Get ready for a readable joy-ride in this installment of the Harmony series, A CHANGE OF HEART. Author Philip Gulley sets the drive on cruise control for his fifth offering --- humorous, low-key storytelling full of the characters you've come to love throughout the previous four full-length novels.
If you haven't picked up other books in the series, put it in "park," stop reading this review now, and go back and begin with HOME TO HARMONY. You'll acquire the needed context for the characters and an appreciation for just how much has changed in the little town of Harmony --- and how much remains the same.
Already up to speed? For those of you fans who have followed the series, this one opens with Pastor Sam Gardner celebrating five years at Harmony Friends Meeting, which is "about four years and eleven months longer than he'd predicted when he became their pastor." Sam prefers funerals to weddings --- "the guest of honor lay quietly, without a word of protest or advice, not worrying for one moment whether he'd forget the vows or she'd trip on her bridal gown." As always, he has his hands full with his quirky congregation. If you're a small-town churchgoer, you'll quickly recognize the personalities in the Harmony Friends meeting --- only the names will be different.
There are some small-town sorts of changes in the air. Dale Hinshaw, the curmudgeonly church member and thorn in the flesh for Sam, is threatening to leave the Quakers for the Baptists. Deena Morrison is getting ready to walk down the aisle with a handsome doctor, and Harmony has its first traffic light.
But the more things change in a small town, the more other things stay the same. Bob Miles, editor of the Harmony Herald, still pens his column, the "Bobservation Post," and dishes out all the local gossip --- true and untrue. Former Indiana Sausage Queen Nora Nagle continues working the checkout counter of Kivett's Five & Dime, waiting for the right man to come along. Sam's idea of an exotic date with his wife Barbara hasn't improved much --- this time it's sneaking over to the Holidome in Cartersburg to swim at the pool, eat bologna sandwiches and HoHos, and share a coke from the vending machine.
It's a laid-back, mellow read. There are a few bumps on the journey but no real controversies or upsets. In some previous novels, Gulley hasn't been afraid to open a few cans of worms (homosexuality and the church, doubt and the clergyman), but in this one there's not much readers could raise an eyebrow over, theology-wise. The major crisis in this novel revolves around Ellis and Miriam Hodge's adopted 16-year-old daughter, Amanda, and Ellis's ne'er-do-well brother, Ralph, and his wife. Ralph had "sold" Amanda to her uncle and aunt while addicted to the bottle, but now he's back, fresh from Alcoholics Anonymous and wanting to start a new life as a family. However, the tension never escalates much past a gentle concern. Gulley writes with plenty of points of view that switch back and forth throughout the book, but the transitions are as slick as an automatic transmission.
I've known Phil Gulley for years (in the interests of full disclosure, he used to date my sister, so I consider him "almost" family) and I grew up just a few miles from Danville, his hometown. When I read Gulley's novels, I recognize many of the places he's drawn from. In the tradition of all great storytellers (he's often compared to Garrison Keillor and Jan Karon), Gulley has a knack for drawing from true life and embroidering it to make excellent fiction (there's not much in Cartersburg except a fire station, for example). The ring of authenticity in his novels comes from his knowledge of Indiana small towns and the characters who populate them. If you visit Danville, Indiana --- Gulley's hometown --- you'll even be able to visit the walk-up Dairy Queen, the site of the "sprinkles shortage" that made headlines in his May 4, 2005 Harmony Herald newsletter (sign up for this monthly e-newsletter at www.harmonyherald.com) or see for yourself the town square and coffee shop that provides setting material for the novel.
But you don't need to go to Danville to recognize the setting or the characters. Anyone familiar with small-town Midwestern life and churches will feel an instant comfortable recognition with Harmony and Harmony Friends Meeting. A happy ending will leave Gulley fans satisfied and looking forward to the next installment.
Enjoy the ride!
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby