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To See the Moon Again

(Click on the link above to read a newspaper article about Jamie's newest book.)

From Chapter 1, "The Importance of Place"

On the last class day of the spring term, Julia Rich was heading home in her big blue boat of a Buick along the familiar route she could have driven blindfolded. As she neared Ivy Dale Lane, where she lived, she once again reminded herself of two things. First, that many other professors worldwide not only had endured what she was facing but had actually enjoyed it and, second, that most of her current colleagues would gladly trade places with her right now. Neither of these reminders, however, helped to settle her mind.

She slowed her Buick as she turned onto Ivy Dale, a narrow, tree-lined street less than a mile from the campus of Millard-Temple University, where she taught. At one time numbers of faculty members had lived here, but now only Julia and one other remained—a French teacher named Dr. Boyer. He was an odd, nervous sort of man, a Charlie Chaplin look-alike, who never said “hello” to her, only a prim, tight-lipped “bonjour,” though more recently he had not spoken to her at all. She suspected that he resented her being granted a sabbatical ahead of him. Or maybe he avoided her because he felt sorry for her, as others now did.

As soon as her house came into view, she slowed even more. It was an old habit—the initial sighting, then the intentional deferral of her arrival as she took it all in. It was a small stone house with the charm of a storybook cottage. She and Matthew had driven past it one day before they were married. “Stop,” she had said. “There, look at that one. I want to live there someday.”

When it came up for sale a few years later, Matthew had arranged to buy it as a surprise for her. Those were the days when he was doing anything he could to make her happy, an enterprise he persisted in long after every effort had proved futile. Once they moved in and discovered the extent of the work it needed, it had lost some of its storybook charm, at least for Matthew, who did most of the labor himself. But Julia had loved it straight through the years of repairs and renovations. Even now there were times when she would be away from home and would suddenly think of the stone house on Ivy Dale and be flooded with something close to gladness. In many ways her house had taken the place of children in her life, the way some people’s pets did.

She parked in the circular drive in front and took a few moments to let her eyes sweep the yard from one end to the other. Spring had come to South Carolina early this year, wet and mild. Daffodils, hyacinth, dogwoods, azaleas—all had bloomed in a spectacle of color. And now the irises were opening, soon to be followed by peonies, lilies, roses.

She walked around to the back door to let herself in, then locked it behind her. The answering machine in the kitchen was blinking, so she stepped out of her shoes at the door, laid her briefcase on the table, and walked to the phone. She knew who it was, of course. Since last August, her sister, Pamela, had worried incessantly about Julia’s living alone and had called daily to check up on her. Because she didn’t work, Pamela had time on her hands, and because her children were both grown, she needed someone else to mother. It didn’t matter that she was younger than Julia by five years. She had always had the manner of an overseer, even as a child.

If Julia wasn’t home when she called, Pamela left a message, usually constructed around a warning of some kind: Always check the backseat of your car before getting in, don’t order with a credit card over the phone, wear flat shoes in case you need to run. She often included reports of tragic outcomes for people she had heard about who failed to follow these rules.

Julia almost pressed the button to listen, but she stopped. She was bone-tired and mentally spent. She wasn’t in the mood to hear her sister’s voice reminding her that evil prowled the earth. She turned and went to her bedroom instead. She took off her skirt, removed her jewelry, pulled her sweater over her head, and took her time putting everything away in its place. From the hook on the back of the bathroom door, she took her housecoat, slipped it on, and snapped it up.

Even as she did these things, she was thinking of the hours ahead. Since it was the last Friday night of the school year, she had no papers to grade. The evening gaped before her, with no plans to fill it, which was part of the reason for her present unrest. By putting on her housecoat, she realized she had already decided not to take a walk, which was one way to spend an hour or so now that Daylight Saving Time was in effect.

But for now she had supper to think about. On her teaching days she often ate a substantial lunch in the faculty cafeteria on campus and only snacked in the evening. Today, however, she hadn’t felt like walking over to the cafeteria, choosing her food,
sitting at the same corner table with Marcy Kingsley, her only real friend among her colleagues. Today had been a day of reflection. She had stayed in her office between her morning and afternoon classes. When Marcy had stopped by to get her, she had begged off, claiming a headache.

She had bought a bag of pretzels from the vending machine and busied herself going through the bottom drawer of her desk, discarding entire folders of old papers and ditto masters. Ditto masters—dozens and dozens of them, some handwritten. It was hard to believe she had hung on to such antiquities so long. Afterward she had run new copies of an exam, cleaned out the top desk drawer, dusted her bookshelves.

And then, because she still had a half hour left before her three o’clock class, she had sat at her desk with her door cracked, listening to the graduate teaching assistants socializing in the hallway. They were as eager for summer as the undergrads. Not one of them had yet wished her well during the coming year. By now they had probably forgotten all about the announcement in the February faculty meeting, after which there had been a pattering of polite applause for the two professors chosen for sabbaticals--Julia and Harry Tobias, who taught psychology.

Julia didn’t fully understand the selection process, but she knew it was a committee decision and that the words “having distinguished yourself by the length and quality of your service” had been used by Dean Moorehead when he first informed her of the award privately. Though he didn’t add the words “and because of your recent personal difficulties,” he might as well have, for Julia was certain a measure of pity had also figured into the committee’s choice.

Though she had pretended to be pleased and honored, it was mostly shock she had felt. That, and the beginnings of worry as she tried to take in what it would mean to the comforting structure of her life to have a year off. Long ago she had resigned herself to the mischief of time, for though a year could pass swiftly, the days within that year could seem endless. And each day included a night.

Stepping into her bedroom slippers, she thought of all the nights like this she would have to fill in the coming year. She was struck with the urgent need to write up a list of projects she wanted to complete and places she wanted to visit. That would be one thing to do tonight.

Back in the kitchen, she opened the freezer. Earlier in the week she had put up a dish of leftovers, which she pulled out now and put in the microwave to defrost.

She looked again at the blinking light of the telephone, but walked past it into the living room—a comfortable room, well decorated with an eclectic mix of fine old furniture and modern accessories. Above the stone hearth hung a large, colorful framed collage made of scraps of old road maps, travel brochures, and envelopes with canceled postage stamps. It was one of the few things Matthew had bought for the house that she liked. She made herself stop and look at it now, as she often did, to prove that she held no grudge against him, that her world was still intact.

She turned on the television and listened to the news for a minute, then lowered the volume and turned on the CD player. The sounds of Dvorák filled the room.

She walked back to the bathroom to wash off her makeup. Glancing into the mirror above the sink, she saw a long purple smear on her chin. She rubbed at it with her index finger and got some of it off.

She suddenly remembered the folder of old ditto masters she had leafed through in her office that afternoon. The mark on her chin must have come from those. Purple ditto ink— amazing that it could still be picked up and transferred after all those years of sitting in a folder.

As she stared at her face, it came to her that she must have had the purple streak on her chin when she met her afternoon class. Her ten students in Writing Fiction must have seen it. When she stepped off the dais to deliver her farewell remarks, they must have been reminded of all the old people they knew who went around with spots on their clothing and tufts of hair sticking out at funny angles.

At one point in her little speech, Julia had paused and looked toward the transom window above the door. Such an occasion called for a little drama as it was no ordinary final day of class, at least not for her. “Remember this,” she had said when she resumed. “Writers must be close observers of people.” They must have wanted to laugh at that. “And of places,” she had added after another dramatic pause. “Particularly your own native soil, into which you must keep digging deeper.” She knew they would recognize the last part as a quotation from Flannery O’Connor, the woman Julia considered the best Southern writer of all time.

Looking at her watch, she saw that the bell would ring in two minutes. Time now for the real news. Stepping a little closer to the students, she said, “Some of you may have heard a rumor that I won’t be teaching at Millard-Temple next year.”

No dropped jaws, but she could see a sudden return of interest. All eyes were on Julia.

“It’s true,” she said. “I have been granted a sabbatical, which simply means I will get paid to read, to write, to travel, to do whatever I choose for a year.” She glanced up at the transom window again and nodded slowly. “It’s an opportunity not everyone gets.”

“You going on a cruise?” Aaron Clements asked. This drew laughter.

“Maybe,” Julia said. “Or maybe I’ll travel in the States. Visit some of the big cities I’ve never seen.” It was impossible to think she had lived fifty-four years and never been to Chicago or New York City, had never really wanted to. “Or maybe I’ll just stay home and be lazy,” she said. “Watch old movies and read and clean out a cupboard every now and then.”

They smiled, though she could tell their thoughts were already drifting elsewhere. She hurried on. “Others will cover my courses next year, and I’ll return a year from this fall.”

“Who’ll teach Southern Writers?” someone said.

“An adjunct from Clemson,” Julia said. “You’ll like him. He’s a Faulkner man.”

The bell rang. The students looked uncertain, as if wondering whether it would be rude to gather their things and bolt for the door.

“All right, off with you,” Julia said. “I’ll see you here again on Monday for your exam.” She had already announced the essay topic. What she hadn’t told them, of course, was that she wouldn’t read the essays, wouldn’t even skim the first pages, but would take them all home and gently place them in the trash can.

And the whole time they must have been sitting there thinking, What is that on her face? Maybe they thought it was a bruise. That would be better than if they thought it was a smudge she had failed to notice.

Book Review by Sheila Petre in Ladies' Journal

God puts friends into our lives for many reasons. Friends change us, make us laugh, cry with us, offer sympathy and gifts, light the way to Him, recommend books, offer sympathy, criticize our housekeeping. (I’m including sisters in the realm of friends, incidentally.) I have a friend who has done nearly all those things. She introduced me to a collection of contemporary Christian fiction books which I enjoy and admire.

The author of these books, Jamie Langston Turner, places her characters in a small community in South Carolina. If you have never heard of Jamie, take it from a friend: Lay aside for a month or so your fluffy Janette Oke books, sensuous Karen Kingsbury books, and distorted Christmas Carol Kauffman books, and read words you can chew on and learn from.

A few months after my friend introduced me to Turner’s books, I wrote to Jamie. She responded promptly and sweetly and from there, another friendship was born. When she gave me the opportunity to read her next book before it is released, I was delighted.

The book, To See the Moon Again, arrived in the mail as an uncorrected proof, and will be available from Berkley Books in September 2014. I didn’t exactly tear into it that day; I saved it until I had a block of time to do it justice.

You can’t rush through Jamie’s books any more than you can rush through life itself. She deals forthrightly with hypocrites in the church, the mistakes which friends have made and the trauma in a person’s own flawed past, and she doesn’t offer easy paths to peace.

Though her books are not exactly a series, characters from the first books frequently appear in later ones. I like this. It gives me the luxury of knowing “what happened next?” to my favorite characters, without stumbling through a series’ typical pitfall: improbable crises dogging the life of one hapless character. Familiar characters become friends, pleasing me by appearing in the next grocery aisle. A month ago, I found myself speculating about a main character from one book and a supporting character from another. Had they met yet? Wouldn’t they make a good match?

Some would call it coincidence, and perhaps sometimes it is. Others would call it grace: all the ways that what I read echoes what I am living. In To See the Moon Again, I found these echoes.

The main character, Julia, like myself this past school year, adjusts to a boarder from another culture--her niece, Carmen--and they take many journeys together. The physical journey is a tour of several well-known authors’ houses in New England, some of which Michael and I visited on our wedding trip eight years ago. Their emotional journey loiters by the dangerous-looking cliff of forgiveness, over which, if one plunges, she will be borne on the breath of God to freedom. Like the Bible, a book which clearly informs Turner’s writing, this book says more than I caught in the first reading.

To See the Moon Again is set somewhat apart from some of her earlier books, but glimpses of previous main characters assure us that they are still alive and well in the world of fiction. And ah-ha! Confirmation of my matchmaking skills, that Certain Young Man from Suncatchers announces his special friendship with the Certain Young Woman from Sometimes a Light Surprises.

In the best books, the characters change as the plot unfolds. Jamie Turner’s characters change. They change in many ways, but I invariably notice one in particular: In the first chapter, they are lonely. In the last, they are surrounded by friends. In To See the Moon Again, a lonely but hopeful Carmen nudges open the heart of the lonely and guilty Julia, and together they share and accumulate friends.

Books are friends, too, you could say. Thankfully, they do not criticize our housekeeping. Perhaps this is because they are occasionally the cause of its neglect. Instead they--if they are Turner’s books--recommend other books. They come bearing gifts, and they change us, make us laugh or cry, gently sympathize or rebuke. Sometimes they quietly help us see the moon--and its Creator--again.

I am thankful that of the making of both friends and books, there is no end.
Sheila J Petre