Review: The Merciful Scar, by Rebecca St. James and Nancy Rue

The Merciful Scar cover artThe Merciful Scar, by Rebecca St. James & Nancy Rue (Thomas Nelson, 2013)

This novel is life-changing. I almost didn’t read it, because emotionally-laden tales aren’t my thing. But the authors introduce us to Kirsten as her world falls apart, and the story isn’t about angst—it’s about healing.

Kirsten has been carrying a lot of pain for seven years now, hiding it from the world because that’s what she’s been taught. The pressure of post-graduate studies, and a boyfriend who won’t commit, only make things worse. Nobody knows that when the stress gets too much, Kirsten cuts her own flesh for relief. Her body is a map of scars.

Falling apart is the best thing to happen in her life, because now she can heal—if she’ll acknowledge the hurts. Despite parental objections, she chooses an unconventional sort of treatment centre: a remote sheep ranch run by a former nun, Sister Frankie.

Sister Frankie is amazing, and I wish we all had someone like her in our lives. May we become someone like her to those around us: present, listening, waiting, praying.

Other residents of the ranch include Emma, a young woman struggling with post-traumatic stress after a stint in Afghanistan, as well as Frankie’s Uncle Joseph and later her nephew, Andy. The daily work of caring for the animals bonds them into family and slowly allows Kirsten and Emma to begin the healing journey.

This is one of those richly-crafted stories with strong characters and a vivid sense of place. Kirsten, the hider, feels exposed on the vast Montana flatlands. In the sheep and in one of the sheepdogs, she sees much of herself. The authors don’t rush anything or over-explain, so readers can live the story too.

As we follow Kirsten’s self-discovery, there’s room for insights of our own. It’s not just Kirsten’s experiences and relationships that have damaged her, it’s the way she learned to handle them and what she began to believe about herself.

Like many of us, Kirsten has a snarky little voice in her head that’s quick with a snappy comeback or a self-criticism. She calls it the Nudnik. One of her assignments on the sheep ranch is to learn to hear the voice of God. Maybe, between the Nudnik and the Lord, she’ll discover her own true voice and find the courage to use it.

How do we handle our stresses? What lies do we believe about ourselves that impact how we live, that stifle who we were meant to be? Just like Kirsten sees herself in the farm animals, I see aspects of myself in her. And in her liberation, I find freedom for myself.

My favourite quotes:

“My soul chose that moment to do something it hadn’t done in longer ago than I could remember. It began to cry.” p. 41

“Finding that true self and embracing it is how anyone connects to God.” p. 167

“I already believed in God. Now I had to accept that God believed in me.” p. 169

The Merciful Scar is a gentle yet compelling story, well told, and it’s one of those rare books my heart felt safe to fall into. I highly recommend it to fans of women’s fiction, Christian fiction, anyone with insecurity or other stress issues, and to anyone who loves someone who practices non-suicidal self-injury (cutting).

About the authors: Rebecca St. James is a Christian recording artist as well as the author of a number of non-fiction books. Nancy Rue is a novelist and acclaimed teacher of the craft of writing fiction. This is their first collaboration, and I hope it won’t be their last. Twitter users can follow the conversation about the book under the hashtag #MercifulScar.

[A review copy was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I was in no way compensated for this review.]

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