Back in the '70s, my wife saw to it that her children watched Little House on the Prairie on a regular basis, herding them in front of the television for a healthy dose of adventurous, frontier character-building. In an effort to promote family bonding (and get a dose of hunky Michael Landon), she would usually watch the show with them and often have a family discussion afterward about the episode's moral.
During the program's highly rated run, many similar scenarios played out each week across America. With his penchant for emotion-steeped homilies, Landon, who later starred as an angel on probation on Highway to Heaven, struck a resounding chord with audiences, becoming TV's patron saint of wholesome, family programming.
Landon's spiritually infused storytelling seems to have struck a chord with his son. Landon Jr., who worked with his dad on Highway to Heaven, has carved out a career as a writer, director and producer of inspirational movies, including a series of films based on the Christian-friendly fiction of Janette Oke. In collaboration with Tucson writer Cindy Kelley, Landon recently released The Silent Gift, a warmhearted though sometimes melodramatic tale set in the Great Depression about the powerful connection between a mother and her hearing-impaired son.
That the younger Landon cut his creative teeth in film is clearly evident in this book. With its mélange of short, rapidly shifting scenes, it has the feel of a slickly produced made-for-TV movie—long on action, short on introspection. However, the cleverly constructed storyline has enough surprising twists and turns to keep readers engaged.
The book begins with a very cinematic scene of a husband, Jerry Sinclair, driving at breakneck speed down a dark, country lane as his wife, Mary, is going into labor in the backseat. Up ahead, a baby deer stands in the road. As its mother bounds out of the bushes to save her fawn—an adroit foreshadowing of the book's theme of maternal sacrifice—the car hits the doe, veers off the road into a lake, and rapidly sinks. Jerry makes an effort to save his wife, but as the water envelops her, he gives up and swims to shore. Moments later, in what is the book's most memorable image, Mary slowly arises out of the lake, like the moonlit apotheosis of motherhood, clutching her newborn son.
The book then flashes forward several years to the terminal days of the couple's marriage. (We never learn exactly how mother and son escaped a watery demise.) In the middle of a bitterly cold night, Mary and her son, Jack, escape their unhappy home, taking with them the nest egg her husband had planned to use to leave her for another woman. They begin a long, arduous search for a new life, encountering enough trials and tribulations to turn Job into an atheist. Along the way, Mary discovers that Jack has the ability to foretell the future, a gift that leads to serious complications.
Complications, besides thickening the plot, are what drive home this story's main point: No matter how dire our circumstances, God always has our back—even, apparently, if we slap a cop in a crowded police station.
This message-centered book has an unwavering Christian worldview, but for the most part, its proselytizing impulses avoid the morass of preachiness. Unlike some apocalyptically fervent Christian literature, it maintains a low-key, arm-around-the-shoulder attitude, steadfastly suggesting that we'd all likely profit from a bit more faith and self-searching.
The characters would definitely benefit from more self-searching. With names like Godwin, Sinclair and Stanhope, they're more like actors in a morality play, personified concepts rather than complex personalities. Mary, battling an ego trip over her son's gift, is the most fleshed-out, and I found myself rooting for her to triumph over her seemingly endless challenges.
One of the biggest problems is the book's historical claims. Supposedly taking place in the 1930s, it occasionally mentions popular songs, singers, radio shows and films from the period, sprinkles the text with hobo and circus jargon, and periodically refers to difficult economic times—but it doesn't feel very historical, especially the dialogue, which sounds contemporary, even including one of the media's latest (and annoyingly ubiquitous) linguistic darlings, "at the end of the day."
It's obvious that there's a schmaltzy gene in the Landon family DNA. Landon Jr. and Kelley tend to get carried away in the tear-invoking department, but this book offers page-turning entertainment and apt topics for family discussion time.