21 March 2015

On Shifting Sand by Allison Pittman

Long before anyone would christen it "The Dust Bowl," Nola Merrill senses the destruction. She's been drying up bit by bit since the day her mother died, leaving her to be raised by a father who withholds his affection the way God keeps a grip on the Oklahoma rain. A hasty marriage to Russ, a young preacher, didn't bring the escape she desired. Now, twelve years later with two children to raise, new seeds of dissatisfaction take root.

When Jim, a mysterious drifter and long-lost friend from her husband's past, takes refuge in their home, Nola slowly springs to life under his attentions until a single, reckless encounter brings her to commit the ultimate betrayal of her marriage. For months Nola withers in the wake of the sin she so desperately tries to bury. Guilt and shame consume her physically and spiritually, until an opportunity arises that will bring the family far from the drought and dust of Oklahoma. Or so she thinks. As the storms follow, she is consumed with the burden of her sin and confesses all, hoping to find Russ's love strong enough to stand the test.

Before picking up On Shifting Sand, I hadn’t read anything from Allison Pittman, and I have to say, this novel definitely surprised me. I am a huge fan of historical fiction, so the Dust-Bowl setting uniquely captured my imagination and fascinated me. Then, within this harsh and desolate environment, Nola narrates her story as a clearly flawed and easily unlikable character. Given this narrator, her first-person narration and the general content, On Shifting Sand was at times a bit of a challenge to keep reading - but still, as a story of sin, guilt, forgiveness and love, it ended as an interesting read for me and I am glad to have read it. I look forward to reading more from Allison Pittman in the future.

Thanks to Tyndale BlogNetwork, I received a copy of On Shifting Sand and the opportunity to provide an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review, and all the opinions I have expressed are my own.

Q&A with the Author
Award-winning author Allison Pittman has penned more than twelve novels, including her series set in the Roaring Twenties – All for a Song, All for a Story and All for a Sister. Allison resides in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Mike, their three sons, and the canine star of the family – Stella. Visit her at her website.

1. What inspired you to write On Shifting Sand?
This is always the hardest question to answer. I loved writing about the dynamics of marriage with my Sister Wife series. But then, a story of a marriage needs conflict, and I’ve yet to see a CBA novel really tackle the idea of adultery in a way that showed it to be a conscientious, willful sin, disassociated from the circumstances of the marriage, or the relationship between the husband and wife. Too often, it was a backstory to justify a divorced character. Or it was a series of close calls, but never fully realized. I wanted to portray it as sin. Pure and simple, but unique in the fact that it reaches beyond the sinner, and carries with it a risk in confession. And then, I wanted to write a story that follows through a journey of restoration – not simply coming back to Christ, but coming back to life. It took a bit for all the pieces to come together, and so many of them weren’t discovered until I was buried in the story. More than any of my books, inspiration for this story came bit by bit.

2. The story is written from the perspective of Nola Merrill, who finds herself in an adulterous relationship. Why did you decide to write the story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator?
I think we are all unreliable narrators in our own lives, especially when it comes to facing our sin. We justify our sin, proclaim ourselves victims, assign blame and downplay responsibility. We can bury ourselves so deeply in guilt, we’re blind to the idea of redemption, so we ignore what God tells us about confession and grace and mercy. We lie to ourselves the same way Nola lies to herself – and, thereby, to the readers. I have no doubt this character will make readers uncomfortable. She made me uncomfortable. They are going to be frustrated with her choices, disappointed by her actions, but I’m OK with that. I think Nola is the realest character I’ve ever created.

3. Why did you decide to set the story during The Dust Bowl?
When I knew I was going to write a story about adultery, I was determined not to have the adultery resulting from any shortfalls in the characters’ marriage. No neglect, no alienated affection – none of the usual internal problems that might lead a wife to make the choices Nola makes. I needed an external enemy. The Dust Bowl gave me that. The circumstances made it impossible for a woman to fulfill her traditional role of keeping a clean home. The poverty of the Depression made it difficult for her to feed and care for her family. All of that chips away at Nola’s sense of self-worth, and makes her vulnerable to anything – or anyone – for validation.

However, it wasn’t until I was in the middle of writing the story that I realized the real power of these storms. The dust and the wind becomes the voice of Nola’s unconfessed sin. It tortures her and follows her. The more photographs and film footage I saw, the more desolation and hopelessness I saw. It was a time and place in desperate need of rain, just as any sinner is in desperate need of Jesus Christ, the Living Water. The setting of the Dust Bowl took on a dimension greater than I imagined at the outset, and grows over the course of the story – just as the storms themselves did.

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