I have the great privilege of reviewing another great work of art by Michèle Phoenix.
The back cover of the books gives a snippet of who Michèle is and why she writes what she writes. But just a snippet.
Born in France to an American mother and a Canadian father, Michèle Phoenix is an international writer with multicultural sensitivities. A graduate of Wheaton College, she taught writing, music, and theater at the boarding school for missionaries’ children she attended as a teenager. She currently works for Global Outreach Mission as an advocate for “third culture kids,” helping them transition back to North American culture and educating stateside churches and missions about the special needs of this people group.
The missionaries’ school mentioned here refers to the one in Kandern, where I currently live. My husband teaches grade five at this school, Black Forest Academy, where a portion of the story In Broken Places occurs.
In fact, I teach the Creative Writing class the Michèle once taught.
In Broken Places follows a young women, Shelby, as memories and fear of her troubled childhood come back to trouble her present. Shelby has to decide whether “ashes” can be made beautiful in her own life, or whether to flee from all the things that trigger her trauma. In a moment of courage, Shelby decides to move across the world with her new four year-old daughter in order to start life afresh. She takes a teaching position at a missionary school, Black Forest Academy, in the southern Black Forest of Germany. Here she comes face to face with the ways her past can strengthen her… or forever maim her from enjoying everything good in her life.
This is a story of overcoming deep and painful struggle.
The weighty plot elements are driven by loveable, relatable characters. A number of the characters brought the faces of people I know to mind… the everyday people in my life. This made me realize just how “normal” these characters are… and how their quirks, flaws, strengths… are all part of our general life stories. Or of those we know.
The style of writing is artistic, with a flow that keeps it “real” but also intelligent. The voices are distinct, each with their own bit of humor, which helps to lighten a difficult topic. I love Shelby’s brother, Trey. I’ve always wanted a Trey in my life. Always. But that’s more about me (and perhaps a post for another day, called “Phantom Big Brothers). Regardless, Trey is a sidelines hero and, though Michèle didn’t originally plan him as part of the story, he convinced her of his place, and rightly so.
As you can imagine, I enjoyed this book with great bias. I could picture everything… the theatre practices, the town, the hikes in the woods to nearby castles. When a local village was mentioned, I smiled. When Shelby grappled with transitioning to a new culture (both that of Germany and that of the missionary community), you would’ve caught me nodding my head in agreement, or chuckling at how Shelby’s experience, at times, was such a mirror of my own.
It’s not a fast-paced book (though it is a fairly quick read). It’s not filled with catastrophic possible world-endings or mass destruction of millions (or a handful) of people. The energy that keeps the book moving forward is simply that of a wounded, traumatized person trying to understand life. When twists and turns threaten to rock the carefully controlled stability, fear of re-opened wounds, or propagating and repeating history, and of losing control, take front and center stage. Because you love the characters and care about their journey, you keep reading. Isn’t that why anyone ever keeps reading? Because you care? Well, when you read In Broken Places, you will care a lot about Shelby, Shayla, Trey, Scott, and a handful of others.
Even if you have no connections to Kandern, Germany, or even teaching-as-a-missionary life… this is a great book. If you are someone who has fears, obstacles, a past you don’t want to repeat… this book is for you. You’ll relate deeply with Shelby’s process. You’ll cheer for her… and as I found, in essence, your cheers will be as much for your own journey as hers.