In Erin Bartels’ novel, The Words Between Us, Robin Dickinson is a loner who runs a used book shop in Michigan. Only her party-girl friend, Sarah, knows Robin’s real last name is Windsor and her father was a U. S. Senator tried and found guilty for murder and treason. Robin’s mother was implicated as well, and both parents have been in prison for eighteen years. Robin hasn’t seen either of them in all that time.
The book opens on the day Robin’s father is scheduled for execution. Robin just tries to get through the day and avoid the news when she gets a surprise package in the mail: a book from the only other person who knew her secret and betrayed her: Peter.
Robin had met Peter when she first moved to the area after her parents’ arrest to stay with her grandmother. He found out she liked to read. His mother had died a year ago and his father had boxed up all her books. Peter was reading them one by one in her honor. He offered to loan them to Robin, and she repaid him with a poem. They were heading toward a high school romance until a crisis resulted in Peter’s betrayal. Now, after having no contact in eighteen years, he sent her a copy of the first book he had loaned to her. Why? How did he know she was here?
The chapters alternate back and forth between “Then” and “Now” as Robin’s story unfolds.
In some ways, this is a story of how people survive excruciating pain. In others ways, it’s a story of judgments and misconceptions. Even when we think we have a “right” to our opinions about others, sometimes we’re wrong. It has elements of mystery and suspense. Ultimately, it’s a story about words and their effect, as the title says.
As the gorgeous cover indicates, there are a multitude of literary references.
Robin spends a lot of time thinking of the meaning of death, that indefinable something that’s missing life. Pondering a dissected frog and dead goldfish, Robin muses: “Always a body, but with something missing, something twisted out of order. It was that off bit that made me wonder. What was really missing other than breath? Because it wasn’t just that.” She notices that same absence in an old house. And later, she realizes even some books do not live:
Most of these books are not alive. They have not stood the passage of time.
They do not still burn in the hearts of those who have read them. It’s unlikely any of those readers could pull the names of the protagonists from memory. They are merely inert paper and ink, and I doubt very much they could live again.
I know why some books live on forever while others struggle for breath, forgotten on shelves and in basements. the authors . . . hadn’t bled. They hadn’t cut themselves open and given up a part of themselves that they would dearly miss. They hadn’t lost anything in the writing. That’s the difference between the books that I could never aptly explain to Dawt Pi and the ones I let The Professor [a parrot] shred. That’s the difference between the dead and the living.
Was that also what made a person or a bird or a frog alive? Was there a part of God’s heart that animated each otherwise insignificant part of the world? Had he given something up in creating me?
A couple of other quotes from the book:
Sometimes we’re handed adversity for our own good, so we’ll grow. Just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for.
There are many types of quiet. The quiet when you first open a book and prepare yourself to enter a story. The quiet of the seed underground, waiting for spring. The quiet that follows the moment the past rips through time to invade the present.
I couldn’t remember who recommended this book to me, but I had thought it was Christian fiction. Yet I didn’t see much of anything connected to faith at first besides a couple of references, so I thought I was mistaken:
“God loves you, Robin. I pray for you—every day.” I can’t answer her without releasing the tears that are swiftly building up behind my eyes like a river behind a dam. I wish I was so sure that God looked at me with anything but fathomless disappointment.
Because of all the people I know, she’s the only one who has ever made me wonder if perhaps God must be real despite everything.
But by the end, Robin opens up to the possibility of faith in a God who loves her. So there’s a faith element, but it’s not heavy-handed.
I enjoyed Robin’s story and journey.