November Read of the Month: “Christian Bend,” by Karen Spears Zacharias

Karen Spears Zacharias

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Karen Spears Zacharias writes with remarkable sensitivity and insight. She is so profoundly in touch with her fictional people that she can present a tale from multiple points of view with an acuity and heart-felt honesty that soon makes her characters feel like close friends to the reader.

Because of this perception and sensitivity, reading Christian Bend (Mercer University Press, 2017) is not unlike joining a sprawling, complicated, and wonderful family reunion and reconnecting with kith and kin first introduced in Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press, 2013). Zacharias returns in Christian Bend to the people and places she introduced in prior novels, as well as tying up some of the loose ends at the end of Burdy (Mercer University Press, 2015).

Christian Bend is the name of a real place in east Tennessee, and under Zacharias’s tender and talented handling, the community itself becomes as much a character in the novel as Burdy Luttrell, the main protagonist. In Christian Bend, as with the preceding Burdy and Mother of Rain, Zacharias captures the spirit of the locale perfectly—as well she might since she has family roots there. Her memoir, After the Flag Has Been Folded (HarperCollins, 2009), introduced Zacharias’s readers not only to Christian Bend, but also to her great aunt Cil, short for Lucille. Aunt Cil, no doubt, is the inspiration for Burdy; both have the same physical description and both are the rock solid centers of their communities.

As Christian Bend begins, Burdy is set to leave the hospital to continue healing at home from serious wounds she received a month before in an active shooter situation in a drugstore. She is the lone survivor. Her daughter Wheedin hovers protectively and with anxieties that go beyond Burdy’s physical wounds. Burdy has befriended Thomasina, a nurse who recently escaped from a brutal marriage and is trying to rebuild her life.

Across the ocean in France, two men who figure prominently in Burdy’s life make cautious overtures toward each other as both worry about not having heard from Burdy in too long a time. Neither knows that Burdy was shot and is in the hospital.

One of these men, Zebulon Hurd, a shell-shocked veteran of D-Day, has been nearly destroyed by his wartime experiences and their lingering memories. Through the kindness of a Catholic priest and others in a French village, however, Zeb has fashioned a simple kind of life which he can tolerate.

The other man is Burdy’s long-time lover, Clint, who is so unlike Burdy in background and culture as to be an odd match for her. Despite their differences, Clint and Burdy have sustained a long-distance relationship for years—a relationship Burdy has kept a secret. Neither is young, and Burdy’s long white hair marks her as someone who does not seek to hide her age. Burdy is in no way ashamed of handsome, sophisticated Clint, but she’s just never been able to figure out how to tell Wheedin or anyone else about her other life in which she regularly visits both Clint and Zeb in France.

When Clint and Zeb cannot reach Burdy by phone at her home, they decide to travel to Tennessee. Zeb confronts the proposed trip with great fear because his son Rain has long believed him dead. Rain has a special relationship with Burdy and is much beloved as someone Burdy helped raised after his mother died. But for complicated reasons, Burdy never let Rain know his father survived D-Day and is living quietly in France. Coming back to Tennessee to search for Burdy will mean Zeb must reveal himself to his son, and Zeb does not know how either he or Rain will react.

The heart, soul and emotional power of Christian Bend lie with the characters. Yet the plot moves forward with intrigue as local law enforcement tries to identify the shooter who seriously wounded Burdy and killed three others at a drugstore. Kade, a country singer turned law officer, returns to the area to aid the locals. He meets Thomasina, the troubled nurse that cared for Burdy, adding a romantic element to the plot. And, of course, the buildup to the confrontation between Zeb and the son who thought him long dead creates tension in the plot. Clint and Burdy’s reconnection adds a further element of romance.

Many characters in Christian Bend are physically or emotionally wounded or disabled. Rain is nearly deaf. Burdy is recovering from a dangerous wound in her leg. Wheedin has lost an arm. Zeb suffers from PTSD. Thomasina and Kade have emotional scars. Yet all transcend their wounds and come together in a healing brought about by Burdy and the community. Thus, Zacharias shows through the actions of her characters two central themes—that one can be damaged without being broken and that love and forgiveness generate great healing. Even the most emotionally wounded of them all, Zeb, the shell-shocked veteran of D-Day, finds a gentle kind of healing in the forgiveness offered to him.

By taking Zeb from his despair into a precious recovery, Zacharias displays both her talent for expression and her deep understanding of the costs of war:

Zeb had come to understand that when military leaders say war is hell, it isn’t the battlefield they are referring to. It’s the eternal afterward, when a man has to live with what he’s done. The killing. The loss of life and limb and buddy and, in Zeb’s case, a child. Some men are able to justify wars at any cost. Most, however, struggle through the rest of their lives, trying to reconcile all that war demanded from them. Zeb fell into the latter category. Even eternity wasn’t long enough to work through all that World War II had exacted from him.

A Georgia native, Zacharias now lives in Oregon where she is a lecturer at Central Washington University and conducts workshops.  She has received the Weatherford Award for Best in Appalachian Fiction and been named a finalist for the Crook’s Corner Book Prize. Her work has been featured on CNN as well as National Public Radio. Zacharias has served on a national advisory board for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation and the Vietnam Wall Memorial Foundation Education Center.

As a writer, Zacharias combines the acuity of a journalist (which she has been) and the vision and language of a poet. Her writing is clear, direct, yet often lyrical, and always on point. With its themes of redemption and forgiveness, Christian Bend is one of her finest novels and deserves to be read and appreciated.

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