By Tirzah Frank, Editorial Assistant
I was reluctant to proofread Redeeming Ruth. It’s about a family in Maine that adopts a baby from Uganda with cerebral palsy, and documents their joys, hardships, excitements, and struggles through the journey. While I’m in favor of compassion and empathy—and the way that books can advance our experience of both—I prefer to keep them at a distance. And Meadow Merrill’s narration doesn’t allow for distance; instead, she draws you into her family, revealing every struggle, every victory, every angry thought, every imperfectly handled situation, every helpful friend…and the overwhelming rawness of her grief.
In fulfillment of my expectations, Redeeming Ruth was beautifully written, yet hard to read because of this family’s struggles. It was engrossing, but it was also difficult to consume in eight-hour blocks for editing. I couldn’t fathom how hard it must have been to live. But as I read, I started to ask myself some uncomfortable questions.
Where Was My Wariness Coming From? Was It Okay?
My tendency to shy away from other people’s suffering is not unique to me. In smaller ways, we do this all the time. It’s clear in the fact that we expect the question “How are you?” to always receive an answer of “okay” or better. We ask it as we walk by people, confident that their answers won’t be long or concerning enough to slow us down. But there is something troubling about avoiding the pain of others, especially the way I was doing it. I began to wonder: At what point did avoiding emotional engagement with difficult stories like Merrill’s intersect with encouraging people in the midst of suffering to sit down and shut up? At what level was my reluctance to read Redeeming Ruth an endorsement of the idea that since Ruth died, Merrill could have nothing valuable or important to say? And how would it feel to not only lose a child but also be told (implicitly, if not explicitly) that such loss disqualified her from sharing her story?
I don’t want to belabor societal or self-condemnation too much here, but the fact remains: at some level, I didn’t want to be bothered with Merrill’s story, as if her suffering was contagious and I was afraid of catching it. And my reluctance fed into a larger societal tendency to silence and sideline people who are dealing with loss.
Merrill Seizes Her Chance to Be Heard—and Passes It On
Let’s step back from the question of how sad stories (and suffering people) should or should not be received. Although it’s valuable to consider, I can’t resolve it on my own here in this blog post. Instead, I want to focus on the book as a whole. Although it is easy to get stuck in the sadness of Redeeming Ruth, the story isn’t just about suffering. It’s about the way that a community came alongside the Merrills and supported them through each challenge—emotionally, physically, and financially. It’s about an orphanage in Uganda that cares for only the neediest children. It’s about a rare, preventable medical condition that needs more attention. It’s about the way that God ceaselessly provides for his people, even in their darkest hours, even as each impossible challenge is less surmountable than the last. And yes, it is about giving voice to suffering and loss.
Merrill doesn’t only talk about herself and her experience, so Redeeming Ruth doesn’t just express the struggles of one family. As Ruth became part of the Merrill family, the Merrills’ circle of acquaintances widened, encompassing other families with disabled children, the Welcome Home orphanage in Uganda, the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, the charity Joni and Friends, and finally other people who’d lost children to kernicterus. It’s obvious that Merrill takes seriously her opportunity to draw attention to voices more muffled than her own. And that—the fact that Merrill has the chance to speak about her experience and uses her voice to elevate the voices of others in turn—is one of the things that makes Redeeming Ruth so worthwhile. It is important for someone like me, who has never had a child (much less lost one), to be exposed to a point of view so different from my own, but I imagine that Redeeming Ruth is even more important for those who have more in common with the Merrills. One of the side effects of our tendency to suppress accounts of grief and loss is that even though loss is universal, it can be isolating. We all experience it, but few of us feel free to express it, or know how to respond when we hear it expressed. Redeeming Ruth addresses this problem by confronting loss directly and honestly, providing grieving parents and disabled children alike with evidence that they are not alone, and hopefully helping to set a precedent for the telling of more stories like Ruth’s.
With Great Loss Comes Great Love
Even though Redeeming Ruth does highlight grief, it is not so different from the story of any other family or any other life. There’s pain, certainly, but it is not only pain. Reducing Ruth’s story to something generically bleak creates a dangerously narrow view of what Merrill has to offer, just like reducing your own life to its pain would diminish and endanger you. And while loss’s role in the story can be overwhelming, it is important to note that love’s role is larger. I don’t know which is most incredible: the Merrills’ love for Ruth, the love of friends (in Uganda and Kenya, as well as in Maine) for the Merrills, or God’s love for all of them. I do know, however, that all three were necessary to facilitate Ruth’s adoption and redemption.
In Redeeming Ruth, Meadow Merrill was able to place the loss of a child within the greater redemptive framework of love—God’s and ours—setting an example of hope and faith that can help us maintain a broader perspective as we confront losses of our own. Merrill did it, so I know it’s possible. And she was honest about how hard gaining such perspective was, so I don’t feel like it’s an unattainable, saints-only thing. Instead, Merrill’s treatment of loss and of love gives me more faith in God’s power to redeem our experiences, both good and bad. It is these accomplishments above all that make Redeeming Ruth a must-read.
Tirzah Frank is an Editorial Assistant at Hendrickson Publishers. She has a BA in English from Salem State University. In her spare time, she writes novels about dragons and eats an alarming number of dark chocolate peanut butter cups.