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On Seeds and Shoes and Beth Kephart's The Great Upending

Beth Kephart's The Great Upending opens with a whisper through a wall:

"Moon's in bloom," Hawk says. "Just hanging there. No strings."

And just like that, we all lean in a little. We want to know this Hawk, and we want to know his sister Sara, and we want to sit out on that roof with them and look out over their dark farm toward the silo their mom and dad fixed up to rent out. And like them, we want to know more about the mysterious Mister who responded to their rental ad (Come. Stay.) with his Cadillac and his unicycle and his wish for complete privacy.

The Great Upending is a beautiful book, gorgeously written for language-lovers, those of us who are knocked flat by unexpected descriptions and phrasings that keep singing long after the book is over. Sometimes, with writing like this, the descriptions can bog a reader down, especially for the young. In the case of The Great Upending, they definitively do not. For every gorgeous line, every thoughtful and rightly-fitted description, is balanced entirely by our love and hope and wish for these characters, their story, and their place. The story unfolds swiftly and with a childlike energy, and when, in the end, the pieces of the puzzle fall more fully together, the reader is left with a completely wonderful reading experience.

Loath as I am to reveal too much plot, I would still be remiss if I didn't mention that this story takes place on a family farm, where hope and despair are close companions. Every year, every day, brings new opportunities to live out a certain kind of faith: a faith that knows what happens when you plant a seed. Is there anything more hopeful than freshly-tilled soil and a handful of seeds? The thing about a farm is you still have to do the work, even if the crop is coming in poor, even if the animals are sickly and you don't know why, even if the soil is so dry you can't be sure it still counts as soil anymore.

A farm, especially one suffering from drought, is also exactly the right location for a story that points up the difficulties of managing a chronic disorder (in this case Marfan Syndrome) within a broken health care system. Without hope, it would be unbearable, so you always hope. But there are long, difficult days, days of fearful crying and wonder how it will ever get paid for, and every day you still have to get up and do the work. Sara and Hawk and her family show us what happens when love and the care of your neighbors is just about all you have.

Into this landscape, Kephart layers in The Mister, and what a fascinating twist he is. An elusive creative, The Mister is as unclear to the reader as he is to Sara and Hawk for most of the book, but he reminds all of us to never cease looking for, focusing on, and in many cases, creating the good and beautiful in this world. In the face of, well all of it, this reminder is critical. We can and should be fixed on the beauty, marveling at the blooming moon and the strength of a family and the audacity of a pair of red shoes. Why shoes? You'll need to read The Great Upending to find out!

The Great Upending will be available March 31. Preorder now from or your favorite independent bookseller.


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