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Just a short chapter into Rudy and Shirley Nelson’s richly furnished international thriller, The Risk of Returning, Ted Peterson, who calls himself a “lost child,” is on the streets of Guatemala City, having undertaken a trip “home” to the place where he was born and reared. He’s gawking, a typical tourist maybe, when he spots a young kid, “walking quickly, close to the buildings, head down, shoulders heaving, as if he had been running.”
A moment later the kid is gone, disappeared, simply not there. The incident, hardly remarkable, begins and ends in half a page. That kid’s appearance and disappearance is a key to the wherewithal of this complicated novel, an event that seems a trifle but will, for certain, come back to haunt us. People disappear in The Risk of Returning; they’re gone suddenly, almost as if they weren’t there at all, and the effect is eerie.
But the Nelson’s new novel central narrative is, first of all, a search for father. Teddy’s parents were missionaries who sent him back to the States for boarding school once he became old enough to begin to understand what was going on around him, once his own life became threatened by forces he never understood or even recognized. He barely remembers his father, who never returned from Guatamala, died there a short time after Teddy himself was sent away.
He undertakes this age-old quest not simply because he doesn’t know much about his father, but also because he’s run afoul of meaning in his own life. His marriage is whimpering to a sad close, his career is in a stall, his life seems purposeless. He returns to Guatemala, hoping, most pointedly, to locate his father’s grave. He has no suspicions, no designs on discovering what lies behind mysteries or what may or may not have happened. He’s not sleuthing, but he is looking for some kind of cure to whatever it is that ails him.
Halfway through the novel he finds his father’s grave, the substantial purpose of the trip. What’s left of the story opens up to much greater value, even though he wasn’t looking for it. What remains of the novel is the untangling his father’s life.
But there’s more. The Risk of Returning is also a love story. Teddy takes a week-long language-immersion course once he arrives, where he meets his teacher, a tough, tall widow who was born in Milwaukee, but became a Guatemalan when she married a native, a good man. Catharine O’Brien, even more deeply bruised than he is, isn’t on the lookout for another mate–and neither is Teddy; but the two of them find each other inescapably and intimately linked by the horrors of a civil war whose battle lines can’t be traced on a map.
A secret war, a wicked war, is being waged all around them. All too frequently, men and women the government doesn’t trust disappear from busy streets or are murdered in out-of-the-way rural villages. Some are tortured and then killed, sometimes in car wrecks that aren’t accidents at all. Amid the bloodshed, Teddy and Catharine, almost against their will, fall in love. Returning is a love story.
But it’s also an international thriller that takes surprisingly little background to enter. Not long into the novel a reader feels the maze all around, even though it’s set meticulously a quarter century ago in a Central American country few of us know much about. We’re there in a moment because the plot’s generosity creates a setting so fraught with danger.
Strangely enough, Returning is also a novel about mission work, about Christians, about work in and for the Kingdom. On the plane to Guatemala, Ted Peterson is accosted by a pushy, well-meaning American kid in a t-shirt that proclaims “Gringo for Jesus.” The kid asks him where his soul is bound if the jet they’re in should crash–you know, one of those kids and one of those questions. Still, that moment keys a major theme, not because Ted is determined himself to bring Guatemalan souls to Christ, but because he is himself a lost soul who needs badly to find his way in the darkness.
I like Ted Peterson because he’s neither the true believer nor the the angry soul whose mother and father loved the Lord so deeply that they had nothing left to give their children. He is not a tortured MK, but he is an MK, have no doubt. He is not searching for God or looking to bury him; he simply wants to know what he missed when his father died a world away. What he discovers is father’s martyred selflessness, the greatest gift he or anyone could offer those he loved and served, the Mayan people.
Really, in its own subtle way, The Risk of Returning defines mission work in a way that’s a blessed antidote to the madness of The Poisonwood Bible. Like Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Light, it commends mission work by redefining it in its broadest, its most comprehensive and most dangerous way.
A warning: only attentive readers need apply. I’m not kidding: the Nelson’s have created a page-turner in Returning, but you turn pages quickly only at your peril. Read too fast and you’ll miss the labyrinth they carefully create. In addition to everything else, Returning is a murder mystery so intricately engineered it should come packaged with its own GPS.
And don’t miss this either. The Risk of Returning is a political novel, not at its base because at its foundation it’s so much else. But don’t miss the fact that the political right and left play significant roles here, that Godless communism often seems a straw man and the Christian right, linked inexorably with fervent patriotism, is anything but heavenly.
Guatemala has long been a passion for Rudy and Shirley Nelson, who years ago funded and accomplished their own documentary on politics and anthropology in the region. Writers might well ask themselves an obvious question: how on earth could the two of them write a novel together–and stay married? The answer to that question may well be that they’ve been married for over sixty years.
In this interest of full disclosure, the Nelsons are my friends. No matter. What the two of them have created is, first of all, a terrific read, but–and I say this as a believer–more importantly, a story of grace, given and received.
Books and Culture offers a fascinating discussion of things-Guatamalan on-line, as well as in their most recent issue, a discussion/interview with the Nelsons and with Paula Huston, whose novel about Guatamala was also published just recently.