“The Story Keeper,” by Lisa Wingate

Lisa Wingate

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Escaping the past proves more difficult than New York editor Jen Gibbs thinks in The Story Keeper, Lisa Wingate’s uplifting new novel about a woman’s journey to find a manuscript, and along the way, to reclaim the missing parts of her soul.

Jen has barely begun her new job at Vida House when the first few chapters of twenty-year-old manuscript mysteriously appear on her desk. The title, “The Story Keeper,” is handwritten on a smudged and torn coversheet complete with an illustration but absent an author name. Nonetheless, Jen is sure she recognizes the distinctive style of the reclusive Evan Hall, who has shunned all writing and publicity since his first books, the Time Shifter series, became cult classics. Adding to Jen’s difficulties, to find Hall and persuade him to give her the rest of the story, she must return to the backwoods region she struggled to escape.

This bewitching tale transports you and Jen Gibbs to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Not to the places you’ve seen as a tourist, but way on back in the hollers where you might encounter Melungeons, a mixed race people; or the Brethren Saints, a secretive religious cult.

Jen was raised in the cult, which still controls her entire family. The Brethren Saints believe in public punishments and repression of women. Its members shun higher education and dress in antiquated clothing. They would just as soon be on the public dole as work. While they scorn Jen for leaving, they don’t mind writing her for money, which they squander irresponsibly so there is never any left for necessities like dental work or leaky roofs.

Despite the ugly aspects of the religion, Wingate is too fine a writer to paint an entirely bleak picture of their faith. Jen’s family members redeem themselves to some extent through their actions, and the author leaves us with hope that not every woman in the family will resign herself to beatings and humiliation.

The novel alternates between Jen’s first person story as she tries to locate the manuscript’s author with chapters of the manuscript itself. The two tales intertwine into one enchanting whole.

In an adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet story, the manuscript tells of the ill-fated love between a Melungeon girl and an uppercrust Charleston preacher. Melungeons, a race of unknown origin—perhaps a mix of black, Indian, and early white settlers—are regarded by many as bad luck, possibly even witches. So how can the young preacher Rand possibly take Sarra home to his family, no matter how much he cares for her?

Voices in the manuscript reach out to Jen, touching parts of herself she thought she’d vanquished. The past is rooted deep within, like the trace of a southern drawl that remains despite her best efforts to erase it. The prejudice Sarra encounters as a Melungeon mirrors the pain Jen faced as a child growing up in a religion that isolated its members from the rest of the community and the world.

Jen faces many obstacles in making her first big publishing acquisition: an author who detests the fame that came with his first books, his twelve-year-old daughter’s escapades, and the time required to care for his ailing mother. But coming to terms with the family and past Jen left behind might be the biggest obstacle of all.

While the story of Rand and Sarra is Wingate’s invention, the preservation of similar folklore matters. Wingate explains the importance in a speech given by the character Evan Hall: “Our stories are powerful. They teach, they speak, they inspire. They bring about change. But they are also fragile. Their threads are so easily broken by time, by lack of interest, by failure to understand the value that comes of knowing where we have been and who we have been. In this speed-of-light culture, our histories are fading more quickly than ever. Yet when we lose our stories, we lose ourselves.”

Wingate is a magazine columnist, speaker, and the author of over twenty mainstream fiction novels, including the national bestseller, Tending Roses, now in its nineteenth printing.  She is a seven-time ACFW Carol award nominee, a Christy Award nominee, an Oklahoma Book Award finalist, and a two-time Carol Award winner. Her books were named to Booklist’s Top 10 lists in both 2012 and 2013.  Wingate lives on a ranch in Texas, where she spoils the livestock, raises boys, and works with several charities.

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