The Sweet By and By

It’s not really giving anything away to say that the debut novel by Todd Johnson, The Sweet By and By, will make you cry. Maybe this says more about the reviewer than about the book, but still, the fact remains that the subject matter of The Sweet By and By is tear-worthy. It’s about friendship and loyalty and big end-of-life issues like dignity and happiness and who really loves you for sure.

Lorraine is a church-going, God-smacking woman who has made a career out of taking care of other people. She is a caregiver at the Ridgecrest Nursing Home, and little gets by her. Lorraine has equal measures of patience and endurance, which she exercises each day as she looks after Margaret and Bernice, the two brightest spots at the home. Margaret has a sharp tongue and high standards, and Lorraine bears Margaret’s rebukes and criticisms with calm mother-patience. More than helping Margaret to dress and bathe, Lorraine preserves the dwindling strands of dignity that Margaret clings to.

Bernice provides comic relief in what would otherwise be too sad a story to bear. Bernice is a happy ditz and reliably out of her mind most of the time. She is Margaret’s constant companion, and they look after each other is a way that is endearing and practical. Bernice carries a stuffed monkey with her everywhere and treats him as a real person. Except of course when she hides bootleg booze deep in his throat where no one of the nursing home staff, even Lorraine, would think to look.

Rhonda is at the home by accident, if you believe such things. Rhonda survived being raised by a hateful grandmother and has grown into a decent person. As a hair stylist, she endeavors to make the world a more beautiful place. However, it is for cash that she applies to Ridgeview, never expecting to like it, much less fall in love with the ladies who line up outside the beauty parlor door each week.  Despite any intention to get in, do her job, and get out, Rhonda is adopted by both Margaret and Beatrice, who see the goodness in the girl and provide the mother-encouragement for which she had been starved as a child.

One of the delights of The Sweet By and By is that it is set in North Carolina, where eccentricity is as natural as sunlight and sweet tea. This lovely bit of fiction is not nostalgic; it takes an unflinching view of who we are, what connects us, and what’s important, without being preachy. In the end, we realize it is Lorraine’s story, and Johnson leaves her narrative not with a nice neat bow, but with faith that everything will somehow work out:

“I used to hope that if I went to church long enough, all my inside weight would go away. That ain’t right. Jesus may have come to take away our sins, but he left our feelings right where they’ve always been. I still have inside me some of what I’ve always had, built up over a lifetime. I just keep adding to it, every day, like everybody else, and hope the stew gets better the more ingredients I put in.”

The Sweet By and By is perfect summer reading. It’s weighty enough to matter, but manages also to take itself lightly.

Review by Cynthia Gregory/ceegregory@aol.com

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