In the opening pages of POCKETFUL OF PEARLS, Dinah Traynell and over 100 mourners are dressed in black for the funeral of Dinah's father. These people don't wear black just for funerals; they wear black as a part of their religious group, The Elect. The reader enters Dinah's controlled world and the high expectations for behavior of every aspect of her life. Yet something isn't right from the beginning chapter when Dinah slips away to the family barn and vomits her supper to expose her bulimia.
This closed culture around a small town, Hamilton Falls in Washington State, begins to change with an act of kindness to a stranger, Dr. Matthew Nicholas. Like any homeless man, Nicholas, actually a former university literature professor, knocks on the Traynell backdoor and asks for some food. Dinah decides to feed him a day later to hire him to help with work around the farm. The Traynell family is one of the "favored" families in this culture, which means the Shepherd for the flock, Phinehas, often visits the home and stays the night.
These visits from Phinehas trigger Dinah's. Under the cloak of spiritual leadership, Phinehas has consistently sexually abused Dinah since she was fourteen. The life and the secrecy are frightening and Dinah feels like she can't escape.
"After ten years, she [Dinah] still marveled --- in a faint, homeless kind of way --- that no one knew. She had kept their little secret. The ugliness. The pain and degradation. All were locked inside her body with no way out. No way to ask for help. And so. Of course, no one saw --- or wanted to see. No one cared. Not even God."
When Dinah's younger sister becomes pregnant, Tamela is "Silenced" so that no one in the Elect can speak to her for seven years. She leaves the community and has her baby. Suddenly Tamela arrives at the family home with her four-month-old child, Tamsen, and leaves the baby in Dinah's care. Eventually the story reveals that Phinehas is the father of Tamela's child. Later, Dinah learns that Phinehas is more than her sexual abuser. Her mother, Elsie, reveals that the "Shepherd" is Dinah's father. Years earlier, this spiritual leader abused Elsie and she became pregnant with Dinah. The information helps Dinah understand why Elsie's husband allowed Phinehas's continual sexual abuse pattern.
Matthew Nicholas looks homeless but he's actually fleeing a false sexual abuse charge from a student at his university in California. Ultimately he is proven innocent and begins a walking trip. On the trip, Matthew is robbed of his possessions and becomes homeless when he meets Dinah.
Early on in the story, Dinah grows discouraged with life and decides to end her life by drowning in a nearby river. Matthew follows and rescues Dinah. The experience forms a bond of trust, so she confides in him and reveals a part of the culture and lifestyle that no one has ever known. The new relationship gives Dinah someone to help her understand her world and escape the rigid culture. Matthew becomes a friend and listening ear for Dinah so she can flee this toxic church situation. Through displaying a real relationship with Christ, Matthew helps Dinah understand the true spiritual life found in the Bible.
Readers will be lost in the vivid world that Shelley Bates paints with incredible detail and masterful storytelling. Ultimately, through the story, readers learn the distinction between a religious life of rules and a true relationship with Christ. The characters ring with realism in their speech and flawed personalities. The resolutions of the mountain of difficulties will help readers learn how to handle their own struggles.
Reviewed by W. Terry Whalin on November 13, 2011