Stand by Me is my first taste of fiction from Neta Jackson, author of the popular Yada Yada Prayer Group books and the House of Hope series. With this novel, due to be released tomorrow, Jackson inaugurates a new fiction series, SouledOut Sisters. Set in Chicago, the story involves Avis Douglass, a school principal in her fifties, and Kathryn Davies, an earnest recent college graduate. The paths of these two women intertwine when Kathryn begins attending Souled Out Community Church, where Avis is a member and worship leader. The book reveals the importance of building relationships beyond our comfort zone, and the many gifts to be discovered in intergenerational friendships.
The character of Avis appealed to me immediately; she is a strong woman of admirable qualities. I confess that it took a while for me to make a connection with Kathryn, or to find her likable. Since part of the plot requires Avis to consider her feelings toward Kathryn, my response might reflect how well Jackson developed Avis, and how much I viewed the story through her eyes.
It was a treat to read a novel where characters make mistakes and then ask one another for forgiveness; where someone needs help, and turns to God in prayer; where friends offer encouragement and hope during trials.
I appreciated that Souled Out Community Church was working hard to build multiracial community within and beyond its walls—and that the author did not pretend this is an easy task. On the one hand, interracial friendships and marriages are a given; on the other hand, conflicts related to racial prejudice do arise in the story. (On a minor note, prior to reading the book, the church’s name made me shake my head a bit; it is just the kind of play on words that is not my style. However, the church members are an interesting cast of supporting characters, and following their adventures allowed me to leave aside my bias about the name.)
As an editor I had one complaint about the book: there was unnecessary repetition of the descriptive characteristics of certain people and places. For example, Manna House, the homeless shelter, is mentioned a dozen times; after the first or second time, I don’t need to be told what Manna House is. Likewise, I know Edesa is Jodi’s daughter-in-law after the first time it is written. However, I must note that I read an advanced reader’s copy, and this problem may be fixed by the time the final books go to press.
This book could be fun for a book discussion group to read. While it is written in a light, “chick lit” style, the novel raises interesting and heavy concerns: how do we determine what work God is calling us to do? how can we build and nourish meaningful relationships? how do we nurture leaders in our faith communities? what daily practices renew our spirits? I look forward to seeing the future books in this series, to see how characters develop and problems are solved in the church community. Meanwhile, I intend to look for the Yada Yada Prayer Group books, to read more about Avis and her friends.