Thursday, May 7, 2015

On Shifting Sand by Allison Pittman, © 2015

   I crane my neck, looking for any kind of a familiar landmark, but there are none. No furrowed fields, rippling grass, no head of cattle wandered far from the gate. All the time growing up here, what I liked best was that our family house sat in the deepest part of a shallow valley. Coming in on the road, you might think there was nothing to be found, but then one, two more turns of the tire, and there it was––spread out like the preface art in a storybook. Our little stone house, surrounded by a picket fence, with Mother's well-tended garden along one side. A red barn with a gray shingled roof, a chicken coop, Pa's hay wagon and blue truck––yes, it was most definitely blue––parked side by side, waiting to be proclaimed the favorite.
   --On Shifting Sand, 76-77

“The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” Matthew 7:25-26

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
   --My Hope is Built, Edward Mote, lyrics; cir­ca 1834

I have long appreciated the writings of this author who speaks to the heart. We live in an every day world. Sin that has touched lives, either personally or ancestral in family lines, renders self-blame incapable of freeing ourselves. Provision has been made for us ~ only by the Blood of Christ can we rise above our earthly perils of humanity.

Each generation could point to a time of despair. Nola Merrill and her husband, Russ, live during the long drought of the 1930s with the wind erosion of top soil and dust storms. No rain. No crops. No income. An opportunist comes to town. Not by accident, but planned. He has seen a photo of Russ' wife and he knows why he has come to town; to destroy a foundation of trust by representing who he isn't.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire, Nola has married to leave home. I want her husband Russ to protect her. I want her safe. We walk alongside each other. We cannot fill the longing of another heart turned away or unaware. Storms begin inside and fester, seeking a remedy. I am reminded of the Book of Hosea in the Bible and unconditional love drawing a return beyond what could ever be imagined able to be given. I want wholeness for Nola, for her marriage, for her realization of how much she is loved and the forgiveness that is available. A true gathering of hearts in unison with the One who loves us most.

I have rated On Shifting Sand four-star on the solidness of the author's writings. Through adultery, the pain caused families goes beyond the people involved. Sin separates ~ from each other, from our relationship with God, from ourselves. Whatever the offense it is damaging. Sin is sin, whatever name it has. We have a Redeemer. Redemption releasing captivity and bondage, by choosing forgiveness and His grace.
For from His fullness we have all received,
grace upon grace.
--John 1:16
Long before anyone would christen it “The Dust Bowl,” Nola Merrill senses the destruction. She’s been drying up bit by bit since the day her mother died, leaving her to be raised by a father who withholds his affection the way God keeps a grip on the Oklahoma rain. A hasty marriage to Russ, a young preacher, didn’t bring the escape she desired.
   Now, twelve years later with two children to raise, new seeds of  dissatisfaction take root. When Jim, a mysterious drifter and long-lost friend from her husband’s past, takes refuge in their home, Nola slowly springs to life under his attentions until a single, reckless encounter brings her to commit the ultimate betrayal of her marriage. For months Nola withers in the wake of the sin she so desperately tries to bury. Guilt and shame consume her physically and spiritually, until an opportunity arises that will bring the family far from the drought and dust of Oklahoma. Or so she thinks. As the storms follow, she is consumed with the burden of her sin and confesses all, hoping to find Russ’s love strong enough to stand the test.

        Allison Pittman
Award-winning author Allison Pittman has penned more than twelve novels, including her series set in the Roaring Twenties—All for a Song, All For a Story, and All for a Sister. I can't leave out my very favorite: Lilies in Moonlight.
Allison resides in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Mike, their three sons, and the canine star of the family—Stella. For more information, visit her website

Excerpt ~ Chapter 1
On Shifting Sand by Allison Pittman

Part 1

Call now, if there be any that will answer thee....
Although affliction cometh not forth of the dust,
neither doth trouble spring out of the ground;
Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.
I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause:
Which doeth great things and unsearchable;
Marvellous things without number:
Who giveth rain upon the earth,
And sendeth waters on the fields:
To set up on high those that be low;
that those which mourn may be exalted to safety.
--Job 5:1, 6-11

Chapter 1

THE BATHWATER WAS HOT when I first got in. Hot enough to steam the mirror and turn my skin an angry red, with white finger-shaped dots where I poked it. Punishing hot, Ma would have said, and that first sting getting in felt a lot like the touch of Pa’s belt against my legs when I was little. But soon enough the water cools itself to comfortable. I wring out the washcloth and hold it aloft, letting most of the heat evaporate before pressing it against my face. I let my hair go damp with steam, debating whether I should dunk under to wet it enough for a good shampoo. It’s Wednesday night, though, and I’m going to Rosalie’s to get a new set on Friday, so I give it a run-through with my fingers and settle back with my neck on the porcelain rim.
   The faucet lets in one fresh drop after another, and I count them. Just ten more, and I’ll get out. But I lose track, drift off into pressing thoughts somewhere around number seven, and have to start all over again. Although, on this night, there’s nothing to lure me out of the water. Ariel, my little girl, four years old, is in her room, deep in sleep. My husband, Russ, and the oldest, Ronnie, are at the church. Wednesday night prayer meeting, which seems to be running later than usual. And I, given the rare opportunity of an empty house and unclaimed bathroom, let myself soak in the water, the only light streaming in from our bedroom across the hall. I’d tuned the radio away from the midweek gospel hour, and turned up the volume loud enough that I can hear strains of Louis Armstrong, but not so loud as to wake the child. I hum along, singing when I can, my lips skimming the top of the bathwater, making bubbles with the lyrics.
   The end to my peace comes with the open and slam of the back kitchen door, and Russ calling my name as if I’d been in danger of being sucked behind the baseboards.
   “In here,” I holler, trying not to sound too disappointed at his arrival.
   The bathroom door opens a few inches, and Russ peeks his head through, averting his eyes to ask if I’m decent. Or, he qualifies, as decent as a woman who skipped out on prayer meeting could be.
   “Your daughter was sick,” I say in mock defensiveness.
   “She seems fine now,” Russ says. “Sleeping well.”
   “I gave her an aspirin, and then she needed to rest.”
   He turns to look at me, his grin accepting my explanation. I sink down into the water, shooing him away while I finish washing up.
   “Ronnie needs to go.”
   “He’s a boy,” I say, lathering up the washcloth. “He can go outside. Then put him to bed and tell him I’ll be in to kiss him good night in a bit.”
   Russ leans against the doorjamb, then rises up on his toes to get a peek inside the tub. “You gonna have a kiss for me, too?”
   I fold my arms, hiding myself against the tub’s wall. “Put away the supper dishes and set out his school clothes, and I just might.”
   He considers it for a tick before grinning and backing away. Soon the radio is silenced, and instead I hear the clatter of dishes accompanied by Russ’s rich tenor singing “Jesus Is All the World to Me.” When he draws out the long notes, I hear Ronnie laugh, and I know they’re cutting up in the kitchen, the way they do when they’re alone. Both of them too much a man to let on they can be silly.
   By now the water is this close to cold, and I stand up, surprised as always at the displacement. There seems so little left in the tub, not nearly enough to have covered me, and I wonder if I haven’t soaked it all up, straight into my skin. The towel is scratchy from years of rough washing and wind-whipped sun, but it feels pleasantly warm wrapped around my body, and I tread carefully across the tile floor to the mirror above the sink, where I wipe the last of the steam away and lean in close for a look.
   My hair is dark now, but when it dries, the color will be on the lighter side of brown, and will frame my face in limp, soft waves. They’d been such a surprise the first time I cut it short, right before my high school portrait. I remember telling Pa I didn’t want to look like a Chickasaw princess in the Troubadour yearbook, not caring how such a remark might be taken for an insult to my mother and her own. But Ma was long dead by then, and the sharpness of my cheekbones keeps her heritage fiercely alive.
   Hearing Russ and Ronnie still occupied in the kitchen, I step across the hall to our bedroom and go to the dressing table, where my modest array of cosmetics waits. Nothing much, as Russ wouldn’t have me paint my face, but I do have a new set of Avon just delivered. Ariel, my favorite scent for as long as I can remember, so much a part of me that my daughter wears its name. I dab a drop of perfume at the base of my neck and behind each knee, like I read in a magazine to do. Then, my skin now dry, I dust the fat, powdered puff across my shoulders. Drop the towel and dust more before sliding a clean cotton gown over my shoulders in time to hear Russ’s voice leading Ronnie into his room.
   Leaning my ear against the wall, I listen to the muffled sound of my son’s prayer, knowing in my heart he lifts up me and Russ, and his baby sister, and Paw-Paw’s farm, and all the people needing work and money. I owe him a kiss and want to be there for the Amen, as I am every night, so I quickly move next door, stopping short at the sight of Russ kneeling at the bedside, his elbows on the well-worn quilt.
   “And help our family be a good friend to Mr. Brace,” Ronnie prays. “And heal his arm in heaven. Amen.”
   “Amen,” Russ and I echo, though my agreement is more than tinged with curiosity. I cross the room and bend low over the boy’s head, smoothing back the unruly curls that are so much like his father’s. Even in the dim light, I can tell he’s done a poor job of washing his face.
   “Who’s Mr. Brace?” Our town, Featherling, is small, and the church even smaller, so to hear an unfamiliar name is rare indeed.
   “Papa’s friend from before the war.” He speaks this last word with a yawn so broad I know he hasn’t cleaned his teeth, either.
   I look over my shoulder at Russ.
   “Just came to town,” he says. “You don’t know him.”
   “He’s comin’ for dinner soon, though,” Ronnie says.
   “Is he?” My words are meant for Ronnie, but I keep my eyes trained on Russ. “I guess we’ll talk more about that later.”
   I kiss Ronnie’s cheek, and when I straighten myself, Russ brushes his hand across my back and settles right in the small of it, turning me to the open door. The boy mutters a final good night, but I expect he is sleeping before we leave the room. At twelve years old, he so often seems to teeter on the edge of being a man that I treasure the times when the activity of the day catches up and turns him into my sleepy boy again.
   Together we walk to Ariel’s room, which is nothing more than a partitioned-off section of Ronnie’s. It isn’t much bigger than a closet and we can’t both stand in it without touching. Our girl sleeps soundly, her red hair a sea around her, and I lay the back of my fingers against her pale cheek.
   “No fever?” Russ asks, his voice shy of serious.
   “I’m telling you, she felt warm at supper.”
   She takes a deep, startling breath right then, and we back away, hushing each other lest she wake.
   Russ reaches for the switch to turn off the hallway light, and soon our entire home plunges into near darkness, saved only by the lamp burning on my dressing table. He walks me to our bedroom door and takes me in his arms, like we are coming back from a date, and don’t have two children sleeping not much more than an arm’s length away. His kiss is like that, too. One of those kisses that comes along every so often in a marriage, like scales have fallen away from our very lips, and we’re seeing each other for the first time in new love.
   I break away—“Russ—” wanting to say that he hasn’t even taken his boots off. That we haven’t checked to make sure the doors are locked, or that the milk bottles are out, or that—
   “You feel beautiful—”
   My bare feet touch the braided rug that runs along the side of our bed, and soon the springs creak below our weight.
   “Russ.” I speak his name, stalling. Calculating as I always do. I brace my hands against his chest. “It’s not a good night.”
   He nudges the strap of the nightgown off my shoulder. “Feels good enough to me.”
   “You know what I mean.” I push him away. “Unless you’ve got it in your mind you want another baby.”
   He stops, sighs, and rolls away. Sitting up, he removes his boots, tossing them into the large wicker basket in the corner of the room.
   “Honey, I’m sorry.” I reach for him, but only manage to pinch my fingertips around the fabric of his sleeve as he stands, bringing the creaking once again. “A few more nights, maybe? It’ll be safer.”
   He shrugs out of his suspenders, strips off his shirt, and lets it fall to the ground. I bite my lip to stop myself from telling him to pick it up and take it across the hall to the hamper.
   “Funny.” He sends a smile sure to devastate my resolve. “I don’t remember you always being so careful.”
   “And it’s a good thing, too. Else you might never have married me, Pa’s shotgun or not.”
   “I never had a chance from the first I saw you. Not my fault you look every bit as lovely tonight.”
   I scuttle up against the pillows and indulge myself in watching him. Russ Merrill is tall—taller than me, which was a rarity among my suitors. His shoulders are broad, his body imposing. A gentle giant of a man, with a head full of close-cropped curls, a wide, handsome face, and a voice that resonates with the kindness of his person. As a pastor, he is beloved by men for his overt masculinity, and by women for the undeniable gentle spirit beneath. I, too, love him for both these qualities, knowing the pinnacle and depth of each.
   “Guess I need to send you off to church alone more often, if this is the treatment I’ll get when you come home. I’m thinking Ronnie might be coming down with a case of sniffles. Should be full-blown Sunday morning.”
   With a quick flash of a wicked grin, he scoops up his shirt and takes himself off across the hall. I hear the water running for his washup and use that time to get up from the bed and take another peek in the mirror above my dressing table. The soft light makes his words true enough, though it helps that I rub my Pond’s in faithfully each night. It is the best I can do against the Oklahoma wind and sun. Lately, too, the dust has been so bad, with great dark storms rising up from the earth, though we’ve had a spell of sweet, clear days. Maybe that’s what has Russ in such a mood.
   The water turns off, and I move quickly to the bed, easing in to keep it quiet, and bring the cover up around me. Turns out I didn’t need to rush, as I hear his steps take him into the kitchen, the rattle of the milk bottles, the closing and locking of the back door.
   “Checked the kids one last time,” he says, walking into the room. “Sound asleep, both of them.”
   He wears blue striped pajama trousers and a clean undershirt, and I have a moment of doubt in my calculations. If I get up now, I might have enough time to run across the hall and come back, better prepared. But he climbs in beside me, the weight of him tipping me toward the center of the mattress, and folds his hands behind his head on the pillow. I’m held, even if he’s not touching me at all.
   “Peaceful end to a beautiful day,” I say. And it has been, clear and cloudless, the perfect kind of warm, and not a bit of wind. More than that, not a bit of dust, which means the windows are open, letting the cool night air seep through the curtains. The room feels fresh and alive, and a glance down at Russ’s face tells me he appreciates it too.
   “Too peaceful, if you ask me.”
   “How can a home be too peaceful?”
   “Too quiet. What would be the harm of bringing in a bit of noise?”
   “And what kind of noise would that be?” Though I know what he’s getting at.
   “Maybe a little one, cooin’ in the corner.” He says it with an affected accent, as if that will speak to my rancher’s daughter’s heart.
   “More like cryin’,” I say, steeling my resolve. “’Cause he’s hungry. You taken a look at the ledger books lately? I don’t know how I’m going to feed the four of us in the next months. Let alone five.”
   “We can leave those worries off for a time, don’t you think?”
   He runs his knuckle, the one on his first finger, up the length of my arm, catching my heartbeat up with its travel, and that’s all it takes.

Later, after, while Russ rests in slack-jawed sleep, I climb out of bed, put on my nightgown, and creep to the bathroom for a washup before checking on the children. They, too, sleep with the peace that comes from innocence. Satisfied to be every inch alone, I make my way through the dark of the kitchen to the door that leads downstairs to the feed and hardware store below. It is ours now. My brother, Greg, and I own the property, but it’s been up to Russ and me to run it since Uncle Glen died ten years ago, and that’s just about the last time it turned a profit big enough to live on. The little it brings in supplements Russ’s church salary, and minding the store gives us all something to do during these long days of drought.
   Streetlight streams through the big glass window, casting the letters Merrill’s Tools and Feed in shadow across the floor. Around a sharp corner at the bottom of the steps is a small storeroom, dwindled to empty these days, as we can barely move the inventory we have on the shelves. The storeroom has a door that opens out to a platform where the trucks backed up to unload pallets of cattle feed in the days when local farmers had the wherewithal to buy such a thing. On a hook beside it is my ratty gray cardigan sweater, a gift from my mother to my father that did nothing but baffle him from the minute she finished the last stitch.
   I dig into the pocket of the sweater and find what I’m looking for—a half-crumpled pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. With deft fingers, I slip one out of the pack and another one into my pocket and strike a match against the darkness. I touch the flame to the tip of the cigarette and inhale until it glows red, then shake the match and drop it between the slats of the loading dock.
   Peaceful, Russ had said. Not so peaceful, perhaps, if he finds me here, and I briefly wonder if I wouldn’t have been safer staying inside the storeroom closet. But our bedroom window is on the side of the building, meaning we never have complete darkness for sleeping, but also assuring me that the smoke from my cigarette isn’t going to drift in past the starched white curtains.
   I take another drag, determined not to be wasteful and let the cigarette burn to nothing of its own accord. I only get one a day, and not even every day—only those nights when Russ falls asleep first. Otherwise, he is always there. Working in the store while I clean the house upstairs. Sitting beside me on the sofa, across from me at the table. Staring down at me from behind the pulpit while I sit with the children in the pew at church.
   Another drag. I hear the burning of the paper and tobacco. Half-gone already, and I touch the one in my pocket, counting. Calculating, again, just how many are left, wondering when I’ll have another perfect night like this one.
   Clear and cool and clean.
   “Beautiful night, isn’t it?”
   The voice startles me so, I fumble the cigarette before stubbing it out on the railing and dropping the butt to the platform, using my toe to nudge it between the planks.
   “Good heavens, Mrs. Brown. I didn’t expect to see you out at this hour.”
   Merrilou Brown lives across the street and down the block from the store, having stubbornly refused to sell her property even as business after business built itself up on what the town council renamed Commerce Street in an effort to persuade her and her husband to move. She is a tiny woman, bespectacled and beloved. Each week, the children in Sunday school scramble to measure themselves back-to-back against her, and it is an anticipated rite of passage to be taller than Miss Merrilou. Most achieve that status before the age of twelve.
   “Luther needed a walk. And at his age, who am I to say no?”
   Luther is a once-white poodle, his coat a perfect match for the neat cap of curls on Mrs. Brown’s own head. The two are inseparable, more so since Mr. Brown, as massive in stature as Mrs. Brown is diminutive, has taken to passing his days listening to gospel radio and writing fiery letters to stations whose programs fail to line up with Scripture.
   “It’s late, is all,” I say, tugging my sweater tightly against me. “You might feel safer walking on the lighted side of the street.”
   She makes a dismissive sound. “I’ve been out and about around here before there was a street. What kind of life would it be if a person can’t take her buddy out of her own backyard? I noticed you weren’t in prayer meeting tonight. Thought you might be ill.”
   “I’m fine. The baby, she was sick.”
   Before she can respond, Luther takes that moment to lift his leg and do his business against the side of our building. Thankfully, I have a mask of darkness to hide my irritation.
   “That’s it, then,” she says, unmistakable triumph in her voice. “Here, let me give you this.” She wears a battered sweater of her own, and fishes around in its pocket as she approaches. Even though the loading platform is less than three feet off the ground, I loom above her like a monster. The night crackles with the sound of cellophane, and I see she is holding something up to me in her tiny hand. “A peppermint. For when you go back inside. I never developed a taste for the things myself, but I had a grandma who was never without her corncob pipe. And let me tell you, her breath . . .”
   She makes a high-pitched sound that sends Luther into a frenzy as he howls to match her tone.
   “Thank you.” I take it with sincere gratitude and hope the howling won’t wake Russ.
   “And maybe a spritz of perfume in your hair. It’s the hair that really traps the smell.”
   “I’ll keep that in mind.”
   “And don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me. And with Luther here, so long as he doesn’t learn to talk.”
   I indulge her joke with a shallow laugh. “Really, it’s not so much of a secret.” Russ knows, of course. He simply doesn’t approve. And because he doesn’t approve, I think it best he doesn’t know.
   “Still,” she says, “I won’t breathe a word.”
   “Well, I appreciate that.” She feels more like an ally than a conspirator, and I make a grateful show of unwrapping the mint and popping it into my mouth while Luther prances an arthritic circle around her leg. “Thanks again,” I speak around the candy.
   Mrs. Brown scoops Luther up, wishes me a good night, and sets off in a purposeful stride. The second cigarette lingers, forgotten, in my pocket while I suck on the candy, the taste of tobacco mixing in soothing concert with the mint, until it is dissolved to nothingness on my tongue.
   Once I’m back upstairs, having stolen my way into the bathroom, I wash my hands, tap a drop of Ariel eau de toilette on my fingertips, and run them through my hair, ready to slip back into bed beside my slumbering husband, all evidence of my secret erased.
Allison Pittman, On Shifting Sand Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., © 2015.

  ***I received a copy of Allison Pittman's On Shifting Sand from Tyndale Blog Network for review. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

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