The Promise of Jesse Woods by Chris Fabry opens with Matt Plumley in Chicago receiving a phone call from a voice from his past in West Virginia, sending him straight back there.
Matt had arrived in Dogwood, West Virginia from Pittsburgh when he was near 14 in the 1970s. His dad had grown up in Dogwood and was coming back to pastor the church there. Matt was not only the new kid, the new preacher’s kid at that, but he was also overweight, all of which worked against his making friends. But he did become friends with a couple of fellow outcasts, a boy of mixed race, Dickie Darrel Lee Hancock, and a girl named Jesse Woods from the wrong side of the tracks who took care of her sister because her father had left and her mother was ill.
As the three traipse around the countryside on their bikes, they get into various adventures and misadventures, revealing and keeping each other’s secrets. Matt’s eyes are opened to prejudice and mistreatment, to disappointment in his father, who goes along with Basil Blackwood, who runs everything in town, including the church, and to his first crush in Jesse.
The narration goes back and forth between the events of Matt’s childhood in 1972 and the events of 1984, when he returned. There is indication of something major that happened that caused a fallout between himself and Jesse, and though tidbits are uncovered along the way, the whole truth doesn’t come out until a big climax near the end. Even then it takes Matt a while longer to piece together the ramifications of that event to the present and to learn what he needs to learn, not only about the one promise Jesse didn’t keep, but also about himself.
Chris is a natural storyteller and weaves everything together nicely, though there was a bit too much detail about baseball for my tastes. There were also several mentions about what someone’s breath smelled like, which I thought odd in all but one instance. I would have been just a year or so older than Matt, so the parts about growing up in a small Southern town brought back many memories. There are moments of aching for children in Jesse’s situation. In one sense it’s a coming of age story – at least the 1972 scenes are. But in a larger sense it’s about Matt finally coming to terms with issues in his own life. A few times it’s pointed out to him that he’s concerned about rescuing others when maybe he’s the one who needs rescuing.
I thought the book was a smidgen too long and dragged in a couple of places, but overall it was an enjoyable read.
Genre: Christian fiction
My rating: 8 out of 10
Potential objectionable elements: There are a few “adolescent boy noticing a girl’s body” moments, though not explicit, and an attempted assault.