Murder mysteries abound these days, but how many are modeled on the parable of the Prodigal Son? In a Far-Off Land by Stephanie Landsem is a captivating piece of historical fiction and a book that takes its inspiration from Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. The book is a tale of Hollywood glamor, murder, family, and forgiveness, all set in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
Entertainment that Also Feeds Our Minds
While I’m a sucker for classic literature and believe that everyone should read greats such as Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I also love contemporary fiction. I get particularly excited whenever I discover a new Christian or Catholic novelist who isn’t C.S. Lewis or Evelyn Waugh (much as I love them).
Unfortunately, it’s rough world out there in terms of modern-day fiction. I have lost count of the number of books I’ve picked up, intrigued by dust jacket descriptions or rave reviews, only to throw them away after discovering one-too-many explicit scenes. Even contemporary fiction with no objectionable content often has little in the way of substance. Sure, beach reads are fun, but they’re like candy. They don’t make us stop and ponder deeper realities. They don’t feed our souls.
That’s why I was so pleased to discover In a Far-Off Land. This novel manages to pull off a perfect balancing act of exciting, page-turning plot with beautiful themes and plenty of fodder for discussion and reflection. And not only that, but Stephanie Landsem is a gifted writer—her prose is strong and descriptive, not overly wordy, but full of small period details that make the story’s setting come to life.
An Exciting Exploration of the Human Heart
The story opens with Minerva Sinclaire, a twenty-something aspiring actress who’s trying to make it big on the silver screen in LA during the Great Depression. She attends the party of a famous Hollywood actor in the hopes that it will lead to the break she’s been waiting for, but everything goes wrong when the star is discovered murdered the morning after the party and Minerva becomes the prime suspect. She is forced to rely on the help of her agent, Max, and a Mexican gardener, Oscar, to stay one step ahead of the law and discover the real killer.
In the meantime, the reader discovers that Minerva has a checkered past of her own and that Max and Oscar are both wrestling with demons even as they try to help her.
Fans of historical fiction—and anyone who is intrigued by old Hollywood—will love the careful attention to detail that Landsem put into this book. She sets scenes carefully, from her descriptions of Minerva’s outfits to details of the colonia where Oscar and his family live, to incorporating side characters who were real-life Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore.
It’s a rich and eventful period of history to draw from. Not only was the Great Depression in full swing, but Hollywood was also making the transition from silent films to talking ones.
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Landsem also does a masterful job weaving in another important event that was happening in Los Angeles during that time—the Mexican Repatriation. Between 300,000 and 2 million people of Mexican descent who were living in Los Angeles in the 1930s were forcibly removed from their homes and taken across the border to Mexico. An estimated forty to sixty percent of these people were actually citizens of the United States, and many children were included in the roundup.
In the novel, Oscar’s family lives in constant fear of deportation and must deal with the effects of the Repatriation. Landsem paints a truly striking contrast between the stunning wealth of Hollywood stars with the poverty of the hired help. At the same time, it is clear that the rich and famous are often the ones to be pitied, while family’s like Oscar’s are rich in what actually matters—faith, family, and a community rooted in honor, hard work, and love.
For Mature Readers
In a Far-Off Land touches on difficult subjects such as sexual assault and abortion, so it is definitely a book for mature readers. However, Landsem treats these sensitive topics with care and avoids graphic descriptions. This novel looks unflinchingly at its characters’ woundedness and ultimately offers the hope that healing and forgiveness are always possible.
Unsurprisingly for a book that models itself after the Prodigal Son story, mercy and forgiveness show up as major themes of In A Far-Off Land. All of the main characters struggle either to give or receive mercy and love. There are those who think they are too far gone to deserve these things, those who struggle with anger and a consuming thirst for justice, and those who simply want to forget their past, bury it deep down, and hide in the darkness of past sins.
The book’s ending is a moving reminder of the reality of God’s desire to bring all His children home. After closing the book, the reader is struck by Landsem’s main message: no one is ever too far gone to experience God’s redeeming love.
Have you read this book yet? What did you think?!
Maria Bonvissuto works in marketing for a Catholic all-girls school in Northern Virginia. She is always reading at least two books at a time, loves playing classical guitar and writing, and is a major Saint Augustine fangirl.
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