David Housholder takes some real risks with The Blackberry Bush–risks that yield sweet results.
NOTE: I received a signed copy of The Blackberry Bush novel as a gift from the author, David Housholder. We are friends and we work together at Life & Liberty, which is Housholder’s online magazine. His gift of this (and his other book) was with no strings attached. I am under no obligation to give a positive review of the book.
The Blackberry Bush is the coming of age story of Kati and Josh, two young people whose destinies are intertwined. The characters were born on the same day and are distantly related. But they live on separate continents and have no concrete knowledge of one another until a brief and life-changing encounter in their early twenties.
The book repeatedly mentions blackberry bushes: characters walk among the bushes, get scraped by the thorns, etc. Housholder uses the blackberry bush symbolism to represent that which ensnares us in life. The challenges we face, the demands made of us, and the choices we make often grow out of control and it is hard to emerge from the bracken unscathed.
As Housholder leads us through the thicket with Kati and Josh’s stories, he personally risks some scrapes in the choices he has made as a storyteller. These risks prove to be fruitful for the reader.
The first major risk that Housholder takes with the novel is that of introducing a cast of characters that span generations and live on separate continents. The stories of numerous characters are woven in with the telling of Kati and Josh’s stories as we learn about their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents and find out how Kati and Josh are related.
While telling so many stories in the space of one novel may be risky, I found each of the characters to be very interesting. I loved hearing the backstories of the choices of Kati and Josh’s elders that led to where they each wind up. If anything, I would enjoy learning even more about Kati and Josh’s parents. And I was especially intrigued by Josh’s grandmother, Adri.
To hear all of these stories, the reader is taken back and forth–through time and across continents. Housholder pulls this off beautifully. It helps that he provides a family tree that the reader can refer back to as the characters are introduced, and he makes effective use of the omniscient “Angelo” who narrates just enough to seamlessly weave the stories together.
A second big risk that Housholder makes is that he does not shy away from difficult realities of life. While the book’s central theme is deeply grounded in biblical truth and the main characters are Christians, Housholder does not try to sell the Christian life as all sunshine and puppies. Characters go to church faithfully while also wrestling with substance problems, thorny relationships, and troubling self-image.
This is risky on Housholder’s part because many Christians see struggles in life as a sign of weakness or lack of faith. Furthermore, a frequent criticism of Christians from those outside the faith is that they are just a bunch of hypocrites who say they believe in Jesus but fail to live up to his name.
Promotions of the novel promise that readers will find their stories in this book. Despite my friendship with the author, I was skeptical of this promise. I mean, how could my life possibly be reflected in a novel written three years ago by someone I just met last summer? Pluswhich, since the main characters are just kids, I didn’t think that I, as late-thirty-something, would have much to relate to. As much as I admire Housholder’s work and value his writing, I just could not imagine I would see myself in the book.
I was so wrong.
First of all, I found bits and pieces of both Kati and Josh’s stories with which I could personally relate. But I was especially taken aback by elements of other characters’ stories that felt intensely personal to me. The truth is, this book hit me in ways that I will not be writing about publicly–ever.
By exposing so many very real and very raw realities of our human experience, the book does keep the promise of readers each finding their own stories in it. The truth is we all have struggles–no matter how strongly we try to keep the faith. And as so much of my own life still seems so very much a work in progress, I feel very much that I personally am still in the thick of the blackberry bushes.
But Housholder does not leave Kati, Josh, and the others, or you and me, lost in the bracken. He gives us the hope of a God who seeks to free us from the entanglements of life.
The third big risk that Housholder takes is that of choosing to talk about God and faith in very ordinary language rather than distinctively Christian vocabulary. His language about God and faith is approachable even for those with minimal experience with the Christian faith. While church attendance is mentioned, and the name of Jesus is invoked in prayer, this book is not a sermon or a doctrinal statement about the Christian faith.
Consistent with my experience in working with Housholder, he seems, in the novel, to be more interested in the character’s spiritual experiences than with their theology. What Housholder or his characters believe about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not given much detail.
Readers looking for a Christian novel to use as a glorified Gospel tract will be disappointed with The Blackberry Bush. On the other hand, readers looking for conversation about what it means to live fully for God will find this to be a brilliant discussion-starter.
Through the risks that Housholder takes with generations and geographies, acknowledging the entanglements of life, and fresh vocabulary for God and faith, he yields a thought-provoking and heart-warming novel. And while it stands on its own as a meaningful work of fiction, it can bear even more fruit for readers who do allow the stories in it to interact with their stories. This would work well as a springboard for personal journaling or for book discussion groups. Questions in the back of the book can help readers work through the major themes presented in the novel. I recommend reading and sharing The Blackberry Bush.
For more information about The Blackberry Bush, you can visit the novel’s website: http://blackberrynovel.com
To read my reaction to Housholder’s other book, Light Your Church On Fire Without Burning It Down, click the title.
To order Housholder’s books, please visit his online store at Life & Liberty: http://astore.amazon.com/davidhoush-20