I hadn’t ever heard of Abide with Me until a friend sent it in the mail, thinking I’d enjoy it. It’s a beautiful book about a pastor whose wife dies, leaving him with two small children.
The opening lines tell you that in the town of West Annett “the winters used to be especially long.” This introduces one of the recurring features of the book: the weather, the seasons, and especially the winter provide more than simply a setting. They almost become a character in their own right.
The book itself is filled with all the stereotypical crap of small-town church folk using the church for self-satisfaction, positioning, and a gossip channel, a situation into which a gifted and idealistic young seminary grad steps for his first call.
The book is laced with Bonhoeffer and hymnody. It’s the kind of work that clearly would repay multiple readings, as the various threads of the story-telling are too rich to be taken in on a first pass (at least, if you read like I do…). Abide with Me does not posses the haunting beauty of Gilead, but is still well worth reading.
The story is one of unraveling. The first 260 of the less than 300 pages are spent descending into a nadir of seemingly irreconcilable antagonism. As the pastor finds himself less and less able to cope with the strain of his loss and the strain his daughters are experiencing, relationships begin to sour and rumors start flying.
Without giving too much away, what made the story for me was the scene in which the story finds its redemption. Honestly, I had gotten to the point with the parishioners that I assumed most of them were beyond redemption and we were going to be left with a huge mess at the end. But Strout puts together a scene that resonates deeply with the sort of redemption scenes Luke constructs for us in Acts: a moment when people look upon the one in whose misery they are complicit and realize that they need forgiveness.
Some of the most penetrating insights come as the story begins to resolve. They include this realization: often it is as hard, if not harder, to receive love as it is to extend it.