual uncertainty, and where he also discovers his true identity as a pale and skinny kid from East Texas.
Brad Whittington writes like he knows his stuff, and well he should --- his parents even attest to the semi-autobiographical nature of WELCOME TO FRED. His inability to fit in rings true on so many levels. Only a PK can reveal how it feels to be treated differently and to have a different set of expectations placed on you simply because of your father's (or mother's) occupation as a pastor. Only someone who has struggled with the more difficult questions of faith --- and the more difficult people of faith --- can write with such candor about one boy's efforts to come to terms with the foundations of Christian belief. And only someone who has felt like a misfit could write in such authentic detail about what it's like to have a psychedelic spirit in a country-western culture.
What elevates this book above others of its kind --- if in fact there are others of its kind in the Christian market --- is Whittington's ability not only to create believable, well-rounded characters but also to give them believable, well-rounded dialogue to work with. Getting both the characterization and the dialogue right seems to be a rarity. But Whittington proves himself to be well in control of both, and his attention to detail is superb.
Shortly after its release, a Broadman & Holman editor told a group of writers that they should use Whittington's book as a model for the quality the publisher is looking for in future novels. That's a good sign, because WELCOME TO FRED is among those recent fiction releases in the Christian market that have raised the bar, which in turn will force authors to produce higher-quality work.
WELCOME TO FRED is a highly enjoyable read, one that is likely to resonate particularly with those who survived a '60s adolescence.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on April 1, 2003