Reviewed by Donna Meredith
With the third novel in the Watervalley series, Jeff High’s talent has matured as he captures the rich tapestry of small-town life – as few contemporary authors have – in The Splendor of Ordinary Days. The author plumbs the depths of the most important bonds of our lives in this heart-warming narrative exploring the dreams and values we cherish most as Americans.
The Splendor of Ordinary Days defies the tendency of sequels to lose energy and become repetitive. Instead, every scene contributes to a fresh, satisfying whole that equals more than the sum of its parts. Deft touches of magical realism infuse the story with irresistible sparkle and charm. The novel continues the adventures of Luke Bradford, a recent graduate used to the hustle of urban life, as he adapts to Watervalley, Tennessee, as the town’s only doctor. Though he has become deeply devoted and involved with Watervalley’s residents, sometimes he still feels as if he doesn’t belong.
Service to one’s country and community stands at the heart of this story. Mysterious fires, occurring decades apart, create much of the tension.
Luke finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the townspeople and the Mennonites who live on surrounding farms. When firefighters respond to a fire on Mennonite land but find their help is not needed, they are late responding to a second fire on the other side of the county. Three firefighters, all military veterans, are injured, sparking anger as speculation grows that if these men hadn’t been delayed by the Mennonites, the injuries wouldn’t have occurred. A news article fans the flames by suggesting the religious sect members “shamefully make no voluntary contribution to protect the very freedoms they enjoy.”
When Luke visits a shut-in, the wise old man advises the doctor to speak up about the misguided views of the incendiary article. When we fail to confront wrongs, the old man says, we become disillusioned and “lose sight of the splendor of ordinary days.”
This encouragement is all the impetus Luke needs. As a doctor, Luke feels his job is “to give a damn”; often he serves as a facilitator for reconciliation and healing wounds beyond the physical. He sets out to learn why the newspaper editor, Luther Whitmore, is so vitriolic toward the religious sect. Luther claims he is no different from many others who went to serve in Vietnam: when they went there, they believed in “country, patriotism, service, God” and when they returned they believed in “nothing.” Though highly decorated, Luther refuses recognition for his service. He is wracked by a guilty secret that has “soured [him] on life.”
Providing unity, the story also highlights three other veterans and their difficulties returning to civilian life. Watervalley’s new veterinarian, Karen Davis, spent some time in a mental hospital recovering from the horrors of war. Clayton Ross deals with his experiences by drinking heavily. And the local disc jockey, Gene Alley, sometimes breaks down and speaks only in song titles, a reaction no one can quite explain. Once again, Luke pulls the right people together to heal—to unburden their souls and seek forgiveness so they can finally forgive themselves.
Eyes develop into an important symbol as Luke examines a Mennonite man, Eli Yoder, for cataracts, and Luther Whitmore for macular degeneration. These one-time childhood friends both have only a partial view of the past, and as Luke intuits the full truth, he provides them with a fuller understanding of their past with the promise of greater peace in the future.
The love story between Luke and Christine Chambers reaches a touching and truly beautiful climax in The Splendor of Ordinary Days. Surprising twists and challenges arise as they face the kind of real world trial most human couples confront at some point. As Luke learns, “Despite all we do, all we plan, all we prepare, this stupid, broken world will find new reasons for us to say the hell with it and walk away.” Real love is about not walking way when life turns out differently from our dreams and plans, when we realize we can’t control everything.
The Splendor of Ordinary Days portrays to perfection the most treasured aspects of human life: the deep bond between parent and child, the union of a man and a woman who truly love each other, the affectionate connection to our neighbors. These human bonds run so deep and true in Watervalley that not even death severs the ties. Not even death suppresses the desire to know one’s beloved has found some measure of peace.
And there’s no one better suited than the town’s only doctor to bring peace and healing to the valley.
Jeff High’s Watervalley trilogy also includes More Things in Heaven and Earth and Each Shining Hour. While the newest installment works as a stand alone, reading the whole series is highly recommended.
High grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee, later earning degrees in literature and nursing. A three-time winner of Vanderbilt Medical Center’s writing contest, he currently works as an operating room RN in open heart surgery.