It’s spring! Well, kinda. I know a lot of people are still getting wild and crazy weather, but what can you do? Happy Easter or Passover to those who celebrate them, and I hope everyone’s having a great month so far. My son has another four days of Spring Break as of today, and we’ve managed to rest the heck out of this week. It’s a real good feeling. Now, on to today’s review…
As a Christian, I want to put good things in my head, and Philippians 4:8 is the yardstick I try my best to live by. When it comes to Christian fiction, though, particularly if it’s set in the present day, I tend to back away slowly. It’s not that all Christian fiction is terrible, and it definitely isn’t (Frank Peretti creams Stephen King in my opinion, thank you very much), but some of it just doesn’t come off very well. I’m thinking of chick-lit especially. Most Christian chick-lit tries too hard to be quirky, or hip, or squeaky-clean, and either way a lot of it seems unrelatable.
Neta Jackson’s Yada Yada Prayer Group series is one of the major exceptions, though. The ongoing story of a diverse group of women who met at the Chicago Women’s Conference, Yada Yada is not only realistic but unusual in Christian chick-lit. Characters mess up, they feel inadequate, they have to deal with issues such as AIDS and racism, and that’s just for starters. Most of all, these women come together to pray for each other. The books are so successful that they have inspired real-life Yada Yada Prayer Groups around the United States, and the series has been repackaged more than once, such as the “Celebration” editions, which feature recipes. Jackson has also written a spin-off series and several stand-alone novels, one of which is Stand By Me.
The narrative is divided between Avis Douglass, principal of Bethune Elementary, and Kat Davies, graduate student at Chicago Crista University. These two ladies couldn’t be more different. Avis is formerly a widow who married her husband’s old friend, Peter. She’s also a grandmother and a worship leader at SouledOut Community Church. Avis is a classic strong woman who seems to be very together. In reality, though, Avis has lots of worries. She worries about her school possibly closing, and about the teachers and students who may be displaced. She also worries about her daughter, Rochelle, who is HIV-positive and mother to a little boy, Conny. Rochelle comes around now and then asking for money or to crash at Avis and Peter’s condo. Peter isn’t too happy about this idea because he thinks it enables Rochelle’s flaky behavior, but Avis wants desperately to help her daughter and grandson find stability.
Meanwhile, Kat is a pre-med student-turned education major who transfers to Crista from the University of Arizona on a whim, much to her parents’ chagrin. She’s already gotten her master’s degree and is staying in Chicago over the summer to take a concentrated Spanish language course because she wants to work in urban environments. Kat is a very take-charge kind of lady, rather chatty, and slightly arrogant. Food issues are so important to her that she only eats in the university dining hall under protest. She makes a habit of rescuing discarded groceries from the local Dominick’s. Kat gets bent out of shape when she sees kids eating potato chips on their way to school at seven in the morning. She’s so impulsive that one of her professors tells her, “Talk less. Listen more.” which Kat thinks is advice fit for a child. However, Kat means well, and she’s chomping at the bit to help people and do good wherever she can.
Avis and Kat’s worlds collide when Kat and her three friends, Livie, Nick, and Brygitta make plans to get an apartment together and really experience Chicago. Lo and behold, Avis’s downstairs neighbors, the Candys, are going to be in Costa Rica and need to sublet their unit while they’re gone. Kat, of course, jumps at the idea, and her friends aren’t too hard to persuade, either. Peter and Avis are less than thrilled about the idea of four college students moving in downstairs, because of typical college kid foibles like loud noises at all hours. However, since Kat and Company have started going to SouledOut, Peter and Avis bite the bullet and put in a good word for them with the Candys. It’s only for three months after all, right?
Heh. The Douglasses and the four college students being neighbors turns out the be the easy part of Stand By Me. In fact, the situation is downright sedate, with the exception of one quick incident when Nick plugs in his speakers and scares everyone in the building. The hard stuff comes in when Pastor Clark, longtime clergy of many of the characters, keels over during a sermon and dies of a massive heart attack. This throws the church into turmoil, as there’s now a shortage of leadership. Pastor Cobb, the remaining clergyman, asks Avis and Peter to be co-interim pastors, since they are so active and well-known to the congregation anyway. The Douglasses hesitate, not only because Avis and Peter are already in leadership positions at their jobs, but Avis has overheard two women talking in the restroom about the church becoming “too black.” Plus, they have been asked by a couple they know in South Africa to come over and work at their mission for women suffering from AIDS.
On her end, Kat experiences some great blows to her confidence and preconceived notions. She jumps in and gives Pastor Clark CPR when he collapses, and then worries that she didn’t keep going long enough or do it properly. She continues checking the Dominick’s dumpster for cast-off items, but a young woman chews her out for taking food away from people who really need it. Interestingly enough, Kat had seen this same young woman hanging around the entrance to Avis and Peter’s three-flat, only she takes off running when Kat starts asking questions. Kat also has her ideas shaken up about Christianity–she thought it was just a cultural thing and she certainly admired Christians, but as far as the personal commitment part went, she had no clue. It’s no surprise that the influence of the SouledOut congregation helps her change her mind very quickly, and not through any kind of coercion or struggle. She just gets it. The other big thing with Kat is once she relaxes, she’s able to see what people actually need as opposed to what she thinks they need, and this allows her to play a key role in helping some of the other characters heal. In the end, it allows Kat to heal from something she’s been hiding as well.
Just as I did with the other Yada Yada novels, I devoured Stand By Me–it’s riveting. Neta Jackson is terrific at making characters who are engaging and intriguing, even if they aren’t necessarily likable. The meaner ones, too, have chinks in their armor to be discovered and peered through. Having said that, the only thing that bugged me about the book was the title, which may make people think of that famous ditty from the sixties, or like my husband, a certain movie that shall remain unelaborated upon. It fits, but it’s a little bit confusing. The other thing is, since Jackson is working with known settings and characters, the story may mean more to those who are familiar with the original Yada Yada books. However, there’s ample background given, so newbies can still enjoy Stand By Me. I highly recommend it.