Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reasons Why The Sweet By and By Made My "Best of 2010" Reading List

Photo Courtesy of Johnson's Website
I can't read or hear the title to Todd Johnson's debut novel without hearing that old hymn, "In the sweet. . . By and by. . . We will meet on that beautiful shore. . ." in my head. I'm sure that's probably what Johnson intended, as he wrote The Sweet By and By, which must take it's name from that beautiful song. Regardless of whether the title intentionally is connected to the song itself, the phrase "the sweet by and by" evokes a sense of old-timey, southern flavor that is pervasive throughout the novel.

I was afraid I wouldn't be able to read The Sweet By and By. In fact, it sat on my bookshelves for months and months after I purchased it at McKay's Used Books in Knoxville. Much of the story centers around a nursing home in North Carolina, and two of the characters are nursing home patients. That hits a little close to home for me, as my grandmother spent some of her last months in an assisted living home. However, I have to say that the book -- with both joyous moments and sad ones -- was one I'm so glad I indulged in. It is a beautiful story, both in the relationships it highlights and in the language Johnson uses.

The characters:
  • Lorraine: An LPN at the nursing home, she takes care of Bernice and Margaret. Her home life, however, is not always as stable as her career. In flashbacks, readers learn about her marriage, as well as her relationships with her mother and her daughter, April.
  • April: Depicted in the novel as both a young child and as an adult, April is the epitome of the changes taking place in the last few decades. The distinct differences from one generation to the next have never been so varied as in the last twenty to thirty years, with the constant rise of technology. April's character shows those changes as she develops from a child into a college-age young adult and finally to a mother herself.
  • Margaret: One of the women Lorraine cares for, she was once a high society matron. Still sharp in mind, her body is beginning to fail her. She is cared for by Lorraine and by her daughter Ann, who visits almost daily.
  • Bernice: Although still healthy in body, Bernice's mind has suffered as a result of her long life. One of her sons is dead, and the other is prevented from caring for her because of his country-club, ashamed-of-her-mother-in-law wife. Bernice provides both comic relief and heartbreaking sadness. Caring for her forces growth in the other characters.
  • Rhonda: She is a bombshell hairdresser who initially is hesitant about beginning work at the nursing home. However, after she starts, Miss Margaret and Miss Bernice become like family. She experiences growth of all kinds during the novel: growth in love, growth in family, growth in career, and growth in spirit. 
In the end, extra time on my shelves made reading the novel all the sweeter. In fact, I named it as one of my favorite reads of 2010. Todd Johnson had a long career as a musician before he turned to penning a novel. Read an interview about those years, as well as details about his writing The Sweet By and By.

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