W. Dale Cramer,
Sutter's Cross
(Bethany House, 2003)

The quality of the writing in inspirational fiction has rocketed from thinly disguised sermons proclaimed by cardboard characters to rich complex stories with characters who are wholly three-dimensional. W. Dale Cramer's debut novel Sutter's Cross establishes itself firmly among the shining lights at the zenith of the rocket trail.

Sutter's Cross is a small town nestled in the mountain ridges of Georgia, where mostly everyone knows each other. Into this closely-knit community comes a stranger, longhaired and bearded, who calls himself Harley. He makes an immediate impact when he saves the life of Agnes Dewberry; later, he stays with her, doing odd jobs and spending his spare time up on the ridge near her house. Still, few people show much inclination to be friendly toward the stranger, but a young couple, Jake and Lori Mahaffey, take to Harley right away.

Then, developer Wes Holcombe sets his heart on Agnes's land, and the battle lines are drawn. Holcombe is accustomed to taking what he wants, and he finds himself pitted against a simple faith that is both childlike and unnerving. All bets are off, however, when a natural disaster serves as a transforming moment for all the characters.

Cramer has an impeccable ear for language, and his novel bursts with vivid imagery and well-honed descriptions. The plot is tightly constructed and credible, and Cramer does not succumb to the temptation to tie things up neatly into a happy package. Just as in real life, some ends are left dangling.

The characters are complex and authentic. Cramer doesn't use them as a mouthpiece for a message, although he uses some of the characters to demonstrate where Christianity may have gone astray. The faith elements are natural extensions of the community and the characters without being preachy and didactic. Indeed, Harley, after one of his longer speeches about God, gets a spot-on reality check from a 5-year-old.

As with any good book, Sutter's Cross focuses on telling a story, and Cramer knows how to tell it well. Let's hope it's not too long before he tells another.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 20 September 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.