I just finished a fascinating book that I have been thinking about ever since I finished it. Redemption, by Susan Dayley is a historical novel about Jonah. You know, the one who got swallowed by the great fish. (Note: I would have said “whale” before reading this book. However, Dayley’s notes at the end of the book give some interesting insight that have led me to change my terminology).
To begin with, let me tell you to read this book. It was interesting, thought-provoking, and uplifting. The author has woven together a compelling story from the scriptural record, historical sources, rabbinic tradition, and her own imagination. These additional sources were important since the scriptural record about Jonah is fairly sparse, and one of Dayley’s great achievements with this book is her skillful blending of scriptural narrative with these other elements.
For example, I didn’t know that the Jewish Midrash identifies Jonah as the son of the Widow of Zarephath, the one for whom the prophet Elijah performed the miracle of the barrel of meal and cruse of oil (1 Kings 17: 9-16). That was just one of the fascinating nuggets I picked up from this book.
Ultimately, Dayley’s imagination had to fill in most of the blanks in this story and again, she did an admirable job. Jonah’s rise to his prophetic status and his journey to Nineveh seemed absolutely credible to me. Dayley used enough details to create a rich and textured backdrop for the story. The combined effect of these details was to add a layer of credibility (I should add that I’m not a historian, so I’m not situated to discuss authenticity—just how I reacted).
I was particularly intrigued by the way Dayley handled one of the inherent challenges of telling Jonah’s story: why he ran from the Lord. This is a vexing question as one would assume anyone with the spiritual maturity to be called as a prophet must also know that he can’t run away from God—and wouldn’t try.
Over the years I’ve heard various rationales and explanations for Jonah’s behavior suggested. Dayley’s motivation for Jonah’s behavior really intrigued me. I’m not going to say what it is, because I don’t want to spoil anything and I do hope you’ll read this book. However, I thought Dayley’s idea came closer than anything I’ve heard to explaining it. It’s a difficult circle to square, but she did so in a way that at least satisfies the motivational problem for this character.
Dayley is a very proficient in developing the book’s thematic elements. The title of the book expresses what this story is about: redemption. Jonah’s, as well as the people of Nineveh, and several others along the way. This theme provides a unifying structure for the book and provides a welcome interpretation of God’s love for His children—even in Old Testament times.
One other thing I enjoyed about Dayley’s book was it’s leisurely pace. It is interesting, but pays the reader the compliment of assuming that the reader does not need to be pulled in with a gimmick at the beginning. Rather, Dayley’s story unfolds with direction and motion, in a stately and unhurried pace but with growing urgency—perhaps like the aged Jonah himself would have walked on his travels.
Although this was written by a Mormon author, there is nothing that seemed inherently Mormon about this book. I would think it would be interesting to anyone who believes in the Old Testament.
The story is marred occasionally by some mistakes that probably happened in the typesetting process. I wish that an editor had looked over the final proof more carefully. That is a minor quibble, though—and one out of Dayley’s control.
This is a lovely book about a fascinating story and I hope you will read it. I am very glad I did!
I took the chance to ask the author a few questions:
BB: How was it that you got interested in Jonah?
SD: While teaching at American Heritage School, among the literature curriculum was the book of Jonah from the Bible. In preparing the lesson, I needed to research background and setting as well as other elements such as themes. It was then that I became introduced to the power of the Assyrian Empire, the magnificence of Nineveh and Ships of Tarshish. I put my notes aside, and years later I went back to them and began to research Jonah even more.
BB: What were some of the most interesting things you learned?
SD: I loved the details of each of the cities: the purple dye trade of Sidon, the chaos of Damascus, the caravansaries that were in every major city along caravan routes, the orderly planning of Harran, and ultimately the vast, terrible city of Nineveh. I was fascinated with the details of the sea trade, the caravans, the pagan worship, and finally the meaning behind the scene with Jonah, the booth, and the gourd.
BB: Tell us about the process of researching this book. How long did the research take and how long did the writing take?
SD: After I revisited my initial notes, I wrote up the story with additional research and submitted it only to find it was too short. My publisher asked me to lengthen it and within another three months I had resubmitted it to them. All in all, it took about 7 months to write.
BB: This was your first book and you are working on another manuscript. Can you tell us something about it?
SD: I have finished the story of King Hezekiah. As much as I enjoyed the story and world of Jonah, I have come to admire and appreciate Hezekiah far more. He comes to the throne when his nation is held in suzerainty to Assyria, the tribes of Israel to the north have been taken captive due to their wickedness, refugees are swelling the cities of Judah, the Temple of the Lord has been desecrated and closed, the feast days and sacrifices have ceased, all through Judah people worship false gods, Jerusalem is vulnerable and the treasuries are empty. Hezekiah is faced with some very hard choices, and though he makes some mistakes, he learns that ultimately it is God that saves.
My next project keeps changing. But it will probably be about historic people who trust in God.
Note: I received a PDF copy of this book to review and the author of Redemption also reviewed The Road Show. I was not compensated in any other way, nor was I under any obligation to write a favorable review.
Redemption was released February 2010 by Walnut Springs Press. Susan's website is susandayley.com. Her blog is here and you can see the trailer for Redemption here.
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