Abide With Me
All is not as it appears in 1959 in the small town of West Annett, Maine. Invisible currents beneath the surface sweep through the townspeople, including Reverend Tyler Caskey. His rather flamboyant and controversial wife has died, leaving behind two young daughters. Jeannie, the baby, goes to live with her grandmother but five-year-old Katherine, a troubled child, remains with her father. She doesn't speak, screams for her kindergarten teacher's constant attention, and has no friends.
Although his parishioners look up to him and constantly seek his counsel, Tyler himself has no true friends --- certainly no one with whom to share his daughter's difficulties. When Mary Ingersoll, Katherine's teacher, calls him in to divulge Katherine's problems, Tyler is befuddled. Mary mistakes his confusion for antagonism, and she is quick to confide in other women in town.
Tyler's congregation keeps secrets: a hotel tryst for one member, suspicion of burglary for another, while a third member confides that her husband hits her. Many of the secrets in West Annett are entrusted to Tyler, who earnestly tries to help his flock while protecting their confidences. Tyler himself has secrets, including the beginning of a warm connection between himself and his married housekeeper, Connie Hatch, which has the potential for an eventual genuine friendship. Speaking with Connie becomes more and more a focal point for Tyler to anticipate with pleasure during the course of the day.
Meanwhile, the townswomen gossip about the wild behavior of little Katherine Caskey and the rude behavior of her father during the teacher/parent conference with Mary Ingersoll. Subtly the animosity between Tyler and Mary escalates even as feelings of attraction strengthen between Tyler and Connie.
Tyler's relationship with his stern mother becomes more difficult when he makes plans to bring his baby home to live with him. The two young daughters will be cared for during the day by Connie. Tyler's mother objects, complaining that Connie is uneducated and strange and would be an inappropriate caretaker. She sets Tyler up with a woman she considers a suitable replacement for his wife as simultaneously bizarre circumstances snatch Connie out of reach.
Tyler's life is not what he expected nor could he ever have predicted he'd harbor the kind of dark secret he lives with, as his life crumbles apart around him. Despite his faith, his existence more and more resembles the ramshackle parsonage he lives in --- painted pink inside yet in dire disrepair.
Elizabeth Strout is brilliant at characterization; she strikes no false notes. Tyler Caskey is a richly tormented, many layered, and sympathetic main character. In fact, there is not one shallow stereotype in the entire cast. Her descriptive powers pack a potent wallop. The plot is leisurely, and properly so: a breathlessly fast-paced plot would do a disservice to the subtle personality studies and transformations in ABIDE WITH ME. The story's conclusion is both completely unexpected and utterly satisfying. I highly recommend this powerful, lyrical novel of sorrow, faith and redemption.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on March 13, 2007