He Was SEARCHING FOR GRACE–Review and Giveaway

Hi there! Today I’m reviewing a book that really hit home for me. I review a lot of books that are fun, or sexy, or flirty, but sometimes a book just—

Well, look. I’m gonna share some “V stuff,” so bear with me. I was born and raised a Christian. I went to church, church camp and youth group–faithfully–throughout my childhood. Then, I went away to college. And met the man who is my hubs, going on 23 years together. He is, BTW, Jewish.

This was a point of consternation for, uh, some of my family. It actually took quite a long time for him to be accepted. As a goy–or worse, a shiksa–I was, in fact, not an ideal daughter-in-law candidate either.

My eldest son was accused of being a “devil worshiper” and ostracized by Christian kids in his third grade class–because we celebrate both Christian and Jewish traditional holidays.

My children were not recognized at my “home church” because their father is Jewish. My minister, at a church I had been a member of for 19 years at that point, would not perform my wedding ceremony because my husband was Jewish.

Long point here is, I have felt the hellish finger of bigotry, cloaked in religious tenets, many times in my own life because of the person I loved and married.

Lots of people ask: Why do I celebrate Jewish holidays if I’m Christian? Simple:  My hubs’ grandparents actually survived German work camps in WWII. They were the only Holocaust survivors of their whole families. There is no way I want my kids to feel that DAD’S religion is LESS than MY religion. That’s not my way. If my kids turn out Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or Pastafarian, I really do not care–so long as they are happy.

Many years ago, my hubs asked me: What would you do if one of our sons was gay?

At that time, I hadn’t really considered it. When I did, my only answer could be: Love him. Gay or not. Because, for me, parenthood is unconditional love.

This week I came across this YouTube video (trigger warning!) of a grown man being beaten and disowned by his family for coming out. The reason? “God says being gay is a sin.” Well, there are a lot of sins out there, people. I don’t see parents beating their kids and putting them out on the street for theft. Or coveting. Or what-the-heck-ever other “sin” committed. For some reason, homosexuality has become a “GET OUT OF PARENTING FREE” card for some, and the very idea scrambles my brain.

Books like the one I’m sharing today, SEARCHING FOR GRACE by Juliann Rich, are important–because this is REALLY happening behind closed doors by closed-hearted parents/friends all across our country, and world. If you, or someone you know, is in a bad spot due to homophobia, in the home or outside of it, please seek help. The Trevor Project (866-488-7368) and the GLBT Helpline (888-843-4564) are available for counseling and crisis intervention. Please, call for help. It is available.

About the book:

First it’s a rumor. Then it’s a fact. And then it’s on.

Camp is over and Jonathan Cooper returns home. To life with his mother whose silence is worse than anything she could say…to his varsity soccer teammates at East Bay Christian Academy…to the growing rumors about what he did with a boy last summer at bible camp.

All the important lines blur. Between truth and lies. Between friends and enemies. Between reality and illusion.

Just when Jonathan feels the most alone, help arrives from the unlikeliest of sources: Frances “Sketch” Mallory, the weird girl from his art class, and her equally eccentric friend, Mason. For a short while, thanks to Sketch and Mason, life is almost survivable. Then Ian McGuire comes to town on the night of the homecoming dance and tensions explode. Fists fly, blood flows, and Jonathan—powerless to stop it—does the only thing he believes might save them all: he prays for God’s grace.

Excerpt: (This scene takes place in the school’s cafeteria, the day after a new kid at school “outs” Jonathan to his soccer team and they tell him he can’t sit at their table any longer.)

I wandered away, scanning tables, until I reached the middle of the cafeteria and stood there, holding a tray with a plate full of gross.

“Yo, Jonathan,” a familiar voice called my name, “are you going to stand there drooling over a bunch of butt cracks or are you going to sit down and eat?”

I walked over to the small table in the corner and sat next to Sketch and Mason.

“You okay?” She looked at my face. “You look like you’re going to hurl.”

“Fine.”

“I’m just saying, if you’re going to hurl, I’d appreciate some warning.” Sketch slid a few inches to the left.

“I’m fine!” I turned to Mason and changed the subject. “Thanks for bailing me out in American lit. What are you, like a genius or something?”

Sketch stuck a finger in her mouth and made a gagging sound.

“Now he notices me in a class.” Mason sprinkled Parmesan cheese on his lasagna, a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Is it because you’re finally out?”

“W-what?” I stammered. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Well, I do,” Sketch said. “Word has it Luke, the new transfer kid from Minnetonka Public, knows for a fact you had all sorts of raging gay sex with a guy at soccer camp last summer. Says he has proof.”

I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw my tray across the cafeteria. I almost hurled.

“I heard it was two guys and it was full on anal wham-bam-thank-you-sir.” Mason butchered more than a stupid rhyme. “I also heard you caught some STD.”

I gripped my fork and counted to ten. “It was a Bible camp, and sure, I hung around with a guy named Ian, but we did not have raging gay sex, and I most certainly do not have a STD!”

“That’s not what I heard.” Mason lifted his box of chocolate milk to his lips.

“Well, I was there and I should know!” My voice rose a few decibels. Heads turned. I mean, more heads turned. Actually, the few heads that weren’t already staring at me, turned. “He was my friend. That’s all!”

“Chill, gentlemen. The important thing right now is that Jonathan is about as popular as a case of herpes.” Sketch pointed out the obvious. “Whether he has it or not is immaterial.”

“It’s not true!” I hissed.

Mason snorted. “Okay, Jonathan. Whatever you say.” He took another sip.

I willed him to choke on his chocolate milk. Really I did. For one malicious moment, I saw it spewing out of his nostrils like a Hershey’s geyser. It didn’t happen, but it felt good to picture it.

Sketch erupted, “Knock it off, Mason. He’s one of us now.”

He’s one of us? Mr. we were just friends, I swear?

Something thudded under the table, and Mason frowned at Sketch. “Quit kicking me!”

“Have you forgotten two years ago? When you went around telling everyone I was your girlfriend?” She threw a tomato slice at Mason. It hit him in the chest, leaving a red stain and a few seeds on his shirt when it dropped to the table.

“Wait, so you’re not…” I looked at Mason.

“Going to sit here while this stain sets in.” He stood and shot a lethal glance at Sketch.

“And you’re…?” I asked Sketch after Mason headed toward the boys’ bathroom.

“Does it matter?” She frowned. “Listen, Mason and I have been trying to form a Gay-Straight Alliance for two years, but school policy states a club must have a minimum of three charter members to form, and you know how much Hardin loves his school policies. What do you say…will you be our third?”

Somehow it didn’t seem advisable to tell the only person willing to sit with me at lunch, especially since she was prone to throwing food, that I would rather contract a case of herpes.

My Review:
I can say, I was stunned reading this book. It’s not a blow-you-away-with-plot-twists story. Instead it relates what I believe is an achingly real experience for many LGBTQ teens out there.

Jonathan is gay. He hasn’t told many people, but he did tell his counselor at Bible camp. And, of course, his fellow camp-goers knew about his boyfriend. He’s home from camp now, and his mother is determined that Jonathan re-think his “choice.” See, Jonathan is only 16. Clearly, he’s “just confused” and she schedules him for therapy with their minister, and an intake appointment for an Ex-Gay therapy clinic. She can’t handle her son’s sexuality.

Meanwhile, Jonathan’s childhood friends are turning on him. They refuse to interact with him on the soccer field, even though he was a star player. His boyfriend, Ian, has been kicked out of his family home, and is living in foster care on a farm in Wisconsin. For Jonathan, it feels as if his life is unraveling. He steadfastly refuses to acknowledge publicly that he is gay, but does agree to starting a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), albeit reluctantly.

Biggest problem with that plan is the school is only paying lip service to opening such a club. No teachers will stick their necks out to sponsor the group–knowing it would likely lead to termination. So, Jonathan reaches out to his camp counselor. This plan is unhappily accepted by their school, and the student involvement is more than Jonathan and his two new buds–Mason and Sketch–could have dreamed. Jonathan is no longer a pariah, but he’s still in danger. He’s attacked, verbally and physically, by some of his homophobic classmates.

Meanwhile, Ian is pressuring Jonathan to run away with him. A stolen rendezvous leads to critical injury, and Jonathan must decide how to move forward in a life where his parents are not accepting his sexuality.

There’s this point where Jonathan finally tells his friends:

I haven’t planned this, but if I had I sure as hell wouldn’t have picked the middle of a crowded cafeteria. But I guess coming out is a lot like falling in love, only you’re falling in love with yourself. The minute you realize it, you need to say the words.

“I’m gay,” I say and wait for their shocked and indignant responses. 

I’m not going to reveal how this was received, but the whole book kept me riveted. Ideas like tolerance and homophobia are tackled head-on. I really appreciated the sensitivity with which these aspects were handled, actually. The evangelicals were not demonized, but they were portrayed to be stalwart, if misguided and anti-gay. That is not the case for all religious persons in this book, praise God.

Jonathan’s camp counselor was very understanding, and helped introduce Jonathan to a new, progressive church where at-risk gay teens were welcomed and allowed to worship in a safe space. I found this to be especially poignant because there are such places as these, and it’s often helpful for LGBTQ persons to have a church family that supports them in their sexuality. In fact, in mt town we have such a house of God where gay persons are welcomed. (This is likely not the only gay-friendly church in my town, it was simply the closest one I could bike to.)

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The end was a good stopping point, but it was clear there is more to the story–I only hope that Jonathan continues in his growth, and in finding a suitable partner with whom to express his love. I really enjoyed Jonathan’s character and found myself so in his head I kept wanting to reach through his hands and shake his mom. She isn’t a bad mom, but she is terribly blinded–I was glad to see that she gained some insight in the course of this story.

Interested? You can find SEARCHING FOR GRACE on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Bold Strokes Books.

About the Author:

Minnesota writer Juliann Rich spent her childhood in search of the perfect climbing tree. The taller the better! Perched on a branch ten to thirty feet off the ground and surrounded by leaves, caterpillars, birds and squirrels was a good place for a young girl to find herself. Seeking truth in nature and finding a unique point of view remain crucial elements in her life as well as her writing.

Juliann is a PFLAG mom who can be found walking Pride parades with her son. She is also the daughter of evangelical Christian parents. As such she has been caught in the crossfire of the most heated topic to challenge our society and our churches today. She is committed to writing stories that shed light on the conflicts that arise when sexual orientation, spirituality, family dynamics and peer relationships collide.

Juliann recently won the Emerging Writer Award at The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans.

Juliann lives with her husband and their two chronically disobedient dachshunds in the beautiful Minnesota River Valley.

You can catch up with Juliann on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and her blog.

***GIVEAWAY***
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Best of luck and keep reading my friends!

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