"I want you to know something if you don't already. Life is choosing whom and what you love. Everything else follows . . ."Among the longleaf pines and family farms of eastern North Carolina, days seem to pass without incident for Margaret Clayton and Bernice Stokes until they discover each other in a friendship that will take them on the most important journey of their lives. Margaret, droll and whip smart, has a will of iron that never fails her even when her body does, while Bernice, an avid country-music fan, is rarely lucid. Irreverent and brazen at every turn, they make a formidable pair at the home where they live, breaking all the rules and ultimately changing the lives of those around them. Lorraine, their churchgoing, God-questioning nurse, both protects and provokes them while they are under her watchful eye, as her daughter, April, bright and ambitious, determinedly makes her way through medical school. Rounding out the group of unlikely and often outrageous friends is Rhonda, the Bud-swilling beautician who does the ladies' hair on her day off and whose sassy talk hides a vulnerable heart, one that finally opens to love.
Weaving this tightly knit and compelling novel in alternating chapters, each woman gets to tell her story her own way, as all five learn to reconcile troubled pasts, find forgiveness, choose hope, and relish the joy of life. Rich with irresistible characters whose uniquely musical voices overflow the pages, The Sweet By and By is a testament to the truth that the most vibrant lives are not necessarily the most visible ones.
I really enjoy stories that give you a bit of Southern flair, and The Sweet By and By sure delivered! Each chapter in this story is narrated by one of the main characters in the novel, which gives us an opportunity to watch each woman grow in her own way. They become connected by the time they spend together in a nursing home, so a couple of the characters are elderly residents. Margaret is one of the residents that seems to be mentally intact but physically limited while everyone is sure that Bernice has lost her marbles.
Johnson puts us right in the minds of these nursing home residents and helps us to realize what they may be feeling inside. To realize how frustrating it must be for these people who have always lived productive and healthy lives, only to be slowed down by age and weakness, can be humbling to us as readers because we will all be in the same boat some day....God willing! Here is an excerpt from page 127 where Margaret talks about the physical pain that many of her neighbors endure:
Some folks here won't take a bath because the people that give them are too rough. It's not because they're senile and don't want to be clean; it's because it hurts goddamn it. Just moving a body can hurt, which is something that no person can understand until it's too late for them to be sympathetic about it because they've left the ranks of the ignorant and joined the ranks of the suffering.
Lorraine is an LPN at the nursing home where both Margaret and Bernice reside. We find out bits and pieces of Lorraine's life, including some of the burdens that she has had to learn to live with. I think that the loss that Lorraine endured early in her life helped her to become the compassionate person that is needed to be a successful nurse that cares for the elderly. She devotes her life to the people she takes care of knowing that the time they will have together will be short-lived. It really takes a special person to open your heart to so many people knowing that your time together will not be as long as most relationships.
I really enjoyed Rhonda's place in the story because she just kind of fell into her place as a hairdresser at the nursing home. I think that Rhonda planned on just trying out the job for a day and expected to not enjoy it, so she wasn't planning on returning. She found herself connecting with the residents and developed a special bond with both Margaret and Bernice. Since Rhonda was never able to develop a relationship with her own mother it was heart-warming to see her open up in this way to these women. I probably related to Rhonda the most considering that I lost my own mother when I was quite young, so I've had my own special ladies that I look up to in this fashion.
My mother was an LPN herself at a local nursing home so I really was able to connect with this story. I've been walking in and out of nursing homes since I have been three years old and it is so important to remember that all of these people are individuals that helped bring your community to what it is today. My grandma has been in the nursing home since before Christmas and although we are hoping she will be coming home this month, we know the care that she does receive is excellent. My grandma loves to repeat her stories and this book reminded me that it is important to allow her to do that. I'm sure there is so much more that she wants to remember so it is important to allow her the freedom to share what does come to her mind.
I really loved this story and the writing was written in such a way that came across as beautiful prose. I think it would also make a great book club selection and you can bet that I will be passing this one on to the gals in my group. With themes of love, aging, compassion and letting go, this book has a lot to offer beneath the surface. I want to thank Trish from TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in this tour. If you are interested in checking out more reviews of this book you can view more stops on the Blog Tour here. If you are lucky enough to live in the South you may be able to stop at one of these locations and meet Todd Johnson yourself.
My Rating: 4/5
Disclosure: This book was provided to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review as part of this blog tour.