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Pocketful of Pearls    by Shelley Bates order for
Pocketful of Pearls
by Shelley Bates
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2005 (2005)

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* *   Reviewed by Melissa Parcel

Dinah Traynell has a dark secret. As a member of a strict religious organization, the Elect, she weighs every move and decision in light of church rules. Even at twenty-four, living on her own seems like a dream to Dinah, especially since her father has just died and she must help her mother run the farm. Phinehas, the chief Shepherd of the Elect, is both revered and feared. Families are deeply honored when he graces them with a visit, and since Dinah's family is favored, Phinehas stays with them often. He has sexually abused and raped Dinah for over ten years, pushing it all off as her spiritual sacrifice to God.

On the day of Dinah's father's funeral, a drifter shows up at their back door desperately seeking food. Although it goes against the church rules, Dinah hides him in the barn and feeds him. She learns his name - Matthew - and bits and pieces of information about his life, that lead her to believe there's more to this man than meets the eye. Dinah takes Matthew on as a hired man and slowly the two learn to trust each other. When events begin to spiral out of control, can Dinah finally stand up for herself or will she remain loyal to the Elect?

The novel has a unique plot with intriguing characters. Not having been in a similar situation, it's difficult to identify with Dinah, but it's easy to sympathize with her pain. It's frustrating as a reader to be a spectator to such horrific events and feel helpless to do anything about them, except to turn pages. Dinah's gradual transformation from membership in a toxic church to independence is slow but very believable. The storytelling is straightforward and fascinating. Supporting characters, such as Matthew, Dinah's mother, and other members of the church, add dimension and realism.

Although God's true hope is eventually revealed to Dinah, a sense of heaviness pervades most of Pocketful of Pearls. It's not entirely clear until the last pages whether justice will prevail or if there will just be closure to the horror. With such a heavy theme, a thread of levity would have helped to make the novel more readable. Overall, Shelley Bates forges bravely ahead with a topic many would shy away from, shining light onto a religious situation that looks, on the surface, like truth but in reality is a giant lie.

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