In a word, this book is inspirational. The tone is evident even in the book's packaging: its beach-sunrise jacket photo and its airy page design. If you need an emotional lift --- or know someone who does --- FIRSTLIGHT will provide it.
Over her writing career of nearly 30 years, Sue Monk Kidd has endeared herself to two audiences. First, to readers of Guideposts magazine and devotionals, for which she wrote very concrete, first-person, anecdotal narratives. A sample: "Late one winter night it snows in South Carolina. When the sun comes up, a dazzling white quilt lays across our small backyard.
" 'Oh-h-h, Mommy.' In the bedroom both children cling to the windowsill speechless. It is their first snow…"
In memoirs published from 1988 to 1997, her spiritual journey reflected a more contemplative outlook and eventually a feminist theology that endeared a different readership. Then her fiction (THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and THE MERMAID CHAIR) turned her and her unorthodox characters into conversational centerpieces all around town, coast to coast.
Now here's the trick. Can this new collection of "early writings" bridge her two audiences? I say yes, assuming a reader is not scouring for theological tenets but for feel-good inspiration that encourages faith in a slightly vague Divine.
Many of the untitled selections within the book's 13 chapters are from Guideposts publications, anecdotes about childhood, motherhood, marriage and Sue's early nursing career. But it seems that most of the chapter topics (with titles such as "Awareness," "Solitude," "Simplicity of Spirit" and "Gracious Space") are grounded in essays that are more reflective than anecdotal. A sample from the first chapter, titled "The Crucible of Story": "The inner story creates identity, transforming our vision of who we are. Creating story is an act of self-knowing…Knowing who I am hinges on remembering who I have been in the past and embracing the hope of who I may be in the future."
It's a different kind of writing --- less personal, less concrete. But the complementary styles work well together, the anecdotes illustrating the reflective points.
In the introduction, Sue explains how she warmed up to the idea of compiling these writings that are foundational to her spiritual and literary journey. At first she was hesitant: "I wanted to be read and known for who I am now." But eventually: "Opening myself to the creation of this book, so aptly titled FIRSTLIGHT, became an unexpected act of reclamation…a bridge…a gift of reunion."
My favorite piece in the book is a short "Availability" anecdote, recounting a visit to a homeless shelter and Sue's conversation with James, a resident who eagerly shows her his "book" --- a scrapbook featuring worthless incidentals (a restaurant napkin, a calendar, a few autographs) that "represented James's list of blessings. Blessings he read and reread."
Just as you, or I, might read and reread Sue Monk Kidd's FIRSTLIGHT.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on October 10, 2006