Monday, January 17, 2005

dale cramer - writer extraordinaire

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In recent days Bethany House editor Dave Long has drawn the attention of readers of faith*in*fiction, to writer Dale Cramer and the short shrift his second novel, Bad Ground, has received from the CBA and thus also from the mega-store market – all this this after being one of the few CBA books chosen to be reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly.

I, for one, am not surprised Dale Cramer’s has been singled out by a literary force. While you’re shopping for his second book, why don’t you also check out his first? I read Sutter’s Cross a little over a year ago, and was so impressed, I wrote a book review - for which, sadly, there were no takers. If you need more convincing, consider my year-old thoughts, on Sutter's Cross below.

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Always on the prowl for good new Christian fiction, I found Sutter’s Cross, a first novel by W. Dale Cramer, a pleasant surprise.

The story is set in fictional Sutter’s Cross, a tourist town in the north Georgia mountains, and spans a summer. Cramer begins by plunking us into the middle of the Community Church’s annual fried chicken and potato salad feed. There we meet narrator Jake Mahaffey and a scruffy interloper named Harley - who immediately catches Jake’s eye because Harley is wearing his pants! The various responses of the church members to Harley plunge us immediately into one of the main themes of the book - the church, its role in the world and the reaction of its members to anything that challenges the status quo.

Early in the book, Cramer also introduces us to the Holcombe family - Web, a Vietnam veteran and now successful land developer, and Eddy his 12- year old son (along with Marcus, Eddy’s friend). The elder Holcombe is the self-appointed ‘King of Sutter’s Cross.’ He’d be Eddy’s king too, if only he’d show up once in a while! Not surprisingly, Web had father issues with his own dad, Will, as a youth. Through Will, Web and Eddy, Cramer explores the theme of fathers and sons.

But in Sutter’s Cross, Cramer has created far more than just a soapbox from which to deliver his take on various themes. He has the instincts of a master storyteller. Web Holcombe’s land development ambitions together with a petering out hurricane late in the story guarantee that there is no lack of conflict, intrigue and suspense. And this land development aspect of the story add home, stewardship of nature, and land to the list of themes.

Cramer has an elegant way with words. Note this description of what met Jake when he arrived at Agnes Dewberry’s cottage:

"... a black-and-tan coonhound crawled out from under the porch, stretched, yawned and posted himself by the steps, pawing at an ear with his hind foot. Past the south end of the house lay a two-acre truck patch whose keeper obviously understood the earth. The lush garden radiated a deep, cool, blue-green, with cornstalks already six feet high and tomatoes as big as
grapefruits." P. 22

But his prose also has its quirky side - which I think helps him draw his cast of believable characters. Here’s one of our first run-ins with Web Holcombe:

"Web hated Fridays. It seemed everybody in construction piddled around all week trying to figure out the best way to cheat the weekly percentages and then ended up busting their hump to get all the work done on Friday..." p.29

His characterization is also satisfying because of his skillful use of dialogue and the convincing but easy-to-read regional speech of country folks like Miss Agnes.

One of the ways this book impacted me personally, was to make me ask, who of the characters was I most like. I saw bits of myself in the down-to-earth Agnes Dewberry, the open-minded Jake, and his idealistic and courageous wife Lori. But I was also pricked by glimpses of self-recognition in the pompous, Bible-quoting (but not -living) Orde Wingo.

The book is divided into 49 chapters and ends with an Epilogue. Included at the end is a "Reading Group Discussion Guide" - a list of eleven discussion topics - making the book a great choice for in-depth individual study or discussion in a reading group

You’ll see similarities to the Sutter’s Cross plot in the movies "The Shepherd of the Hills," and "Joshua." It has the colorful characters and sense of community found in the Mitford Series books by Jan Karon. I’d recommend it highly for the fiction-lover side of you.

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