by Mary Potter Engel
Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press, 2001
238pp., $24.00, hardback.
Reviewed by Juanita Wright Potter
Having once sat through a seven-hour play by Rudolf Steiner called “The Soul’s Awakening” and leaving with only a strong sense of my body’s drowsiness, I have often thought about how very hard it is to write a truthful narrative of anyone’s inner life so that a reader both feels the complexity of each step or state of stasis and understands with a measure of compassion. Even the Bible stories are often one-dimensional and therefore rather misleading on how and why, say, the wife of Lot risked everything by simply turning her eyes for a second.
Mary Potter Engel has managed to write a convincing novel that gets inside the mind and soul and body of a young woman, Ruth VanderZicht, charting her totally unpredictable course through life from about age 12 to her adulthood; from sometime in the 1950s to the 1990s. The author uses her own background in the Christian Reformed Church as the backdrop for this journey of a soul.
Most of us in EEWC will have no trouble identifying with the subculture and subtexts of a church that at best gives very mixed signals to young girls, and less-mixed signals to women. The framework for this reflective narrative is that Ruth, a professor of religion, has received the news that her mother is dying. As she prepares for her journey to have a final meeting with this woman from whom she has been estranged for many years, she begins by remembering a time when she felt close to her mother. And thus we are privileged to join her in her troubling memories of how she came to be who she is.
A theologian trained at the University of Chicago Divinity School in her other life, author Mary Potter Engel interlaces the narrative, which leaps through time and space from chapter to chapter, with various midrashes on the story of Lot’s wife, to amazingly good effect. It has never been so clear to me how our interpretations of narratives, biblical and otherwise, shift dramatically, depending on our own life’s experiences. And how vital such outside narratives are in helping us sort through the choices within our own daily-developing story. Nothing is actually set in stone — or salt.
Three threads of this story [there are many] seem especially powerful to me: (1) the conflict with the mother that starts when Ruth enters puberty; (2) the attempt through much of Ruth’s life to pretend that her body doesn’t matter; (3) the struggle to discover the life of the spirit through the mind alone. These threads are often so tightly interwoven that they become one— just like life. And of course these areas are especially troubling for a feminist, and Ruth is definitely that.
I could write a long essay on each of those points, but I won’t. I’d rather that you read the book and let it lead you through midrashes of your own story. Looking back can be good.
© 2002 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 26 number 1 Spring (April-June) 2002