In the introduction to A Place Called Hope, writer Philip Gulley admits he “lost touch” with his old friend and pastor Sam Gardner. But when the two crossed paths at a recent “Quaker’s pastor retreat,” the two reconnected and have in contact since. The result is the first Harmony novel in five years.
It was worth the wait.
As his oldest child heads off to college and his youngest son contemplates joining the army, Sam finds himself having issues at home and in his professional life. At home, his wife wants the chance to use the degree she earned in college now that they are facing an empty nest. In his professional life, Sam agrees to do a favor for the Unitarian minister in town and ends up saying a prayer over a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony. And while Sam sees nothing wrong in offering up a prayer for two people who love each other, members of his small Quaker church (especially Dale Hanshaw, who is in fine form for the novel) disagree.
Suddenly Sam is faced with a future of selling cars or working at the coffee show with Deanna while his work supports them on her new part-time salary working for the local library. Offering his resignation rather than tearing his small flock apart, Sam finds himself black-balled by the local church higher ups and in need of a new church home.
Just when it seems as if all hope is lost, Sam gets a call from a once thriving congregation that is down to a dozen members (but they have a really great pie ministry). Sam must consider this calling, all while trying to balance the needs of his wife and family.
As a fan of Gulley’s Harmony novels, I was absolutely delighted when I found out he was returning to the Quakers and Sam Gardner. Gulleys novels remind me of the Garrison Keillor, though without as much cynicism. Gulley uses his fiction to help make points about grace, love and how we are called to relate to each other as Christians. And he does all this by keeping his characters grounded and authentic. While Sam may gain a few points for his open mindedness on the same gender couple’s commitment ceremony and the role he plays it in it, it’s still nice to see he’s not exactly a saint in others areas of his life (dealing with Dale and the rest of the crew at his local church, his consistent ability to drive his wife just a little bit crazy, etc.). All of the characters in this book are human, flawed and just as inconsistent as many of the people we know and love (including, if we’re honest, ourselves).
Since his last Harmony novel, Gulley has written a couple of books on grace and you can hear echoes of the lessons he conveyed in those books on full display here. It makes for one of the strongest entries in the Harmony series to date and it left me feeling like the fictional exploits of Sam Gardner aren’t wrapped up just yet. Thankfully, Gulley appears to agree since the A Place Called Hope includes a chapter from the next novel in the series and a forecast publication date of early next year.
Consider this one reader who will definitely be back for more.
In the interest of full disclosure, I requested a copy of this from NetGalley but then found it on the New Book shelf of my local library. I was then given access to a digital ARC from the publisher and NetGalley and I’m happy to share these thoughts on the book. I hope this counts as an honest review.