Reviewed by Mollie Smith Waters
Although it is rare to read a book that will change one’s perspective on life, it is not all that uncommon to learn a valuable life lesson from a good read. Such is the case with Lisa Wingate’s The Prayer Box, a solid story with a clear message: do not to judge a book, or a person for that matter, by its cover.
Iola Anne Poole has always been a thorn in the otherwise harmonious town of Fairhope on Hatteras Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. When she is found dead, the citizens of Fairhope are not exactly upset. After all, Iola Anne was old and died in her sleep, so there is no reason, and no one, to mourn her passing. When Tandi Jo Reese is hired to clean out Iola’s place, she does not know what she will find, and although she is not exactly thrilled to be going through a dead woman’s possessions, she needs the job badly.
Because Tandi is in hiding from an abusive ex-boyfriend who got her hooked on prescription drugs, she cannot apply for a job where background checks will be made, so when the minister of the church that will inherit Iola’s home asks Tandi to clean it, she sees the offer as a God-send. This job will provide food for her two children, and perhaps it will even prove to them that their mom is finally starting to get her act together.
What Tandi discovers inside Iola’s home is a horror that could be featured on the show Hoarders. Clearly, Iola never threw anything away! While cleaning, Tandi stumbles upon some mysterious boxes, nearly 80 of them, that Iola has hidden in one of her bedrooms. Upon opening a box, Tandi realizes they contain letters that Iola has written to her Father, her heavenly one. Each of these prayer boxes represents a year of Iola’s life, and in them, the secrets of the reclusive Iola Anne Poole are revealed. Tandi discovers that she and Iola are not so very different, and she realizes that this little old lady the whole town has been at odds with for years has actually been their secret savior on several occasions.
Through her readings of Iola’s letters, Tandi begins to make other discoveries as well. For one, she realizes that she is stronger than she thinks, and her newfound backbone allows her to conquer some lingering fears and doubts about herself. Now, she is ready to trust people again and to rid herself of some heavy emotional baggage.
Yet, with each gain Tandi makes, a setback emerges. Although she has ended one abusive relationship, she merely stumbles into another with surfer boy Ross, who does not like either of her children. Also, Tandi’s constant moving from place to place has left her children unmoored and rebellious. To top things off, Tandi’s wild, seductive, and flighty sister arrives to throw things into confusion just when they appear to be settling down. Tandi must fight hard if she is to overcome all of the obstacles in her path.
Although The Prayer Box is mainly about Tandi’s self-realizations and troubles, the real beauty of the book is found in Iola’s letters. Through those, one glimpses a life that was well-lived, yet not without its own complications. Iola Anne grew up in an orphanage for children of mixed race, but because she was light-skinned enough to pass, she was accepted as white. It is a secret she carried with her to the grave. Readers will be delighted in how Iola’s story unfolds and how the prayer boxes act as little time capsules. Truly, Iola’s story is what makes the book so fascinating; Tandi’s revelations are just icing on the cake.
Yet, the book is not without a few problems. For one, Iola’s cat gets blamed too often for the mysterious events that take place in the house while Tandi is cleaning. The cat is able to turn on water faucets, make things move, and lead people right where they need to be. While the cat makes a convenient scapegoat for the house’s strangeness, it is a slight weak point in an otherwise well-written book.
A wonderful read from a proven author, The Prayer Box by Lisa Wingate is a beautifully crafted tale of self-discovery, faith, and love.
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