Title: A Saint in Graceland by Deborah Hining
Publisher: Light Messages Publishing
Genre: Historical (70s), Christian, Fiction
Length: 364 pages
Book Rating: C+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
Grieving her mother’s death and yearning to see more of the world beyond her mountain home, Sally Beth sets out on a journey that leads her across the American Southwest and ultimately to a remote mission station in Tanzania, where she finds a new kind of freedom in the African plains and the people who dwell there. But when war comes to the mission gates, its horrors shatter her world. She must find a way to rebuild her life and choose whether or not to serve the people she’s grown to love—a choice that will shake the simple faith of her childhood and ignite her passion for a wounded man.
Set in the late 1970s, A Saint in Graceland by Deborah Hining combines fact with fiction and the resulting storyline is quite interesting. Although labeled Christian fiction, I consider it a non-traditional faith-based novel due to some of the subject matter.
Following the death of her beloved mother, Sally Beth Lenoir is thrilled that her younger sister Lilly is ready to move back to their small WV town after living in Las Vegas for several months. The sisters decide to take some detours on the their drive home to visit a few famous landmarks (the Grand Canyon, etc). Joining them on their journey is Lilly’s neighbor Tiffany aka Edna Mae and the trio enjoy a raucous fun-filled trip that puts Sally Beth in some very uncomfortable situations. Gambling, drinking and dancing in honkytonks are not exactly Sally Beth’s usual pursuits but despite some serious reservations, she decides to throw caution to the wind and tag along on Lilly and Edna Mae’s adventures. Soon after their return to WV, Lilly makes a surprising decision about her future and Sally Beth accepts an offer to join their family doctor on a mission to Tanzania.
Although Sally Beth is a woman of strong faith and convictions, she is also quite kind-hearted and compassionate. Somewhat naive and rather innocent, she is definitely out of her depth when she gets to Las Vegas, but she easily gives in to Lilly’s suggestions to experience all the town has to offer. Sally Beth finds it impossible to say no to either Lilly or Edna Mae on their road trip and while she is initially uncomfortable with some of their activities, she is surprised by how much fun she is having. Trying to remain true to her beliefs, she continues to pray for guidance and strength but Lilly and Edna Mae effortlessly override her objections time and again.
Certain that God is guiding her, Sally Beth eagerly agrees to join Dr. Sams on his upcoming mission to Tanzania. The experience is a dream come true for Sally Beth and the first few months of the trip are rather idyllic. She is blessed with new friendships as she volunteers at the mission clinic and she is fascinated by African culture and customs. But Sally Beth is soon shocked and appalled by the widespread practice of female circumcision and she is cautioned by several acquaintances to refrain from trying to preach against the procedure. Still reeling from this discovery, she suffers a crisis of faith when war breaks out between the Tanzanians and neighboring Ugandans. Stunned by the violence and unable to understand why God is allowing such atrocities to occur, Sally Beth turns to John Smith, a friend from back home, for comfort.
A Saint in Graceland feels like two completely different novels. The first half of the story is light-hearted with over the top antics and ridiculous predicaments. The second half starts off innocuous enough with Sally Beth easily settling into life at the mission, making friends and exploring the countryside. The plot gradually becomes more serious as Sally Beth learns about female circumcision and the situation in Uganda heats up then spills over into civil war. With the circumstances at the mission becoming more perilous by the minute, Sally Beth’s stubborn refusal to leave puts herself and others in danger. Just when it appears the key players are finally safe, Sally Beth and her loved ones find themselves in harm’s way yet again. While this aspect of the novel is well researched, the long descriptive passages eventually become a little tedious and the “people in peril” situations become repetitive.
Despite these few issues, A Saint in Graceland is an engaging faith-based novel. The characters are realistic and the fact that they are imperfect and make questionable decisions make them easy for readers to relate to. The incorporation of real life events provides depth and substance to the storyline and Deborah Hining’s research is impeccable. Her descriptive prose brings the various settings vividly to life and readers will have no difficulty visualizing the alarming events in Tanzania. There is also a slight romantic element to the storyline that is quite understated but it plays an important role in Sally Beth’s crisis of faith.
Although A Saint in Graceland is a sequel to Sinners in Paradise, it can be read as a standalone.