In 1961, when Amazing Grace Jansen, a firecracker from Appalachia, meets Mary Elizabeth Cox, the daughter of a Black southern preacher, at Kentucky’s Berea College, they already carry the scars and traces of their mothers’ troubles. Poor and single, Maze’s mother has had to raise her daughter alone and fight to keep a roof over their heads. Mary Elizabeth’s mother has carried a shattering grief throughout her life, a loss so great that it has disabled her and isolated her stern husband and her brilliant, talented daughter.
The caution this has scored into Mary Elizabeth has made her defensive and too private and limited her ambitions, despite her gifts as a musician. But Maze’s earthy fearlessness might be enough to carry them both forward toward lives lived bravely in an angry world that changes by the day.
Both of them are drawn to the enigmatic Georginea Ward, an aging idealist who taught at Berea sixty years ago, fell in love with a black man, and suddenly found herself renamed as a sister in a tiny Shaker community. Sister Georgia believes in discipline and simplicity, yes. But, more important, her faith is rooted in fairness and the long reach of unconditional love.
This is a novel about three generations of women and the love that makes families where none can be expected.
A few weeks ago I read In Hovering Flight also by Joyce Hinnefeld. My review is here. I really loved that book, so I was excited to read this one as well. Stranger Here Below, was pretty good, but it didn't grab me the same way as In Hovering Flight did.
This book was told through a variety of flashbacks of various characters. It focused on the women in the lives of Maze and Mary Elizabth and their histories. It was generally an easy to follow method of telling the story, but I'll admit at times I'd get a little lost and have to backtrack to figure out who I was reading about.
Joyce Hinnefeld has a very lovely writing style and she is excellent with her descriptions. It was so easy to picture the college and the Shaker village in my mind. I wanted to go visit and check it out myself. I was surprised to learn so much about the Shakers reading this book. I guess I didn't know as much about them as I thought.
This book was recently released on September 28th. I'd recommend reading it, maybe with the word of caution to pay attention to the chapter beginnings so you don't get confused like I did. This would make a very good book club book. I think it would spark a lot of discussion.