Katie Andraski, with her sun-drenched face, is a woman I always imagined as surrounded by the clear light that I was sure I saw in most of the images I chose for this review: her farm with its horses and chickens, her family, and most of all those photographs of sunlight on water. Those unambiguously glowing images of sunlight on a world.
In fact, before I knew her quite as well as I do now, before I began to read her blog, back in the days of first impressions, I wasn’t especially keen on reading her book.
I am, by nature, more a creature of shadows than sunlight, and so it was quite some time before I approached Katie and asked for her permission to write about The River Caught Sunlight.
And of all those images, my favorite was the photograph of a black cat, stark against a river which, although it is not in complete darkness, is fading in the thin light of winter or a stormy day. This is not a bright mid-day sun, not a brilliant sun, and the river–not the peaceful stream I envisioned as Katie Andraski’s milieu. This river, alive with the light of the darkening sun, is rough, foamy with danger. It is a disturbing body of water that this black cat contemplates.
It is all the more disturbing as it is, in fact, another trick of the photographer’s sunlight–not a river at all. The black cat, looking safely from behind a closed window, is gazing out on a field of receding snow, perhaps at the turn of the season or just on a warm mid-winter day, exposing green at the edges.
This roaring watercourse is not only not a river, it is-on closer look-most likely the handsome feline’s back yard.
I suspect this is the very cat that Katie’s biography describes as “not so feral.”
I felt somehow I was making a statement in this choice, that I saw through the brightness to the dark currents running just below the surface. And that I understood, having read the novel, that the author also saw those depths–in spite of the evidence to the contrary in those shining images.
Today, as I sat down at the keyboard and began to put the finishing touches on this review of The River Caught Sunlight, I gathered all the photographs and prepared to give them one more look so I could place them–just so–in sharp contrast to the nearly colorless cat and the terrible river.
In sharp contrast to the well-fed black cat and the Spring thaw beyond that window.
Back in the days of first impressions.
Today, for the first time, I saw Katie Andraski’s vision reflected in every single image. I went back to her Facebook page and scrolled through her whole collection. Not one picture is as I believed them all to be, not one unclouded, not one anything other than exactly, precisely what this novel is: a story of the interplay of darkness and light in every situation, in all our certainties, in all our deepest selves. Not one what it seems at first glance.
That cat and its view, and every photograph Katie has taken, captures flawlessly the tremendous accomplishment that is this fine piece of writing. She has unearthed the shadows in the human soul, dug deep into forbidden territory, exposed her own vulnerability, dared to doubt, and–most importantly–dared to hope that there is always, as Ecclesiastes assures us: “. . .a time to break down, and a time to build up. . .a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together. . .a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”
Katie Andraski has dared to live and to write both the breaking down and the building up, both the throwing away and the gathering together, has dared to write–perhaps just as bravely–about young love and heartbreak and a small-town girl’s fears as she travels to the big city wrapped tightly in her belief that she is doing God’s work.
Katie Andraski has dared to write about the radical evangelical movement in this country, about her own part in that movement, and about the subject terrifying to those on both sides–the awful issue of abortion.
Above the title, on the front cover of The River Caught Sunlight, is perhaps the novel’s most impressive endorsement. Frank Schaeffer, author of Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God and the real-life counterpart of the novel’s evangelical zealot, Jeremiah Sackfield, says,
“This book has a piercing insight at its heart as humane as it is damning of religion gone off the rails.”
Consider again the images that I, inexplicably, only saw today–and enter Katie Andraski’s rich, full, complex, darkly brilliant world.
January, 1983. Coeymans, New York
“As Janice stood she thought about the deer that had bounded through the woods, her legs unlocked and free, her tail waving like a white lily in a strong wind. There were places a person could walk that were solid, sound, gave purchase as you ran, and others that sucked you down, that held you until you died. The trick was figuring that out before you stepped down and leaned your weight on ground that might not support you.
The sky deepened into blue as the sun dropped below the horizon. Janice had one more thing to do before she turned for home.”
“A mile out to the main road, that’s what they always said. A mile between them and their nearest neighbor. And tomorrow she’d be able to look through her window into her neighbor’s bedroom. Janice sighed. She would be doing God’s work, the work she was made to do.”
And so Andraski ends the first chapter of her book and begins to map the time and the geography of Janice’s journey–and her own.
August 1983, Tybee Island, Georgia
“Who said ocean air was refreshing? To Janice Westfahl it smelled like rotted weeds. She wanted the smell of fresh cut hay, square and stacked loosely enough for air currents to find their way, cooling it, so the barns wouldn’t burn. She’d felt it, that heat when she stuck her hand between bales, a simmering, fragrant heat.
For two weeks, she’d heard Jeremiah Sackfield’s spiel about how the United States was going to hell in a hand basket if Christians didn’t get active in government, media, university teaching, and law. The country needed a Christian revolution, Jeremiah proclaimed. For Janice, Sackfield was a showman, an opportunist, and she was his enabler. She helped promote his book, An American Treatise, onto the Christian bestseller list. Thank God the tour was done, except for this last meeting with laundry magnate, Matthew Sparks, who promised to buy some books.”
In the book’s final chapter, Janice shouts her challenge above the noise of a crowd:
“Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me I’m serving the Lord.”
Is she sure? Are we?
Does The River Caught Sunlight call us to be sure? Or does Ms. Andraski intend only to remind us that “there is a time for every matter under heaven.”
Whatever she intended, she has done it with grace.
Connect with Katie Andraski:
On her blog katieandraski.com
On her Facebook author page katieandraski
On her Goodreads author page katieandraski
On Twitter katieandraski
The River Caught Sunlight is available from