In The Prayer Box by Lisa Wingate, Tandi Jo Reese has just escaped from a manipulative, law-breaking husband and is trying to make a new life for herself on Hatteras Island in the North Carolina Outer Banks. She’s coming out of a fog in more ways that one: after a serious accident, her doctor-husband supplied her with pain-killers, and it’s not until she determined to get off of them that she realized she had left her 14 year old daughter Zoey and 8 year old son J. T. to largely fend for themselves, and now Zoey resents any of Tandi’s intrusion into her life. She tries to find a job but doesn’t want to use references because she doesn’t want her ex-husband to find them.
She’s rented a little cottage next to an old Victorian house, and after realizing she hasn’t seen her elderly neighbor for a while, she goes to investigate and finds that the 91 year old lady, Iola Anne Poole, has passed away. Iola has left her house to the church, and someone from there asks Tandi if she would be interested in earning a little money by cleaning the house, especially getting rid of old food, etc.
As Tandi goes through the house, she discovers in Iola’s closet 81 decorated boxes. She pulls one out to investigate and finds that they are prayer boxes, each representing a year, in which Iola wrote out her prayers to God. As Tandi starts reading, she gets caught up in Iola’s past and her faith. The island people knew little about Iola, some even resented her for various reasons, but few knew the real woman.
Tandi grew up with con artist parents who often neglected their kids but wouldn’t allow her grandparents to take them. She tends to be attracted to the wrong kind of man, mainly succumbing to their admiration of her, and is stunned to realize her daughter is about to follow in her footsteps.Though Iola’s situation was much different, in reading her letters to God, Tandi finds much that speaks to her own heart.
A number of themes run through the book: the need for a healthy sense of self-worth, the truth that though we have to accept our past as part of us, it doesn’t have to bind us, and that family sometimes transcends blood ties.
I loved the setting of the book. We lived in SC for most of our married lives, and I always thought the Outer Banks would be a nice place to visit. I grew up near the coast of TX with frequent visits to Padre Island, and one of my favorite vacations with our family was right on Folly Beach in Charleston, SC. I don’t think I’d want to live on a beach, but there’s something about it that draws me, and this little coastal community in the book sounded like such a lovely place.
In some places Lisa’s writing sings: in other places it drags. I know writers are advised to tuck descriptions throughout the narrative rather than having long paragraphs of it like writers used to do. But there were a couple of times when Tandi was going through Iola’s house, and the passage described details of what she saw and wondered about so much that It seemed to take an insufferably long time. Maybe that was supposed to heighten anticipation, especially the second time (when Tandi thinks someone is in the house), but it had the opposite effect on me. And sometimes in conversations the author has Tandi thinking about something else for several paragraphs until she answers, making it seem like she just left the other person hanging while she was lost in her thoughts for a while. It may have seemed a little more like that because I was listening to an audiobook: though I love them, one problem with them is that you can’t speed up or slow down as you could when reading.
My only other complaint is that though there are great spiritual truths in the book, faith in general seemed a vague and nebulous thing. I’ve written before that I don’t think every Christian fiction book has to have a conversion scene or the plan of salvation, I understand that novels aren’t sermons, that good fiction sometimes employs nuance and suggestion rather than spelling things out for the reader. As I said there, it’s not so much the amount the the gospel that is presented in a book, but rather the clarity of the gospel (or lack thereof) that I often have trouble with. I think an unbeliever reading this book might get that some of the characters have faith (of some kind) and help people, that some of the characters’ lives change, that God the Father loves us and we can talk to Him and ask Him for forgiveness….but I don’t remember any of that being based on Jesus and what He did to make it possible or the need to believe on and accept Him personally – unless I just overlooked it. Then again, perhaps the author intended this for a Christian audience who would already understand these things. I’ve been debating with myself about whether to elaborate more, but I think I’ll just leave it at that for now.
My favorite passage in the book is from one of Iola’s letters written when she was older:
What does a lighthouse do? I ask myself. It never moves. It cannot hike up its rocky skirt and dash into the ocean to rescue the foundering ship. It cannot calm the waters or clear the shoals. It can only cast light into the darkness. It can only point the way. Yet, through one lighthouse, you guide many ships. Show this old lighthouse the way.
Here are a few more favorite quotes:
We do not choose the vessel we’re given, Iola Anne, but we choose what we pour out and what we keep inside.
Fear builds walls instead of bridges. I want a life of bridges, not walls.
The trouble with drowning in the mess of your own life is that you’re not in any shape to save anyone else. You can’t be a lighthouse when you’re underwater yourself.
Maybe there came a point in life where you had to quit categorizing whole groups of people by a few bad experiences.
Help them to show the world that our greatness is not in things we do for ourselves, but in things we do for others. In power that channels itself into kindness, in a hand outstretched in love.
Some of the hardest things you go through will teach you the most.
Overall I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading more in this series.
Genre: Inspirational fiction
Potential objectionable elements: Someone walks in on a couple undressing and obviously heading for sex, but nothing is explicit: the scene is more about betrayal. A few instances of drinking and drunkenness, not presented favorably.
My rating: 8 out of 10
(Sharing with Carol‘s Books You Loved and Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)