Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Bone Box, by Bob Hostetler (Howard Books)

(click cover for more information)

Rather than keep you in suspense of the inevitable, I’m going to begin my review of Bob Hostetler’s The Bone Box with a digression. That’ll get it out of the way up front.

One of the great things about Biblical fiction is that it allows us the freedom to examine the record in greater detail than what Scripture often actually gives us. However, that’s a two-edged sword. On one edge, there’s a danger of the writer weaving his own agenda into the Biblical record and straining, sometimes to the breaking point, reasonable inference (witness accusations against Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code).

On the other edge, through careful research and skillful storytelling, the author can present angles on events and people that are entirely plausible and in keeping with the Scriptural account, but lend a novel (pun intended) perspective on them. In doing so, she offers something perhaps we hadn’t thought of before. The unexpected inference—or ‘twist’—not only enhances the entertainment value (see my February 11th post), but can also broaden our spiritual horizons.

The latter requires intellectual honesty. The former requires…well, nothing to commend. Happily for us, Mr. Hostetler’s The Bone Box is guilty of the latter and not the former.

Dr. Randall Bullock is an archaeologist who has pretty much mucked up his personal life in deference to his professional one. Recently widowed, Dr. Bullock tries to put himself back on an even keel by immersing himself in a new dig outside Jerusalem. When a construction project collapses an ancient tomb nearby, he is offered the opportunity to solo the project to examine its contents before having to turn them over to the Antiquities Authority. He discovers no less than the ossuary (bone box) containing the remains of one Joseph bar Caiaphas. Yup, the same Caiaphas who presided over Christ’s trial. In the ossuary is a small scroll, the contents of which cast a stunning light on the events of over two thousand years ago.

Enter daughter Tracy, recently expelled from college, who shows up in Israel in search of a father she barely knows—and respects even less—due to his absence from all the significant events of her life, including the death of her mother. They both embark on an awkward road of attempted reconciliation, which comes at a particularly difficult time as the demands of this momentous archaeological discovery pull at her father’s attentions. Just like before. Just like always.

Interspersed with Dr. Bullock’s story are flashbacks to the first century ad, with Caiaphas playing the central role. From his installation as Kohen haGadol (the High Priest), through the preaching of John the Baptist, to Jesus’ trial, Caiaphas is shown in a very interesting light—and as the subject of a most fascinating twist. I don’t think you’re going to anticipate this one.

Mr. Hostetler’s careful research is evident throughout the story. You’ll learn loads about modern and ancient Israel through the pages of The Bone Box. The only possible criticism I could offer to the author’s technique might be the reliance of side narratives to enlighten the reader on Hebrew history and culture. Perhaps more of the education could have been interwoven into the story. For example, Dr. Bullock could have presented some of the facts in dialog with Tracy (or other similar exchanges), thereby educating the reader through the action of the story instead of digressive explanations, which, I felt, pulled me away from the story a little more often than I would like to have been pulled. But don’t let that dissuade you. The tale and the education are well worth the ride.

Mr. Hostetler’s skill at storytelling is just as evident. He mixes intrigue, suspense, pathos and even romance wonderfully in a tale that tackles a well worn story in a fresh and meaningful way. Oh, and what becomes of this discovery that has such crucial historical and theological significance? Well, that’s Mr. Hostetler’s point. Read the book. He relates it much better than I ever could.

Final thought: I note on the title pages of my own works of Biblical fiction the following: “It has been the author’s intent to remain as true to the Biblical account as possible, filling in additional events, descriptions and characters where Scripture permits to accommodate the story line. Such extra-Biblical references are products of the author’s own imagination and are not intended to represent any persons, living or dead.” It, I believe, should be a goal of every author of Biblical fiction that their work would motivate the reader to delve back into the Bible (cf. Acts 17:11). There, fact will be separated from fiction, and the lesson can be applied against the Authoritative record.

Fortunately, (at the risk of putting words in his mouth) it appears Mr. Hostetler shares the above sentiment. The Bone Box was a real pleasure to read. Entertaining, thought-provoking, real, and honest. A great blend of historical and contemporary fiction that really means something.

Yup, highly recommended.

Thanks, Mr. Hostetler.


Anonymous said...

From reading the title, seeing the cover's picture, and reading the back of the book, I normally wouldn't pick a book like this to read. However, your description of the book adds a lot to it! I am truly interested in reading this book now. Thanks for the review!

Bruce Judisch said...

Thanks, Jennifer. It's quite good. Being a historical fiction buff, I'm drawn to this type of thing, but often (as I indicate in the write-up) an author will go too far outside the box to throw in a twist that just denies the Biblical record. Then, as far as I'm concerned, they're only looking for a cheap marketing gimmic (or they truly don't understand their Scripture). This book has a really interesting twist, but nowhere outside the realm of possibility.

You might give it a shot (after you've crawled through all the books you mentioned are already on your nightstand).

Cheers! Bruce