Top Ten Books of 2009, Number Five

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Jim Tomlinson, Nothing Like an Ocean: Stories

When most of the country thinks about eastern Kentucky, they too often think of “Beverly Hillbillies” type caricatures: toothless moonshine distillers shooting one another across the holler because of a family feud over who stole grandma’s chewing tobacco. The stereotype is, of course, ignorant of the reality.

This book, written from the vantage point of Appalachian Kentucky (the author is from Berea), hits at the universal human condition in a series of stories.

The cover of this collection is a bleak picture of some winter trees, leaves gone with nothing but the gray behind them. The stories inside are kind of like that picture. If Flannery O’Connor deals with the dark side of human existence, these stories tend to look at the bleak side, the sad, melancholy inside of so many around us, and where it comes from.

The opening story is representative of the feel of the book. It tells of a man, Alton Wood, who whose child, Logan, was killed in a freak accident and whose wife left him in the aftermath. Wood is invited to a singles’ dance at the local independent Christian church.

Along the way he reflects on the different ways he and his estranged wife grappled with the pain of how their child could have drowned in a swimming pool. When an acquaintance mentions how hard it is to see God’s hand in the tragedy, Wood cites statistics about how many children die in swimming pools every year.

“If you do find that grand design, that divine purpose, you better make sure it covers every last one of them,” Wood continues. “Them and my Logan too.”

Of his wife, Wood reflects:

“Lori had needed a reason, too, something solid to believe when their son drowned. She wanted a righteous God with good reasons. Or she wanted a villain to hate with the last remnant of her heart. Or better yet, she’d take both, bounce between the two, until exhaustion drowned the pain.”

The book’s title comes from a comment from a young mother to the hurting protagonist about how much she’d like to take her son to the beach. As close as they’d come was Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland.

“It’s nothing like an ocean, though,” she says. “It’s nothing like the sea.”

In some ways she’s right. In other ways, though, she’s quite wrong, as Alton Wood seems to know. The little pools of water they’re children have seen have nothing of the vastness and deepness and mystery of the ocean. But they can be just as deadly, all the same.

This book will give you the sense that you’re overhearing some conversations, conversations of hurting people to one another. It might help you understand some conversations going on all around you, maybe even right now.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).