It's always a relief when a new installment in a well-loved series continues to engage you. So Yada Yada fans, rejoice! THE YADA YADA PRAYER GROUP GETS TOUGH, the fourth book in the series, is an engaging, thought-provoking follow-up to THE YADA YADA PRAYER GROUP GETS REAL.
It's been a year now since the Yada Yada gals --- as "diverse as a bag of Jelly Bellies" --- first had that momentous Chicago prayer meeting. Much has changed. Yo-Yo Spencer "got dunked," as did Becky Wallace, the heroin junkie who had robbed the Yada Yada group at knifepoint in THE YADA YADA PRAYER GROUP GETS DOWN. Becky is living with Leslie "Stu" Steward under house arrest, in an apartment right over Jodi and Denny Baxter's house. Avis Johnson is happily married to Peter Douglass, and Nonyameko Sisulu-Smith and her husband Mark, a history professor at Northwestern University, are headed for Africa to do AIDS work while he is on sabbatical. Delores Enriques worries over her husband's latest exploits, while Chanda George buys a new house with her lottery winnings in a neighborhood that may be less welcoming of her race than she realizes. Edesa Reyes, an African-Honduran woman, has a surprising new love interest. Less mention goes to the Jewish couple, Ruth Garfield and her husband Ben, Florida Hickman, Adele Skuggs, and Hoshi Takahashi. With all these characters to keep track of, it's good that Neta Jackson focuses on just a few.
Meanwhile Jodi still battles guilt over the accident that cost her young student's brother his life. She's also worried about her two children, whose budding romantic relationships with non-whites will make her rethink racial reconciliation in a new and personal way. The younger generation (children of the Yada Yada's) seem to despair over making a difference in the way whites and non-whites get along: "Nothing will ever be different." And even the New Morning Christian Church and Uptown members can't seem to make Sunday morning work as a gathering between those of different races. Jackson shows that only prayer --- and God --- offers any hope for lasting change.
THE YADA YADA PRAYER GROUP GETS TOUGH seems heavily influenced by the tragic racially motivated slaying of former Northwestern University head basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong, a friend of the Jackson family (the book is dedicated to his memory). Byrdsong, an African-American, was murdered in a drive-by shooting by a white supremacist near his home in Evanston, Illinois, in 1999. At the time, Neta and her husband Dave were writing a book with Byrdsong (COACHING YOUR KIDS IN THE GAME OF LIFE). For those who read this novel and are interested in further information on white supremacist groups, the Jacksons have also penned NO RANDOM ACT, a nonfiction book that investigates the white supremacist group that spawned Byrdsong's killer.
With this event in mind, Jackson seems to step up her themes of forgiveness and racial reconciliation that run through the previous books, and addresses the paralyzing fear that sometimes plagues believers. The danger here is that issue-driven faith fiction often becomes didactic. Jackson avoids this problem because readers of the series are already engaged with her charming cast of characters and interested in how they will develop as much as they are interested in the plot of the story.
What Jackson also does well that other faith fiction novelists often neglect is to ensure that her characters --- both Christian and non-Christian --- come across as fully dimensional. The Baxter kids aren't perfect, and neither is the Baxter's marriage. A white supremacist is shown as a hurting person rather than a caricature. Jodi wrestles with things she knows she should do as a Christian but would rather not do (or can't seem to find time to do). Conversion doesn't mean instantaneous and complete change (as with Becky); rather, it's a new beginning with a lot of backsliding.
Those who want to further their prayer lives as a result of the books may also want to investigate THE YADA YADA PRAYER JOURNAL, 60 daily devotions with excerpts from the novels. There's also a guide included for starting a prayer group.
If you haven't picked up the first three books in the series, don't start with this one. Despite the summary in the first chapter, too many things have happened in the previous installments to make this read well as a stand-alone. Instead, begin with THE YADA YADA PRAYER GROUP and read them in order. You'll want to read them all!
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on October 4, 2005