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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai
LOVE COMES SOFTLY,
JANETTE OKE'S MESSAGE OF HOPE AND EXPECTATION
1. EVERY CHRISTIAN NOVEL A MISSIONARY?
Gary Johnson, president of Bethany House Publishers, once remarked in a student chapel in Minneapolis that his prayer was that every book he publishes or has published would be a missionary in book form. Neither he nor Carol Johnson, the chief editor of fiction at Bethany House Publishers, publisher of Janette Oke's novels, would have ever thought that Janette Oke's books would not only be a missionary in book form, but would become a powerful engine that would propel the missionary efforts of that small community in one of the suburbs of Minneapolis, founded fifty-seven years ago. The Lord hand-led Carol Johnson in 1978 to recommend the publication of a novel from an unknown writer, Janette Oke. Carol said in a recent interview with Professor Mike Leeming that she (Janette Oke)
had sent in two chapters and I read them and I really connected with the characters that she had created. And so I asked her to send us the manuscript. Then several of us read it. This was in 1978. … At the time (Christian fiction) wasn't even a category that most people thought of. But I somehow was able to express that I had really connected with this book, and so we decided to give it a try. And Janette Oke has been on every bestsellers list since 1983! (See Christian Literature Today, February 2002)
From lefse plate and trailer selling trades to support its global missionary effort, the small community of missions-minded people became a leading publisher of Christian literature in that single stroke!
2. HELP GET CONNECTED - THE KEY TO JANETTE OKE'S SUCCESS
It was just getting the characters connected to the people who read the novels that made Janette Oke's writing a great success. People "really get connected with the characters that she had created."
The story line is simple, and it could even be a familiar story line. The language and style in which the story is couched is also simple. Then, where does the appeal to millions of readers, who faithfully buy every novel written by Janette Oke, come from? There is no one who could answer this with confidence. But Janette Oke herself knows for sure the answer to this modern mystery.
3. MYSTERY UNVEILED
In her preface to the first novel, Love Comes Softly, she writes:
The life of the pioneer holds much appeal for present-day Americans-and well it should, for it is to these strong, courageous people that we owe so much of our heritage. The question still comes to us: Why do we who have so much take such pleasure in reliving the past with those who had so little? The answer, perhaps, is not too obscure. When the "little" that one possesses comes so grudgingly, there is careful sorting of priorities. If life is simple, the simple things held onto must be of lasting value. Life tends to lose its clutter and only what is of true worth is accepted and cherished-be it material possessions, friends, personal attitudes, or spiritual concepts. (Preface to Love Comes Softly, p. 9, 1979).
4. BEGINNING WITH A TRAGIC NOTE!
Love Comes Softly begins with a tragic note, an unusual and daring way to begin the first novel by a writer who really needs a publisher! "The morning sun shone brightly," but the heart of Marty, the main character, a young woman, begins her day with a heavy heart, "fighting for wakefulness." One important part of Marty's past life is narrated within a paragraph or so in the very beginning of the novel: "Clem was gone. The strong, boastful, boyish Clem who had so quickly and easily made her love him. Less than two short years ago she had seen him for the first time, self-assured, almost to the point of swaggering. Then in only fourteen months time she was a married woman, out West, beginning a new and challenging adventure with the man she loved-until yesterday. Yesterday her whole world had crumbled about her. The men who came told her that her Clem was dead. Killed outright."
5. THE UNFOLDING OF THE STORY AND THE FUTURE
This story begins with death, but it is not about death and misery, it is about hopeful future and obedience to God. "Clem was gone. She was without him. He was to be buried on borrowed land." Things happened on the very day of the funeral. Clark Davis, one of the shovel bearers, approached her hesitantly: "Ma'am, I know thet this be untimely-ya jest havin' buried you husband an' all-but I'm afraid the matter can't wait none fer a proper-like time an' place … I have a little 'un, not much more'n a mite-an' she be needin' a mama. Now as ai see it, if we marries, you an' me- … we could solve both of those problems. I would have waited but the preacher is only here fer today an' won't be back through ain 'til next April or May, so's it has to be today."
6. TO LET GO OF THEIR PAST AND LOOK TOWARDS FUTURE
Both Clark and Marty needed to let go of their past and hold on to the present for a happy future. It was not easy. But with understanding, love came softly. The story is told with such subtlety that we come to know not only Clark, Marty, and Clark's child Missie, but also Ellen, the dead wife of Clark, and Clem, the dead husband of Marty, and the community around. We become participants in their lives. Her dutiful care for the child extended itself to care for Clark, and in this process at least one neighbor, Ma Graham, got involved in bringing the right backdrop to Clark's earlier life as a married man.
7. THE DREADED PRAIRIE BLIZZARD LETS THE DOOR OPEN
With such love and care and in great detail Marty began the preparation for Christmas well ahead of Christmas Day. Janette Oke's magnificent descriptive power is displayed fully in the fine depiction of all that was planned and done before Christmas Day. But, alas, "a dreaded prairie blizzard" threatened to rob her and everyone in the household of the great get together. "The pain of it all began to seep in, taking possession of her. She wanted to scream out against it, to curse it away, to throw herself on her bed in a torrent of tears. Her shoulders sagged, she felt weary and defeated, but what good would it do to strike back? The storm would still rage. No one in his or her right mind would defy it simply for a Christmas dinner. She was licked."
Clark felt it too, especially for the hurt she was feeling. "He reached out and touched her hand. When he spoke, his voice was gentle. … He had never touched her before except for helping her in and out of the wagon, something about it sent a warm feeling through her. May be it was just knowing that he understood. She hoped he hadn't noticed her reaction to his touch …" The love did come softly. The marriage was now blessed; it did take time to understand one another, but their obedience to God helped them become man and wife in love.
8. INTER-PERSONAL INTEGRITY, CARE, CONCERN, AND LOVE
This story focuses upon inter-personal integrity even though it begins with a marriage of convenience. Clark and Marty were patient with each other, dutiful in all they did and said. The story is narrated mostly through the eyes of Marty, her initial reluctance slowly giving way to respect and love to who Clark was. At the end Marty, now a mother by Clark, wondered: "How did it all come about -- this miracle of love? She didn't know. It had come upon her unawares -- softly."
Janette Oke looks at life always with hope in her stories. Her latest novel, after having written nearly forty novels, is titled When Tomorrow Comes. Look at the emphatic return of the verb comes. This intransitive verb gets repeated in several Janette Oke's titles. There is something deliberate about the choice and use of this verb. It means moving toward something, moving or journeying toward something, to paraphrase the primary meaning given to this word in the dictionary (Webster's). It doesn't have or expect a direct object when it is used. As an intransitive form it focuses more on the action generated from within than on action received from without or applied to other people or objects. Her preference for the intransitives and motion verbs is repeatedly demonstrated in her titles. An action generated from within by a faithful obedience to the Spirit of God becomes the backdrop for all her novels.
9. LANGUAGE STYLE AND CHARACTERIZATION
In Love Comes Softly, Janette deftly handles the language to take us not only to its locale but also to the period in which the story happens. She carefully uses the colloquial style with appropriate spelling when conversations take place between the characters with possibly little education. While the narrative itself uses the standard written, clear, and elegant English, she deliberately makes some of her characters, for example, the farmer Clark, to use more abundantly the colloquial style, whereas Marty, through her eyes the story is somewhat narrated, uses the colloquial sparingly. Moreover, when Marty's thought process is narrated, Janette makes it a point to present the thoughts frequently in the standard idiom. She is a careful writer. She wants everyone who would read her novel to understand the story with ease and comfort.
Hope is never lost, because Janette knows our God is a God of hope. She looks at man-woman relationship as something God ordained and ought to be treated as such. Her women and men are intensely passionate about each other. They crave for and enjoy each other's company and love, but passion is never the subject of explicit or sensuous description. The love between men and women is by choice, but circumstances could bring them together unexpectedly and these characters might choose marriage even when it is based on affection. But they work towards making their marriage sweet and warm in the sight of the Lord. Their thoughts are not focused upon how to wriggle themselves out of a relation, but they all make sincere efforts at making their marriage work. Old-fashioned perhaps, and even rare today, but certainly an ideal that should be revived for this civilization to survive and prosper.
In our next article we will look at When Tomorrow Comes, the latest Janette Oke novel (2001), to see the continuity of the creative process that underlies all Janette Oke's novels.
Janette Oke. Love Comes Softly. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis. 2000.
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