SURROUNDED BY STRANGERS By Josi S. Kilpack
Published by Bonneville Books, 242 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Jennie Hansen
Editor’s Note: Jennie Hansen’s new novel Breaking Point will be available next week.
Surrounded by Strangers may not be for every reader, but those who read it won’t forget it easily. It’s a powerful book and I loved it. Though Kilpack writes in a blunt, straight forward style and there are no instances of taking the Lord’s name in vain, there are sections where a few coarse words are used and some of the physical attraction scenes are more pointed than some readers may find comfortable. It is certainly exciting, presents a terrible dilemma and trial of faith, and leaves the reader wondering if main character, Gloria Stanton, could have found a better way to deal with the abuse of her daughter and at the same time fearing there was no other way to protect her child.
Kilpack doesn’t advocate the drastic measures taken in her book as the best or only way to deal with the circumstances a parent might face in similar circumstances, but she does encourage a nonjudgmental look at a situation that isn’t all black or white. She encourages anyone facing terrible choices to rely on the promptings of the Lord and to never give up on finding both moral and legal solutions to problems. Though the story centers around abuse of a child by a parent, it does not go into detail on the abuse itself, but deals in depth with the mother’s reaction and her efforts to protect the child, reassure her, and give her a chance at a normal life.
When Gloria discovers her husband has been molesting their six-year-old daughter, she files for divorce and requests sole custody of the couple’s children. The medical evidence is ambiguous, the father is active in the Church, and a respected attorney. Added to that is a recent bout of depression requiring medical intervention Gloria suffered following the birth of her second child and an emergency hysterectomy. When custody is not granted to her, she kidnaps her children rather than risk any further trauma to her daughter. With the help of an underground support group, she and her two children disappear. The author is careful not to imply that parental kidnapping is right or legal. In fact she points out that in the vast majority of cases parental kidnappings have more to do with spite than with any real need or desire to protect the kidnapper’s children.
Following two years of hiding in “safe houses” Gloria at last strikes out on her own. Raised by financially comfortable parents and as the former wife of a wealthy attorney, learning to live on the salary of a truckstop waitress is a challenge. She and her children make a lot of sacrifices in order to stay hidden and avoid drawing attention to themselves. Staying away from the Church, her parents, and her best friend are the hardest parts for Gloria. Though she holds a private church class for her children every Sunday morning, she can’t resist the pull of visiting a “real” church meeting one morning. Though their attendance at the meeting doesn’t attract the law, it does attract the attention of a convert to the church, Bryan Drewry.
The story holds a lot of interesting and suspenseful twists as the FBI gets involved, her ex-husband hires a private investigator, and Gloria continues to seek the evidence that will make it possible for her to go home again.
Kilpack doesn’t skirt around the issue that no matter what her motivation was, Gloria broke the law. She also comes down heavily on the role pornography plays in creating and encouraging predators who abuse children. She also does a great job of explaining the intricacies of the judicial system involved in the case and lets the reader know that Gloria hadn’t exhausted the possibility of further resources within the Church which might have helped her in spite of her bishop believing her husband’s denial of the charges.
Bryan is slow to understand his attraction to Gloria. Already fancying himself in love with a young woman he had been dating for six months and as ward mission leader, he is at first motivated by a desire to convert Gloria, a woman he perceives as merely interested in the Church. It takes a few pointed observations from his sister for him to figure out that she is already a member and that his interest goes beyond a desire to baptize her. Gloria tries to avoid Bryan and the complications he could bring into their lives. It isn’t until she finds herself in a desperate situation needing help that she starts to allow him into her life. I would have liked Bryan to be a bit stronger character, but I realize the author needed to show Gloria’s metamorphous from a dependent, naive girl to a strong, resourceful woman.
Kilpack’s style is warm and immediate; it also is a bit more earthy than most LDS novels, though in my opinion she never crosses the line into anything distasteful. She has taken an extremely difficult but relevant subject and presented it in a straight forward manner neither excusing wrong behavior nor sugar-coating serious mistakes. The only real problem I had with the book was with the ex-husband’s past. I found it unlikely that there was only one past victim other than his daughter and I found that person’s meeting with Gloria too coincidental. Those shortcomings did not alter my enthusiasm for the book. I will definitely look for other books by this author in the future.
2002Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.