The only disappointment readers will have with Philip Gulley's ALMOST FRIENDS is that it completes the Harmony series. Say it isn't so! This last installment stays true to the previous books --- chock full of dry wit and the small-town foibles of churchgoers, and permeated throughout with Gulley's own theology, which he co-writes about in his nonfiction books (IF GRACE IS TRUE and IF GOD IS LOVE).
Reader caveat: If you haven't read the Harmony series before, stop here and begin with book one, HOME TO HARMONY. This sixth full-length novel in the series (there are also some short novellas, including THE CHRISTMAS SCRAPBOOK) will be much more enjoyable if you've read the first.
Quaker pastor Sam Gardner is entering his sixth year at Harmony Friends Meeting in the small town of Harmony, Indiana, and he's ready for a sabbatical. "Sam was genuinely fond of the lost. It was the folks who were found who taxed his patience." The irrepressible Dale Hinshaw is a perennial burr in the saddle for Sam, this time as Chief Evangelist at Harmony Friends Meeting, "unleashing a series of events not even the most clairvoyant among them could have anticipated, trials that would test Sam to the core and find him sadly lacking." Dale, Gulley reminds us, once erected signs throughout Harmony in the Burma Shave tradition: "Go to church and learn to pray, Or when you die, there's hell to pay." Now, Dale's new "scripture greetings" recorded telephone messages are programmed to wake up townfolks in the middle of the night, inciting a near-riot in Harmony that Sam has to negotiate.
When Sam's father has a heart attack, Sam petitions for three months off to care for him. A new female pastor, Krista Riley, takes the church while he's gone and works her way into the hearts of the congregation. This provides Gulley an opening to look at the issues of gender and ordination. Through flashback chapters, we learn that Krista has grown up in the Catholic Church and once longed to be a priest. (Her parents had encouraged her that she could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up, but as Gulley says, they hadn't counted on this). Krista discovers that she might fit in with the Quakers, who have a shorter and quicker list of requirements than the Presbyterians and the Methodists for ordination. Or, as Gulley notes, the Quakers are "fewer in number and desperate for new members."
As Krista's no-nonsense approach and genuine love for her congregation earns her plenty of respectful and enthusiastic supporters, Sam finds himself battling jealousy. Krista has even laid hands on Fern Hampton and seemingly cured her warts! Old parishioners who had left the congregation (including the Harry Darnell family, after losing a "scorching debate over the proper color for pew cushions") are coming back. Even Sam's kids, Levi and Addison, like the new pastor.
But rumors begin swirling around Krista after she's spotted --- gasp! --- holding another woman's hand. Is she gay? After all, she isn't married and doesn't have a boyfriend. How will the small town of Harmony respond? Gulley tackles the issue of homosexuality as perceived by the church, as well as the challenges of forgiveness and the destructive power of wrong assumptions. What will keep readers who disagree with Gulley's theology turning the pages is his delightful dead-on portrayal of small town life, particularly the oddities of small town church life.
The relationships of sons and fathers is another subtheme in the book that offers a mostly lighter note. Sam and his mother are soon exhausted after his father's heart bypass operation, as his dad barks orders, "booting Sam outside to pull weeds and ordering Gloria to the Kroger to buy more Cheetos and Dr. Pepper." However, almost losing his father helps Sam rethink his own priorities as a dad and as a son.
Although this is the last installment of the series, readers will hope Gulley won't leave fiction for good. His novels are just plain fun, and the fiction world will be a little emptier without the continuing small-town antics of the good folks of Harmony.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on June 27, 2006