I read a really lovely book yesterday -- Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry. I bought this at a book signing here in Portland last winter (Parry is a Portland author), and for some reason I just hadn't read it yet. It got tucked somewhere -- it's a slim, unassuming little book, easily tucked. Slim and unassuming though it may be, it is also beautiful and deeply affecting, and served to remind me about the soldiers still serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effect of their absence here at home. Shame on me for having *tucked* that away like I did this book.
"Brother" lives on a ranch in sparsely populated Eastern Oregon. As the youngest of five boys, he is the only one still at home when his National Gaurdsman father is deployed to Iraq, along with many of the able-bodied adults of their small community. In only 161 pages, in Brother's thoroughly believable 12-year-old voice, Parry conveys the loss to the community that this deployment represents. Beyond the question of what a 12-year-old does without his father for 14 straight months looms the larger question: how do ranches get along in the hands of children and grandparents?
I really fell in love with this young boy -- he's the kind of boy you want your daughter to marry when they grow up! Sweet and good, and not in a boring, annoying way. I love to discover a good character who is not boring or annoying. Also, as a non-religious person, I like to find books in which deep faith is related in a non-righteous, non-in-your-face way. I didn't really ponder the title much -- Heart of a Shepherd -- probably because of my total ignorance of ranch life. If I knew more, it might have occurred to me sooner that ranchers are not shepherds, and I might have wondered what the title meant. As it was, I only thought about it once it came up in the story. When Brother is told by the Ecuadorian hired hand that he has the "heart of a shepherd," it's a statement about his true nature and even his destiny: perhaps he isn't a rancher like his father. Perhaps he is something else. What that is comes clear over the course of this book, as Brother struggles to keep a big cattle ranch going while also attending 6th grade, facing set-backs and tragedy with dignity and a quirky, homey 12-year-old voice.
To really bring things home, when I finished the book, I was sitting on the sofa nursing and couldn't get up, so I sat there a minute pondering it, and then I leafed through what was in reach -- first the new November issue of Martha Stewart Everyday Food (I'm so going to make that orzo bake, and yum: pie crust made out of crushed sugar cones!), and then yesterday's Oregonian newspaper. There on the front page was the news that Oregon's largest deployment of National Guard soldiers since WWII has just gone to Iraq. 2,600 men and women who never signed up for active duty have to leave their families, jobs, perhaps even ranches, to go fight a war . . . well, this isn't a place for statements about the right or wrong of the war. Parry doesn't engage in that in her book -- for all I know, these families in Eastern Oregon (likely conservative Republicans) endorse the war. Still, it's good to remember who's there, fighting, and who's suffering their absence, fearful every day that they might not return.
Heart of a Shepherd depicts that wait with dignity and a fair amount of heart-squeezing. It can be read in a sitting, but it really expands to fill up that small space with the big landscape of Eastern Oregon and the beautifully rendered lives of its inhabitants.
Squint, and I can see a Newbery seal on the cover of this book. The big, open sky of the cover image even seems designed to receive it :-)