Redemption Road by Toni Sorenson Brown
Reviewed by Jennie Hansen
Though I am not musically inclined, there are a couple of songs that have been running through my head since I was a child. They’re not the silly jingles that, once heard, stick around to annoy for a day or two. These are there always like background music to my life. Redemption Road is that kind of book. Once read, it becomes part of the fabric of the reader’s life.
Lana is an unlikely heroine for an LDS novel. She is twice divorced, hasn’t been inside a church for twenty years, and carries a lot of baggage from a lifetime of rebellion and an abusive marriage. Africa, especially the dirty slums of Nairobi, is not the typical setting for an LDS novel, either.
Brown’s style is deceptively simple. Her words are plain and direct, yet something deeper lurks beneath the surface of this seeming innocence – not unlike the crocodiles, lions, and parasites that lurk in the ponds and tall grasses of Kenya, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting prey.
Lana is employed by a major hotel in Nairobi. One morning, she receives a telephone call from her twin sister on the other side of the world in Utah. Laura has found a lump in her breast and has panicked. Her first reaction is to call her sister.
The sisters deal with the discovery and subsequent surgery and treatment in different ways. After her initial panic, Laura, the spiritual one, leans on her faith in God and is supported through her ordeal by her husband, children and parents. Lara’s guilt over her past mistakes leads her to question why God would punish a wife and mother of six who has always served Him instead of choosing her since she has lived her life in a state of rebellion against her parents, the Church, and God.
Among Lana’s responsibilities is that of serving as liaison between the hotel and the community. In this capacity she meets Mama Grace, a teacher and bulwark of the poverty stricken village at the end of Redemption Road. She begins a campaign to build a school for Mama Grace and her students. This tiny concrete and corrugated metal structure becomes the means by which she meets two individuals who, along with Mama Grace, change her life forever.
First there is Jomo, a seven-year-old orphan with an enchanting smile and an incredible zest for life. The child becomes the focus of Lana’s life until he disappears and her frantic, guilt-ridden search for him begins. Her search leads her into realms of unimaginable filth and degradation. She refuses to give up on a child she has come to love as her own.
As she searches, she learns much about Africa, AIDS, and the dark side of a culture caught in the middle of ancient customs and the bright, glittering newness of today, overwhelming poverty, and devastating diseases. She also learns of her own arrogance, her unwitting endangerment of the child through well-meaning generosity, and she begins to know the God she never became acquainted with in all the years she attended Primary, church, and seminary.
The other person she meets is Gavin, the son of protestant missionaries who devote their lives to their cause. He owns a safari company, is a widower, and is also devoted to Africa and helping Mama Grace establish her school. He stirs feelings inside Lana that frighten and confuse her. His knowledge of everything African, his love for the land and the people, and his compassion create a bond of friendship between them and hints that something more may follow.
Brown is a master at creating word pictures. She begins:
A troupe of vervet monkeys has taken up residence outside in my apartment courtyard. I can’t see them, but I can picture their small, gray bodies and all-black faces. I’ve gotten used to their cries and grown appreciative of how they eat the scorpions that crawl across the walkway. Back home in Utah I had a cat that kept the mice away; here in Africa everything is different.
And goes straight for the heart with:
When I get the bad news, I am standing at my kitchen window listening to a mother monkey scold her children. Bad news has a way of stopping time, of heightening every sense so that the moment is never erased ? not completely ? no matter how we try to scrub our minds and scrape the pain from our memories.
Her characters are alive and real :
He whoops and breaks into a furious little warrior dance, turning circles and drumming on his black balloon of a belly. “Hee, hee!”
He can’t be more than five years old. Dressed in nothing but a ratty gray T-shirt that exposes his distended belly, and a pair of trousers two sizes too small, the boy smiles at me with absolute triumph etched across his face.
The stranglehold on my heart is gone… That smile, wide as a river and just as fertile, winds its way into my heart. His eyes are dark, but now they beam with light!
Like he is made of rubber, the boy bounces toward me, touches my arm, and bounces back. Then in a flash he takes off, splitting the crowd, rounding a corner, stopping to look back to make sure I am watching. Grinning.
Her settings are both tragic and beautiful:
Nairobi is one of the most dangerous places on earth. Crime grows like grass during the rainy season. Terrorism is bred here. Children who are hungry in both body and spirit, who see no hope for a future, are vulnerable to the shine and clink of evil.
Without preaching or judging, one message overrides all else in this masterfully written story, and that is of God’s healing power. On the surface, this is a story of one woman’s journey to discover the Savior’s atonement, but hidden in the pages and words of Lana’s journey is the triumphant verification that He truly knows where each sparrow falls and that His love encompasses all.
This book has echoes in the author’s own life. As a child, Toni Sorenson Brown lived in several foster homes across the country. She was homeless for a time on the streets of Salt Lake City and dreamed even then of Africa, a continent that has always fascinated her. She is now the mother of six children and lives in Provo, Utah. She has written several books for the national market, but this is her first novel directed toward the LDS market.
When a daughter volunteered in Africa, she met a woman named Grace. Out of her own makeshift schoolhouse in Kenya, Grace teaches and cares for numerous orphaned children. Armed with secondhand books, a soup pot, and a big heart, Grace is the only lifeline for many of the local children. A portion of Brown’s royalties and the publisher’s proceeds will be donated to the school for educational supplies and general upkeep of the schoolhouse.
I heartily recommend Redemption Road to young and old. It is a true masterpiece.Published by Covenant Communications, 242 pages, $15.95