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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Coaltown Jesus, by Ron Koertge. Candlewick Press, Random House. $19.00 ages 12 and up

"Walker stood up. He was a lot
shorter than Jesus.

"Why now?" Walker asked. "I
prayed to God like a thousand
times. And what happened? Noah
died. Didn't God look downstairs?
It's a nursing home.
Half my mom's clients are ready to
check out. But he picks a kid."

The death of older brother Noah leaves Walker and his mother reeling in their grief. Everything reminds them of him, and their love for him. It is the stuff of anger, and nightmares, and ongoing conflict.

Walker's mother runs a nursing home, and they live in an apartment above it. He helps when he can, worries about his mom, and wants life to be better for both of them. After one particularly harrowing altercation, he stands on the landing of their upstairs apartment and asks for help:

"Look," he said, "if you're up there, help
my mom, okay? My brother's been dead
two whole months, and she's still crying."

To his great surprise, he goes back inside to find Jesus standing in his room. Their first encounter is a harbinger of the relationship they will have over the coming days:

"Are you kidding me?" he gasped.

"You prayed," said Jesus. " I showed up.
I would have been here sooner,
but traffic on I-55 was awful."

Walker stared. "You look just like
your pictures."

It is a comforting meeting for the two, and filled with the humor that will be a part of their daily conversations. It is through his relationship with the Jesus only he and a few others can see that Walker begins to heal. Jesus has important lessons to teach about the power of faith, and the ways in which we must learn to help ourselves. The dialogue is whip-smart, the writing is thoughtful and thought-provoking as you would expect from any book that has Jesus at its heart, and that is written by the accomplished Ron Koertge.

Walker is mature beyond his years, intelligent and wants only to help his mother as she blunders her way through the grief that engulfs her. He works with the nursing home's residents, and tries not to cause her any more pain than she is already feeling. Jesus offers advice that Walker can definitely use:

"So before you were really Jesus, you were
a carpenter's apprentice?"
"I helped my dad, sure. But I knew what
was coming down the pike, so I'd practice.
Like making one hot dog feed six kids
and running on water."
"In the Bible, you just walked."
"Yeah, but I was so bad at it  that I'd run
so I wouldn't sink so fast. Didn't help.
Went right down like a stone. Faith
is like anything else: you have to work
at it, so I wasn't that good at first."

His mom is not the only one who needs help to assuage the grief.

"Jesus moved closer. "Walker, listen to me, okay?
You ask what happens when somebody dies. Well,
the body decomposes and the worms play pinochle
on your snout, but Walker, my dear Walker,
the light never goes out."

It is a very quick read. Once started, you will not be able to put it down. That is its charm. I have read it a few times, and I am sure that I will read it again. It is wise, emotional, humorous and most of all, unforgettable. There are those who will not like its seeming irreverence. Read it or not, it's up to you!

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