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4.0 out of 5 stars Devilishly good, April 26, 2010
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This review is from: Spite the Devil (Paperback)
God is in the very air that characters breathe in Maude Aurand McDaniel's debut novel, "Spite the Devil," even those who don't or aren't sure if they believe in God.

But don't let that put you off, those tens of millions of you who don't like God in your novels. It is part of the purpose of Elinor Heyer, the novel's central character, to show that people of faith are not like you think they are. Not all of them, anyway, not the people like Elinor and her Lutheran-pastor husband Dan and their two grown daughters Grace (a.k.a. "Amazing") and Joy. In fact, they are so much like you and me that they have persons in their family who don't or aren't sure if they believe in God. But that does not shake Elinor or Dan, who know that it is important to hold on to those you love and not to drive them away by insisting that they believe as you do, no matter how wrong you may think they are. Even if they behave or think in ways that are not your ways, it is far better to have them like that than not to have them at all. That, I suppose Elinor would say, is why God put them into your life.

That is only one part of Elinor's purpose. Another is, frankly, to haul out her soapbox every now and then (more now than then) to tell you her views. Elinor is a very, um, spirited lady of grandmotherly age, and frequently she finds that the time she currently inhabits - the novel is set in the 1980s - is out of joint. But the soapbox is unobtrusive and not very high and mostly she feels a bit sheepish about mounting it - afterward. Elinor resembles in some ways another spirited lady of faith, Agatha McGee in Jon Hassler's novels. "Spite the Devil" also displays some of the twinkling yet sharp humor that makes Hassler's novels so enjoyable. "Consequently he was into astrology," she says of a young man who had been "carefully guarded by his family against any of these old religious superstitions of his European heritage."

Elinor battles, often with her daughter Joy, in social, cultural, and political wars that are still going on today. She regrets "all the old values turned into bugaboos by the new generation," not out of nostalgia or old fogeyness, but because she earnestly feels that decent people with decent standards are pushed aside, ignored. She likes Norman Rockwell because he portrayed something true and real, whereas "right-thinking" people (like her daughter) don't because he portrayed an impossible and kitschy ideal. Hold on, Elinor, in about 20 years right-thinking people will begin coming around to your view.

Dan, a minister of deep compassion and understanding, and Elinor, a woman of sharp intellect, hold conversations on theology and religion that she admits "are so far from the minds of everybody else we come across that they think we are putting them on." But that's all right; any thinking reader should find the ideas interesting. Besides, unlike others who traffic in abstruse thoughts, Dan and Elinor also regularly mix with the common run of humanity, like the elderly lady who launders and irons the dollar bills she puts into the collection plate.

I fear I have made "Spite the Devil" sound like a novel of ideas. Ideas it has aplenty, but at heart it is much more a warm, intelligent depiction of a family and a community. Elinor and others have problems: Dan's health takes a hit, there is racial tension extending from the fact that her son-in-law is bi-racial. A great sorrow occurs about halfway through that is picked up again in the last, concise paragraph that will hit you like a thud and lift your heart at the same time.

One senses that there may be much of Maude Aurand McDaniel, widow of a Lutheran minister, behind Elinor Heyer, wife of a Lutheran minister. One senses that either of them would be nice to know.
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