While Senter demonstrates a deft hand with his milieu, capturing with persuasive nuance the texture and drift of mind of both the Ozarks and megachurch world, the most vital aspect of this book is the characterization of Ruth herself. The reader witnesses her at her most vulnerable, and it’s satisfying to see her begin to find her voice, confronting Sam for his actions or chastising the townspeople sticking their noses into her business. Her potential liberation, though, is weighted by a lifetime of belief about all that a wife and woman should be, and Senter touchingly dramatizes the pain of suddenly facing doubt.
The prose is crisp and engaging, alive with observations that ring true: “Sam smiled his ‘Jesus smile,’ as Ruth secretly called it, and invited the reporter into the church for service.” Senter frankly handles physical intimacy, including the complexity of Sam’s sexuality, digging deeply into Ruth’s feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and, ultimately, confidence, as a woman and as a mother. Senter’s interest is cross-generational, as Ruth’s defiantly feminist mother assails Ruth’s faith, and Ruth and Sam’s daughter feels her own erotic longings. “Do I need to ask God to forgive me?” she asks Ruth late in the book, and the answer is honest, hard-won, and well worth reading.
Takeaway: A pained, probing novel about a wife facing her beliefs after her preacher husband cheats.
Great for fans of: Kelsey McKinney’s God Spare the Girls, Monica West’s Revival Season.
Design and typography: A-
Marketing copy: A
Ruth and her pastor husband have moved mountains to build a megachurch empire, but in Heaven & Earth, the mountain has just erupted in a big way. This results in a scandal that leads to their exile from their own creation and community as they flee into the backwoods milieu of a small Missouri farm.
Her husband's betrayal has not only shaken the foundations of their church and belief, but causes Ruth to veer from her own preset course in life as a beloved pastor's wife, leading her to question virtually everything she's believed about her world. Well known for her inner wisdom and ability to save others, Ruth must now train her light on a mission that is perhaps impossible—saving her family and herself. The cost of that venture may be greater than the alternatives of divorce or remaining married.
Joshua Senter presents a multifaceted story that questions a diverse set of notions about how the world operates, from opinions about homosexuality and marriage to a man who proves to be very different than the façade she's accepted all these years.
One of the strengths of this novel lies in Ruth's revelations about the illusions and truths in her entire life, which are portrayed in such evocative language that readers are drawn to her dilemma:
"As for heaven, now that Ruth stared once more into the reality of its existence, she wondered what was perfection without imperfection? What was glory without defeat? What was light without darkness? What was happiness if you couldn’t compare it to sorrow? She knew these questions would be heresy if anyone saw them flickering in her mind, especially the two people sitting next to her in the aseptic waiting room, but Ruth couldn’t keep her thoughts from bursting forth any more than she could stop the morning sun from rising outside the hospital windows. A Savior. A God. Angels. Mansions. Crowns of glory. Streets made of gold. These are the ideals of a ten-year-old child who also believes in unicorns and fairytale endings and needs something to distract herself from the realities of life dawning on her."
Ruth's process of growth mirrors many paths in life which create set courses and then are diverted by circumstances which introduce different realities and events to challenge seemingly-solid foundations.
As she and her family attempt to forge a new life and face difficult decisions that change everything they've believed in, Ruth discovers that even she can continue moving onward and upward, even though everything she knew to be solid truth is shaken by her revelations about her world.
Heaven & Earth is outstanding in its evocative probe of this process. It's a novel highly recommended not just for libraries and individuals seeking stories of spiritual and psychological growth, but for book clubs examining women's lives and issues, religious lives and mindsets, and the heart of family changes that reach out to touch all with the promise of change and transformation.