Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Jeff High’s More Things in Heaven and Earth is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Really. And I read a bunch of books. This is the book you should give to your mother and your best friend at Christmas. After you read it yourself, of course.
The novel starts with this sentence: “In medical jargon it’s called a Code Blue.” The new doctor in Watervalley, Tennessee, faces a life or death situation in a clinic with inadequate supplies. Jeff High gives you action that has consequences and hooks you right from the get-go. The outcome is somewhat unexpected, and only after turning the last page do you realize how beautifully that first chapter sets up the rest of the book.
The next chapter backs up to show us the doctor’s arrival in this small town, a scene which is laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, I howled so loud that my husband wanted to know what on earth I was reading. Though an oral recap was never going to do it justice, I described the scene—and he laughed out loud, too. And kept chuckling the more he visualized the scene.
Luke Bradford, summa cum laude graduate of Vanderbilt, never wanted to be a small town doctor. Instead, he feels he was cut out to be a researcher. The man destined to discover a cure for mankind’s most serious ailments. But with a pile of student loans to pay off, Luke accepts Watervalley’s offer to be the town’s only doctor. This inner conflict between what he thinks he wants and what he gets weaves its way through the entire novel.
Other forces steer Luke toward Watervalley. His father chose the life of a small town doctor and loved it. Luke’s Aunt Grace knew medical school would teach him to heal bodies, but she wanted him to try life as a small town doctor because there is much more to a human being than a body. She inscribes a book to him this way: “A simple act of kindness, a simple word, is like a single drop of water. Gathered over a lifetime, they form an ocean of healing.”
And Luke is in need of healing. He is a loveable character, one with a tragic past, orphaned at 12 when his parents died in a car crash, then raised by Aunt Grace, who dies of cancer while he is in college. Because of his losses, he tends to erect barriers, not allowing himself to get too close to others. His reticence leaves him lonely and adrift in a new town.
High has a gift for capturing the humor of small town life. When a client doesn’t want the barber to put “smelly stuff” on his head because his wife will think he’s “been to a whorehouse,” the barber thinks for a moment, then replies, “Suit yourself. My wife doesn’t know what a whorehouse smells like.” The novel sparkles with one-liners like this.
Beyond the humor, the novel captures the joy and richness of living where your family has sunk roots deep into the soil. As I read this novel, I fell in love with Watervalley and its citizens.
There’s Connie Thompson, housekeeper with attitude and heart the size of a barn. John Harris, the brilliant, cynical recluse grieving after his wife’s death. Will Fox, the clever boy who lives next door with secrets no child should have to bear alone. Christine Chambers, the substitute teacher, admirable not only because she is beautiful and smart but also because she is not the least bit desperate to attach herself to a man.
And how could anyone not love the hard-working clinic staffers who battle to save lives during a flu outbreak? And of course, you gotta love the doctor who won’t quit until he figures out why the people in his care are becoming ill. By giving of himself, in ways both great and small, Luke becomes part of the fabric of Sweetwater.
The title, of course, comes from Shakespeare. Hamlet discusses a ghost’s visitation with Horatio, who can’t accept the vision with his rational mind. Hamlet cautions, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” As Luke follows in his father’s footsteps, he expands his own views of the world. He realizes life can exist outside the big city, that real life is happening to people right in front of him in a small town in Tennessee.
It’s not all pretty. Alcoholics, unwed mothers, grudges, illness, computer fraud, blame and shame are just as much a part of life in Watervalley as honest auto mechanics, church bells, and food delivered to your door in time of need.
The novel leaves us pondering the nature of a higher order governing our lives, bringing us in contact with the people who can help us grow and heal our wounds.
Jeff High grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. He has degrees in literature and nursing. A three-time winner of Vanderbilt Medical Center’s writing contest, High currently works as an operating room RN in open heart surgery. A sequel to the novel is in progress.
Click here to purchase this book: