Thursday, February 10, 2011

Winter Haven, by Athol Dickson (Bethany House)

"Do not seek the truth, and find no evil."

Is there a more spiritually poignant--or intellectually alluring--tagline than this?

So, why Winter Haven? A few words on the story and the writing.

The Story: Winter Haven is a town on an island of the same name slouching listlessly across the Gulf of Maine. Its inhabitants, isolated by fifty miles of seawater from mainstream reality and unimpeded by centuries of somewhere else's progress, defy such progress and create a reality of their own. And they're fine with that. Until one of them places a phone call.

On the surface, Vera Gamble of Dallas, Texas, is unremarkable. A mousy accountant, her self-imposed life of obscurity comprises work, rented movies, frozen pizza and being taken advantage of. And she's fine with that. Until the phone call comes.

Vera's autistic brother, Siggy, missing for thirteen years, has washed up on Winter Haven's shore. On a rare impulse, Vera slips the comfortable prison of her double-deadbolted apartment and ventures to Winter Haven to claim Siggy's body. Immediately, she meets with her first of many shocks on this island full of mysteries. Like Winter Haven, time and distance play tricks on Siggy--he still appears to be the fifteen-year old boy he was when he ran away from home.

So Vera takes her first faltering steps on the road to discovering the truth about Siggy's demise, the island's secrets, but mostly about herself. A collection of quirky townspeople--oh, has Mr. Dickson captured the small-town Mainer!--propel and impede Vera in her quest. She stumbles awkwardly into a mystifying tale of a vanished Pilgrim colony, around the eerie specter of the woman reputed to be the reason for the Pilgrim's plight, through the dusty rooms of a dilapidated mansion from another era, and into the disturbingly enticing arms of handsome Evan Frost, who may not be who he seems to be...or might be who he seems to be...or who he seems to be might not be what she thinks...well, you get the picture.

Oh, and Vera has a few issues of her own, secrets she's suppressed since her childhood. The secrets burst back to the surface of her consciousness, unbidden and unwanted--no, deathly feared--and force her to face the reality of who she is. For Vera, too, has a 'handicap' to deal with, a malady that may just hold the key to her own sanity--just as Siggy's held the key to his.

The Writing: Athol Dickson. 'Nuff said.

Winter Haven is the suspense reader's dream. But it's more than that. Look back up at the tagline. Uh huh, you'll get much more out of it than you expect. If ya pass up this chance for a wicked good read, it'll be yer own fault, ayuh.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Lost Mission, by Athol Dickson (Howard Fiction)

This was remarkable. Just remarkable.

Athol Dickson's writing credentials are impeccable, and one need only read Lost Mission to discover why. Painstakingly researched and masterfully told, the story bookends lives separated by 200 years in time, but intertwined in eternity.

In 1767, Fray Alejandro left his Franciscan monastery in Italy in response to a call to minister to the heathen natives of New Spain. Adventures and misadventures befall the holy man as he strives to establish La Misión de Santa Delores in Alta California with his abbot, Fray Guillermo, and brother priest, Fray Benico. All three padres are forever changed in their endeavor. Fray Alejandro bequeaths an unlikely legacy that changes the lives of all who behold it. Especially four lives in our present day.

Lupe de la Garza of Rincón de Delores, home village to Fray Alejandro in his final days, senses a similar call to witness the Gospel to the lost Americanos north of the border. Carrying Fray Alejandro's legacy in a cloth sack, Lupe sets off on her mission. Enter Ramón Rodriguez, on a quest to earn money for his family and his dream back in Mexico, who leads her into the desert wilderness over the border only then to lose her. Discovered and saved by newly ordained Tucker Rue, himself seeking divine guidance in the solitude of the desert, Lupe joins him in his ministry to the Latinos of Wilson City. Seeking to renew her call to preach to the Americanos, Lupe leaves Tucker's ministry and ends up in the employ of the rich and powerful Delano Wright. The stage is now set.

The lives and fortunes of these four people, who couldn't be farther apart on the spiritual and socio-economic spectrums, become inextricably enmeshed--glued fast by Alejandro's legacy and a mysterious figure who himself spans the centuries. Faith and principle collide with temptation and human weakness with predictable results. Well, maybe not so predictable.

The story reaches its climax when the dormant and lethal specter of the long-lost Misión de Santa Delores arises and engulfs modern-day Alta California as it did in Fray Alejandro's day. Redemption is granted, restitution is exacted, and nothing is left to fate.

There are many lessons we learn from Mr. Dickson skillful pen, perhaps the most notable being that the consequences of our actions, words and even thoughts--good and bad--affect not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us. And yes, even of those who come ages after us, those whom we will never meet this side of eternity.

This is simply a must read for both the story and the storytelling. Like an intricate and costly tapestry, the storyline is illuminated and enhanced by a frame of extraordinary prose. It isn't just a great read, it's an emotional, intellectual and spiritual investment

Less than halfway through Lost Mission, I ordered two more of Mr. Dickson's books. You'll be seeing his name again on this blog.