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Book Review: The Stones by Eleanor Gustafson

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King David's name conjures up images of a youth with a sling facing off a towering giant with near universality. We know of his triumph, renown as a warrior, falling-out with Saul, sin with Bathsheba, siring of Solomon, the rebellion of his son Absalom – and other salient facts. However, the details of his life: the many battles, wives, and moments of abandoned praise and utter dependence so easily slip through the cracks of the terse and often dry recitations of his accomplishments as King of Israel in scripture.

Drawing directly from biblical accounts of David’s life, Eleanor Gustafson weaves scriptural and historical accuracy together with imaginative emotional nuances and interactions in The Stones, an epic work of biblical fiction. Though 600 pages the story moves along at a rapid pace. Covering a lifetime of spiritual and military achievement, the scenes must shift quickly while still imparting a thorough understanding of the explored events. There are no allowances here for Gustafson to slip into unnecessary wordiness resulting in a large novel where each page is filled with vivid action.

While remaining within the confines of cultural context Gustafson subtly probes the questions most modern readers encounter. Most notably she looks beneath the surface of plural marriage and the utter annihilation of God’s enemies upon His request. Her touches upon these matters are light, and attempt to explore issues that may have caused some emotional difficulties even in a time when they were permitted, and at times commanded by God.

Gustafson’s David is masterfully wrought. Illuming the heart and soul of a warrior poet, his passion, strength, bravery, and even ferocity lending themselves to his musical talent rather than the two aspects standing apart from one another. His inherent sense of deep loyalty, honour and love is offset by his all too human failings. A man like any other – David’s sins are mercifully forgiven by God while the implicit promise of the Christ’s child’s birth through David’s line remains, even through difficult times of chastisement from his heavenly father.

The strong themes of military camaraderie, filial love and battle strategy will certainly ring true for men, creating one of the rare Christian novels that male readers will enjoy as much as the large, female readership of biblical fiction. David is no namby-pamby, and the brutalities of military life are quite evident in this version of his life. While not needlessly graphic for gore's own sake, Gustafson’s portrayal of war is realistic, and pulls no punches when it comes to the details of David’s violent, kingdom-conquering empire.

Gustafson’s integration of David’s psalms within actual events in his life adds additional historic relevance to one of the most loved books of the Bible. So often we read the book of Psalms with an eye only to what these verses mean to us, and how they apply to our lives, rather than considering what they meant to the author himself.

With a large cast of characters from David’s life: priests, warriors, foreign rulers, wives, concubines, children, prophets, musicians, and common folk – it’s simply not possible to embue each individual with deep, rich characterization. Many players are simple sketches with basic attributes outlined. David himself is the masterwork, fully fleshed through his various roles, responsibilities and moods. Of his wives Abigail is the most prominent with her sure, practical management of his household. David’s general Joab, Saul’s son Joab, David’s son Absalom and Asaph — the Levitical musician whose biographical writings form the bulk of the novel, his reflections the narration — are all respectably fleshed out.

Helpful character lists are provided both alphabetically and categorically for those of us who are confused by the Hebraic character names, and large number of names. A glossary is provided for the light spattering of Hebrew words (very few). One inclusion I dearly would have appreciated is a blackline map sketching out David’s territory, that of his enemies and notations indicating the sites of major cities and battles.

Though extensive geographic descriptions and directions are provided in the text it was impossible for my mind to construct a mental map. My biblical geography knowledge is nearly non-existent and I’m spatially challenged. Much of this detail went straight over my head. If the shifting territorial boundaries during David’s reign made a single map unfeasible, perhaps a pre-David, post-David, two map spread would be appropriate.

David’s calling as a God-anointed warrior king during the Old Testament may seem foreign, even harsh to the sensibilities of New Testament Christianity. I’ve often wondered what it was about David that made him a man after God’s own heart. Was it his heart for worship, his passionate longing, or repentant nature that led God to memorialize David in these terms, or some beautiful melody drawn for these aspects and more? Through The Stones I took one step closer to understanding and loving this mighty man who was much used and loved by God.

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