On Shifting Sand

On Shifting SandOn Shifting Sand by Allison Pittman
Genres: Historical Romance
Published by Tyndale Publishing on April 1, 2015
Pages: 416

 

Since the day her mother died, Nola Merrill has been drying up inside. Left with a harsh father that withholds affection, Nola escapes into a hasty marriage to Russ, a young preacher. Twelve years and two children later, Nola can’t shake the dissatisfaction that is once again seeping into her life. When Jim, a drifter and long-lost friend from Russ’s past, appears, she can’t help but find life under his attentions, leading her to commit the ultimate betrayal of her marriage and Russ’s love. In the shadow of what would later be called “The Dust Bowl,” Nola withers physically and spiritually, consumed by guilt and the shame of her secret sin, until the family has an opportunity to leave Oklahoma’s dust and drought. Nola prays that her sin and the storm are behind her, but they follow. Unable to fully escape the dust and the burden of her sin, she confesses all to Russ, depending on his steadfastness to withstand the ultimate test of their marriage.

Nola’s voice, the setting, and the time period all feel authentic, and the small details truly made such an impact.

On Shifting Sand was a hard book to read at times, yet it was also very honest and thought-provoking. It can best described as being a “heavy” story. Allison does a good job at creating an oppressive atmosphere. Set during the bleakness of the Dust Bowl, Nola’s spiritual life compares easily to the barrenness of the land. From the outset, the reader knows that adultery will play a part in this novel, yet there is also hope for forgiveness for Nola and redemption for their marriage. Though it is a long time coming, it does indeed come. The writing is flawless in many ways, and Allison’s descriptions flow easily. Nola’s voice, the setting, and the time period all feel authentic, and the small details truly made such an impact.

I doubt I am the only reader who found Nola unreliable and at times unlikable; I hope I am not the only reader that also saw themselves in her character. The self that will never be good enough, that won’t accept forgiveness, that won’t break the habit, that won’t quit the sin. She is extremely frustrating, but on the other hand, I empathized with her. Characters like Nola force me to be honest about myself about my response to different kinds of sins in others and also to be honest about my own shortcomings. Nola is not honest with herself about the temptations she struggles with and because she isn’t honest, she doesn’t have the right mechanisms for fighting them.

Nola never felt worthy enough for forgiveness, so even though she asked for it, she never accepted it or lived it out.

I honestly didn’t understand her need to participate in deception and lies, until I “met” her father. He had only come onto the scene a short while before I realized where a lot of Nola’s issues had originated. Our treatment of others, especially children, has such an impact, and while I do believe each individual is responsible for their own actions, children become adults shaped by the experiences of their childhood. Nola’s father had such a low view of her and made sure she knew it. I could see why Nola ended up the way she did, with feelings of being unworthy, the desire to get away and need for escape. It really made me think about how our actions and how we treat others, especially our children, can have lasting, negative effects. Nola never felt worthy enough for forgiveness, so even though she asked for it, she never accepted it or lived it out.

The structure of the story was problematic for me. I think I was expecting Nola’s infidelity to happen earlier in the story, and the remainder would bring healing and reconciliation within their marriage. The story takes much, much longer to arc and come to that point, and it wasn’t my preferred way to have the plot play out. She never really overcame her sin; it was more that the opportunity was taken away. While I know that Christians still struggle with all types of sin, I also believe that we can overcome them through Christ and never be tempted by certain things or even put ourselves in those positions again. Nola was not only tempted by the idea, she would invite temptation and find the opportunities to sin, knowing that she was going to give in, but lying to herself that she would choose differently. I just never truly felt that she was victorious in that regard, and it was a let-down for me after all of the pain and heartache that had been endured.

Although normally I love first-person narration, there were advantages and disadvantages. Though it doesn’t allow readers to ever see the perspective of Nola’s husband Russ, it did serve to enhance Nola’s loneliness and magnify her thoughts and emotions. Russ is an interesting character and not one that I’m sure I ever really understood while reading. Though I don’t want to appear to blame him for Nola’s infidelity, and it was obvious that they loved one another, he often appears to be putting his congregation’s needs before his family’s needs. He also felt a lot of guilt because he didn’t fight in the war and allowed that to dictate many of his decisions – for example, allowing Jim to stay with his family despite Nola’s obvious discomfort. Again, I’m not excusing Nola, or anyone, for their actions, but one person’s action toward another can make a huge difference. I’m not sure if Allison even meant to have that as a prominent theme, but that reminder was certainly there for me.

Despite some of the qualms I had with the story overall, the complex nature of Nola’s character and the spiritual intricacies found in its pages made me glad that I read it.

Despite some of the qualms I had with the story overall, the complex nature of Nola’s character and the spiritual intricacies found in its pages made me glad that I read it. The forgiveness and healing that does come is a beautiful picture of Christ’s love and a good reminder of the fact that only “he who is without sin” can cast the first stone, and the only one without sin would never cast those stones. Talking about adultery is uncomfortable and unpleasant, but is not something that should be glossed over. Though I would have had the story play out in a more uplifting way, I applaud Allison for tackling such a tough subject. I’m looking forward to reading more of her previously published work and hope that there is more to come from her in the future.

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