Book Review: The Shack by William P. Young

TheShackI picked up this book at a grocery store while on vacation in Canada. I had read myself through the book I had planned to keep me busy for the entire trip (Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy). The store had a very limited collection, and I was in a big hurry. The front cover looked pretty good. I thought this was a straight serial killer-murder mystery. Was I ever wrong. I should have read more of the back cover.

Warning, there are spoilers ahead.

The novel is presented as a true story, being written by the friend of Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Philips, a software developer living in Oregon, who endures a great family tragedy of losing his youngest daughter to a serial kidnapper while on a camping trip into the Hell’s Canyon region of Northeastern Oregon. It starts with Mack trying to get on with his life after the kidnapping. On an icy, snowy day, he receives a mysterious note from ‘Papa’, a nickname his wife has given to God. Papa wants Mack to meet him at the shack where his daughter was presumably killed. When he arrives there, he is greeted by God (Papa / Elouisa) and Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Sarayu). Well over half of the book covers three days of talks between Mack and this Holy Trinity, where they discuss everything from organized religion to pain to suffering to revenge. Mack must confront his distrust of God, and the constant question of how a loving God could allow his daughter to be taken and killed.

The first thing to know is that though the forward of the book says this is being written by Mack’s friend Willie (who is, coincidentally, presented as the author), the cover says ‘fiction’ in very small letters. You may think this is a true story, and feel genuinely sad for Mack… no parent should go through this type of sorrow… but this ‘telling through Willie’s eyes’ is nothing more than a plot device. It wasn’t confusing, as it was easy to keep things separated, but once I grasped that this really was fiction, the device felt cheap and weak.

The concept of the story is not bad. It’s a lecture on Mr. Young’s personal belief system, something he probably worked on for years to arrive at, told in a parable. The back story is that he wrote this book as a gift to his six daughters for Christmas one year. From there, friends suggested that he self-publish it. Then, word of mouth spread and it hit the New York Times best seller list. It’s what all writers want to have happen.

But the book didn’t hit #1 because it’s a well written book. The writing could have used a serious edit, and the dialog constantly made me cringe. The dialog – which in this format uses conversations to relay Young’s beliefs – has to be more believable. People, and I’ll even say Gods, wouldn’t talk this way. It’s been a long time since I’ve read dialogue this poorly written, and I ended up skimming long sections of it because it was like reading a very dull sermon.

The book hit #1 because its perfect fodder for a certain segment of society – the evangelical right. Oddly, it’s been both praised for its unique view of man’s possible relationship with God and condemned as heresy because it paints such a weak, humble picture of the Christian God. What you think of it will depend on where you sit in the religious spectrum. Some people have found the book life changing, and praise it, others denounce it and want to burn it. I’m rather ambivalent about the message. My religious beliefs were formed long ago, and this book didn’t change them.

I honestly think that this book could have been better, if it had been better written (um… of course). What I mean, is that a good editor could have really helped it by fixing the mechanics of the writing. I disliked book mainly because it was poorly written, but also because it was dishonest, trying (through the aforementioned plot device) to convince the reader this was non-fiction. I felt used and lectured to, instead of entertained. It’s not something I would recommend to anyone, religious or not. Writers have a contract with the person when they buy the book, and part of that contract includes honesty in the pitch.

Having said that, had the pitch been honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book in the first place. It wasn’t my kind of story, and definitely wasn’t what I was in the mood to read. It was in the wrong display at the store. It should have been in the aisle labeled Christian propaganda, not fiction.

But I’ll take the blame on this one, for not reading the cover closely enough. A lesson learned for next time.