Beneath Wandering Stars
Author: Ashlee Cowles
Published: August 2016 | Merit Press
Length: 272 pages
This novel hits a pretty specific niche, but one I hope my readers will appreciate. If you have ever read the Iliad or Odyssey this book is for you (Cowles frequently quotes these two works and they shape the characters). If you are allured by the idea of a pilgrimage, or simply a spiritual journey, and all the philosophical reflections that go along with it, this book is for you. If you sympathize with the struggles young soldiers have, or are willing to, this book will deepen your compassion. And, lest you think it is all talk, if you are in the mood for a slow, clean, tender romance you won’t be disappointed.
Independent, bantering Gabriela (Gabi) has her world all figured out. Graduate high school, go to college with her long-distance boyfriend of two years, and get out of the army life she never asked to be a part of. That is until she gets a call about her brother Lucas. Lucas, her closest friend, has been wounded on his deployment. Not only wounded, but in a comma. And, there is a letter revealing his potentially last request: walk Spain’s Camino De Santiago for him, with their father and Seth, his best friend.
When Gabi’s father is unable to go with them, it is up to Seth and Gabi to walk this pilgrimage for Lucas alone—with or without her father’s permission. Neither Gabi nor Seth is religious, despite Gabi’s Catholic upbringing, but aside from hoping for a miracle, Gabi commits to this journey to prove herself worthy to her deeply disappointed father by making it to the other side. Seth too shoulders obvious regrets, though he refuses to reveal them to Gabi.
In the beginning, Seth and Gabi are almost constantly at each other’s throats due to Gabi’s prejudiced assumptions about Seth’s volatile nature and soldierly pride (nod to Pride and Prejudice here?). Over time, with a few dramatic ups and downs, the sacrifices Seth makes for Lucas softens Gabi towards him, while Gabi has never been far from Seth’s heart at all.
Though the story line is straight forward, the inner transformations these two undergo are not. Just like a real spiritual journey, it is hard to pinpoint one moment that cracks open their cynicism and opens their hearts toward God, but it has something to do with talking out all the garbage that has held them back, and a lot to do with repentance.
This story taught me that repentance is not an obligation but a gift. It’s God’s invitation to drop the burden from our backs as we “work out our salvation” by putting one foot in front of the other (in this case, literally) towards God and away from our brokenness. Repentance is how we heal.
Aimed at young people, Cowles writes in contemporary teenage slang with characters who have a high tolerance for sarcasm. Though this choice made the story seem less timeless, it was an entertaining, romantically fuzzy read while still pressing in to deeper issues. Cowles has the unique ability to take the dense language of theology and re-pack it in a way that is unthreatening, and relatable to contemporary culture.
Review copy courtesy of Merit Press