Good (and Foolish) Country People (Building a Better Christian Novel Pt. 7)

I review Christian books, mostly nonfiction ones but I do get a Christian Fiction novel or two each month. Occasionally I’ll get one that I enjoy, and frequently I’ll give 3 or 4 stars just because I know the author means well and it’s not too terrible. However, most of the time I’m just not impressed. There are certain flaws that routinely come up with Christian Fiction books, things which seem to be trends that make the books predictable or one-dimensional.

However, most people aren’t interested in long lists of everything being done wrong. It’s usually more effective to talk about what could be done better than to focus the entire discussion complaining about what’s being done poorly. Therefore, I’m doing a series about traits I would like to see more of in Christian Fiction, thus addressing flaws in a more constructive way.

Good (and Foolish) Country People

One of the common topics that Christian Fiction talks about is “good country people.” Lots of stories about Amish communities, lost of stories about Civil War or turn-of-the-century towns, or just stories about modern-day people who come back to small towns (Happy Camper by Melody Carlson is a good example).

While some of these stories try to capture the simplicity of small town or rural life, they often end up being simplistic rather than simple. They often don’t capture the complexity of small town life, they tend to focus on only the nice things (the cute local bakery or library, older people who don’t have any regrets). While the stories take place in rural or semi-rural settings, they don’t usually awaken a sense of wonder at the natural world. Instead, they get by on sentimental imagery with characters who aren’t very complex or unique. Read one Christian holiday novella and you’ve met all the stock characters (the grandmotherly store owner, the intimidating other woman, and so forth) of every Christian romance novel or Hallmark film. So, rather than an engaging story about the good of getting back to nature or to a close-knit community, you end up with a fairly cheesy idea of country life.

“But what’s wrong with that?” we may ask. “What’s wrong

Well, surprisingly there’s a big problem here: idealizing an environment makes it hard for people within it to handle their problems.

Stephen Witmer, who pastors a rural church in Massachusetts, observes in his book A Big Gospel in Small Places that people inside and outside of small towns can idealize country life. He also notes that means that while small towns across America have various issues (lack of education because there aren’t schools nearby, lack of work opportunities as industries change, generational abuse), small town residents often learn to never face these problems. The need to believe small towns are simpler and better, combined with pride in being “self-reliant” create environments where everything gets buried and never resolved.

As Witmer helpfully puts it, “We will not fruitfully serve what we idealize.”

Thus, it’s important to have stories that capture the good and the bad of country settings.

James Herriot does this very well in his semi-fictionalized books about working as a veterinarian in 1930s Yorkshire. He starts the first book with a chapter where he describes meeting his employer for the first time, who told him the thing about being a veterinarian is it create endless opportunities to look foolish. Medicine is a complicated subject, particularly in the 1930s right before a wave of medicines and technology changed the veterinarian industry.

Throughout his books, based on real events but with fictionalized details and the names changes, he alternates between capturing the joys of bringing forth new life or healing to animals and the tragedy when things don’t work out as expected. Sometimes animals make it, other times they don’t.

Similarly, the farmers he works with complex individuals. Some of them are selfish and ridiculous, as in the case of one farmer Herriot meets who’s too drunk to help him deliver a sheep. Others are surprisingly generous and tender, as in the case of a farmer who decides to hold onto an old horse as a pet after it’s too old to use for farm work.

The way Herriot goes between tragedy and comedy, tenderness and sadness makes it a well-rounded story about country life. His stories capture what can be good as well as what be difficult about life on a farm in a pre-digital world. The result is entertaining without being too sentimental, and therefore gives readers an engaging and substantial view of country life.

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