The Hand-Me-Down Family by Winnie Griggs
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
The Hand-Me Down Family was my first foray into Christian romance in a long time. I was excited to read this one, because I've enjoyed books by Winnie Griggs in the past. In addition, I am a big enthusiast of marriage of convenience storylines.
All and all, this was a pleasant read. I did have some moments where I felt like things were moving at a sluggish pace. Also I had issues with how the spiritual messages seemed to be somewhat cut and pasted in. What I mean by this is, I felt like Ms. Griggs was motivated to stick in passages where the characters were praying or recalling Bible scriptures. This could be due to my time away from Christian romance, and being unused to this motive of including spiritual content into the message.
I am not a big fan of overt preachiness or what I call PSA's (Public Service Announcements) in a fictional story. I think that the moral and a message should be neatly integrated into the story, and spread throughout, much like one would put a small amount of salt in cookie dough to give it that piquancy to balance out the sugar. The reader can then ponder the story and delve through to get the message out as they enjoy the narrative.
In this story, I felt that the spiritual aspects might have been a little too blatant. Again, I have to admit that this is coming from a person who reads very little Christian fiction (although I would like to read more that is good and entertaining and has a good underlying message). Thus, I can't judge Ms. Griggs, and probably need to read more of the Love Inspired and other Christian romances in my tbr pile to get a feel for how this is done.
My disappointment with the lack of subtlety in the spiritual aspects was balanced out by my interest and attraction to the characters and the sense of inadequacy that they struggle with. Callie has a disfiguring mark on her cheek, a port-wine birthmark. She is very self-conscious about it, and wears bonnets all the time to keep it concealed. My heart went out to her. It is very difficult to be different, especially if your differences are overt and obvious. In my opinion, she seems to overcompensate by trying to be a good Christian and to be perfect in every other way. Her marrying Leland and taking on his young daughter is part of her do-good complex. At some points, it made her come off as being self-righteous. As a committed Christian, it is a tough road to walk, because you do have to hold yourself to a different standard, and your choices reflect your beliefs. Callie definitely showed a deep faith in God, but she seemed to spend time trying to get Jack to do things to express his faith for the benefit of the children they were raising together. I found this frustrating. Everyone's walk is different, and it bothered me on a personal level that she was somehow forcing her beliefs on how a Christian should act on Jack. I do agree that the parents serve as spiritual role models for kids, but it seemed kind of hypocritical to force Jack to act in a way that wasn't true to who he was. I think all of us believers have been in situations where we were the 'less spiritual' person and we've been nudged and lectured by the 'more spiritual' people in the church or group. It's not a good feeling, and it can cause people to stay away from the church or groups to avoid that feeling of pressure and inadequacy. Which brings me to Jack.
Jack has always lived in his older, 'better' brother's shadow. He got all of Leland's hand-me downs, and now it looks like he'll have to take on Leland's responsibilities by marrying his by-proxy wife and taking care of his young daughter, along with the two children of his sister and her husband, since all three adults perished in the same fire. He wants to do right by the children, but at the same time, he regrets having to leave behind the independent life he has made for himself, with his own business and a good name unassociated with his family. He is very insecure about his place in the world in comparision to his brother, and it manifests in his behavior. I had trouble with this part, but his feelings of coming short and his resentment about it, combined with his feelings that God didn't answer his prayers to help him to matter as much as his brother, cause him to turn his back on his faith. He doesn't stop believing, but he has a very separate relationship to God. He adopts a 'God helps those who help themselves philosophy' and doesn't pray or go to church. I struggled with this concept, but then I came to the realization that believers can tend to blame God for not coming through in ways that we may think He should, but with maturity, we realize that God was listening, but He just knew better than us, and that's why He didn't give us what we wanted. And eventually we come to thank Him for how He does answer our prayers.
I liked the aspect of this book in which Jack's feeling of not measuring up enables him to see and to understand Callie's insecurity about her birthmark. From the beginning, he shows that her birthmark doesn't bother him and encourages her to show her true face to the world. He was withdrawn in some ways, because of his fears of not measuring up and wanting to stay uninvolved, but at the same time, he was a very sensitive and caring person, and showed very good fatherly traits in how he interacted with the kids.
Some of the parts in which Callie is treated less than kindly because of her birthmark just about broke my heart. The intolerance that people can show is very sad. Even Simon, who is one of the orphaned children, says some pretty ugly things about her birthmark and makes Callie cry in a scene that is very heart-wrenching. I liked how Jack supported her and stood up for her and always made her feel beautiful and worthy.
There is also a retired schoolteacher, Mrs. Mayweather, who serves as a source of strength to the floundering couple. It is her suggestion that they marry to take care of the children, and she gives encourages them to get past their issues in ways that are sometimes on the underhanded side. For instance, she makes Callie have to take her bonnet off in front of all the women to put on a strand of pearls that she gives the bride to wear on her wedding day. At first, I thought that was pretty mean, but I could see why she did that. She didn't want Callie to be ashamed for what she couldn't change about herself, and to hide it from the town so that they would accept and like her. That made a lot of sense to both Callie and myself after the fact. She also tells Jack some things he needs to hear and gives him nudges when necessary. She really ends up being a very important character in this story in the way she aids both Callie and Jack in their emotional growth and their coming together as a couple.
I feel that the romance part could have been a little more developed. As a Christian romance, I didn't expect any lovemaking or sensuality, but I was surprised that the only interaction that we get to see is a brief kiss that is barely described. I was thinking that more could be shown and not stray from being a sweet romance. I am a big believer that chemistry in a romance novel doesn't have to be tied to the bedroom. There can be a strong attraction shown in every interaction between the couple. I didn't really feel that big of an attraction between Jack and Callie, other than their respect and caring for each other. Although we do get to see Callie and Jack spending time together, more of the time is devoted to discussing the kids and issues with the family, and less getting to know each other on a personal level.
I was glad I got the opportunity to read this book, and it was a moving read for me. I had a few issues that I felt kept it from being a favorite of mine, but I would consider it a keeper for the good message, the well-drawn characters, and the poignancy of seeing Jack and Callie deal with their issues of lack of self-worth and worthiness in the world. It was definitely a worthwhile read.
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