Earthly and Divine

Review by Allison Zbicz Michael

While most clerical fiction is dominated by celibate protagonists or scenes of saccharine domestic simplicity, A Tumblin’ Down gives the whole clerical family the starring role. Uniquely equipped to tell this tale, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson grew up as a pastor’s daughter in rural Delaware County, New York, a part of the country described beautifully (and sometimes very humorously) in the novel, and she has served her adult years as a pastor, a theologian, and a pastor’s spouse. While not autobiographical in the details, and often whimsical in style, the author’s voice and intuitive sense of the challenges and possibilities for the characters come through on each page.

A Tumblin’ Down follows experiences of each member of the Abner family — especially Pastor Donald, his wife, Carmichael, and his pre-teen daughter, Kitty — who each (in their own eccentric ways) struggle to make peace with themselves, their past, and their community. Only Saul and Asher, the family’s two youngest sons, have yet to be filled with the self-conscious quest to reconcile their past and present. After a horrific tragedy occurs, the quotidian struggles of parish life at Mt. Moriah Lutheran Church, and community life in Shibboleth, New York, become a crushing load for the family and for the church community.

While not every clergy family will experience a loss like the one the Abner family experiences, the novel will surely resonate with anyone who has spent time in church ministry. The church she presents captures the earthly and divine character of the parish community, from the wicked sins and absurd foibles of the people of God to the transcendent goodness of God mediated through human frailty. What clergy family does not know about tense council meetings and plotting members, the unique and humorous awkwardness of synod and diocesan assemblies, self-doubt and spiritual crises, the challenges faced by spouses who bring their gifts and struggle to find their place, and the difficulties of fitting in as the preacher’s kid?

But so too, what pastor has not received the kindness of an elderly parishioner whose faith through long life has helped anchor his own? Or what priest has not heard some necessary but forgotten truths spoken to her by a faithful colleague? Which of us has not found grace to help in time of need? The Abner family certainly has.

The grace that the members of the Abner family find along the way never provides a facile answer to the pain of their loss, and often the grace of God that carries them from one day to the next is so very hard for them to see, but Pastor Donald, Carmichael, and Kitty all catch glimpses of it in surprising places along the way. This nuanced account of grief, grace, and the life of the clerical family all make this book well worth your attention. Whether you want to experience through the Abner family the challenges, absurdities, and joys of clergy family life, or whether you are weighed down by grief or a difficult season in ministry, A Tumblin’ Down may give you a glimpse of grace, too.

The Rev. Dr. Allison Zbicz Michael is associate pastor of St. Francis’ Church, Potomac, Maryland.


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