My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a story that will run you through an emotional marathon at a sprinters pace. Rarely do you find a novel or a writer than can reach inside the reader to evoke such strong feelings but Shelli Johnson’s ‘Small as a Mustard Seed’ is that one in a million story.
The story’s central quandary is the question we must all answer at points in our lives; can we find the capacity to genuinely forgive and let go of resentment. The challenge in this story is that after Jolie and Ann Marie suffer so much irrevocable harm from their parents, how can either cope, let alone forgive. And if they cannot forgive, what price will they pay in harboring these unsettled feelings? For both girls it will be profound.
We’re introduced to Ann Marie, our ten year-old main character, who guides us through a turbulent decade living with her schizophrenic father Frank, by-standing mother Adele and rebellious sister Jolie. It’s November 1965 and already Jolie seems to bare the brunt of Frank’s delusional wrath, slowly pulling the sisters apart and leaving Ann Marie to watch helplessly.
Frank’s mind is muddled in delusions exacerbated by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), after his firsthand experience of the horrors of war on the frontlines in Korea. Frank brings the war home and his children suffer his physical, emotional and mental abuse, and their mother’s unwillingness to protect them challenges even their smallest hope of delivery from madness. Follow Ann Marie’s journey as the years pile on the grief and tear away at her scant bits of faith. You’ll be pulled inside the turmoil of Ann Marie’s search for answers, only to discover new unearthed tragedies under each layer of truth.
Shelli Johnson’s descriptive writing and ability to communicate feelings are the remarkable tools that pull you inside the story. I found a few bright moments that made me chuckle but the anguish she expressed through her characters manifested in my own stomach. I felt aching sadness for this family and desperately searched the pages to find some tiny shred of peace for them. I was angry with the demons that stole Frank’s soul and equally furious with Adele’s misguided loyalty. There were moments where even this steely veteran could no longer contain the lump in my throat or the hurt in my heart.
This was the most powerful novel I’ve read in many years because Johnson’s uncanny ability as a writer allows us to share an experience that echoes the questions and challenges we face in our own lives. Through the pain of Ann Marie’s family, Johnson gives us an opportunity to reevaluate our personal choices and face that central struggle; can faith as small as a mustard seed be enough to help us let go and forgive, or will we pay the price to hold on to resentment?
You will rarely find a story that can captivate your feelings and touch your soul like this one. I’ve not read its match in evoking so much emotional power and circumspection since Mitch Albom gave us ‘Tuesday’s With Morrie’. This is a must read for any adult looking for a real story. It is far and away one of the most significant reading experiences I’ve ever had.
Tom Clementson (Kindle Book Review)