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the-last-sin-eaterThe Last Sin Eater

By Francine Rivers

Paperback, 1999

Tyndale House

ISBN-10: 0 8423 3571 4

Buy Link: http://www.amazon.com/Last-Sin-Eater-Francine-Rivers/dp/0842335714

Allegory, Appalachia and Advocates: I’ll use these three words to describe this unique novel. I bought this book a year ago after reading other books by Francine Rivers. I had no idea what the book was about and to be honest, it’s not the type of title that normally appeals to me, but since her other books were so good, I bought it. I guess I must have read the first chapter or two because I found a bookmark placed between pages 20 and 21. I can’t remember why I set it aside originally, but I’m glad I decided to give it another try this week. The book starts off kind of slow and it took me a couple of chapters to get used to the mountain dialect, but it quickly grew on me and the book became enjoyable to read. The premise of the story fascinated me and I feel I got to know the characters right away. I was easily drawn into their lives. The author keeps interest high by hinting of things to come and leaving questions unanswered for a time then returning to them in later chapters.  Events and ideas are masterfully woven together and as an added bonus – – – I loved the ending!!!

Set in the mountains in the 1800’s Cadi Forbes narrates the story of her ancestors and an ancient burial practice involving a sin eater. According to the author’s note “The sin eater was a person who was paid a fee or given food to take upon himself the moral trespasses of the deceased and their consequences in the afterlife. Sin eaters were common in the early nineteenth century in England, the Lowlands of Scotland, and the Welsh border district. This custom was carried over by immigrants to the Americas and practiced in remote areas of the Appalachian Mountains.” Chosen by lot the sin eater in this story became an outcast who lived apart from all others high in a mountain cave and only entered the community at the time of death. Children and adults were cautioned never to speak of him and never, ever dare peek at him during a burial service, for doing so, it was feared, would bring curses down on them. This fictional account tells the story of the last sin eater to be appointed deep in the Appalachian Mountains. Strong, stubborn, Cadi Forbes has done something she thinks only the sin eater can help her with. She has lost a sister and her mother’s love, and after the passing of her dear granny she just can’t rest until she finds this man. Her journey is one of discovery, intrigue, and redemption, as she seeks the truth that turns her isolated community inside out.

Although normally only summoned in times of death, Cadi is determined to seek the sin eater out in life to beg him to take away the guilt for what she has done. Who is this sin eater? Does he help the dead? Can he help the living?

In the midst of the wondering and worrying about the sin eater Cadi becomes soul mates with Fagan the son of the feared and self-proclaimed community leader, Brogan Kai.  To truly help Cadi, Fagan must come to terms with family secrets in a community where questions are unwelcome but truth finds a way to push up to the surface. It’s never easy to confront your own family or to hear of their hand in tragic events. Will Fagan stand for truth even if it means going against his kin? This is a book filled with suspense and a book filled with hope. Readers are reminded that freedom can stand stronger than oppression, fear, and guilt. Readers soon realize that Fagan has his own secrets and his own reasons for seeking the sin eater. The two children work together with the help of an elderly neighbor and a local outcast to try and find answers. As they are seeking this sin eater, they learn that a “Man of God” has come to the area? Just as they have their own reasons for meeting the sin eater they are both curious to find out what this man of God has to say. Does he speak the truth? Will what he says be accepted by the people and what will happen if they won’t listen? Will a child lead the way? And . . . if tradition is broken what will become of the man they call the sin eater? I won’t answer these questions nor tell too much more of the plot because it unfolds as it goes and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone.

If you like a book full of rich descriptions and wonderful characters this is a book for you. These characters have depth and personality. You will grieve with them, pity them, fear for them, and rejoice with them. There are many characters to like in this book. There are plenty to dislike as well. Even the unlikeable characters are well portrayed and well defined by the author.  Themes in this book include mistakes and forgiveness, standing up for what’s right and going against the establishment, folklore and truth. The story is compelling and will make some readers stop and think about truth, traditions and why we do what we do when we do it. I was pleased to see that Rivers addresses the Appalachian culture with honesty and care. She does a great job presenting the tribal character of a mountain culture and easily moves the reader from feeling pity for these people to really relating to the emotions and frustrations they face due to tradition, isolation and a lack of options. Although the notion of the sin eater was new to me, the ultimate redemption presented is a familiar truth. I enjoyed my time with Cadi and Fagan and found myself cheering them on in more than one chapter.

This is a Christian novel that can also be classified as historical fiction. The biblical references are accurate and well placed. The historical aspect was well researched and respectfully presented. The biblical references are so entwined in the story that they don’t come off as preachy or forced. I believe even readers who don’t normally read Christian literature would enjoy this compelling story. The book contains adventure, danger and coming of age of the two younger characters. The characters are presented in a realistic way and placed in a captivating setting that fits the time period and honestly portrays the traditions of the mountain people.

I enjoyed the author’s descriptions of the mountain flowers, herbs and plants. It was interesting to be exposed to some of the truths, traditions, fears and beliefs of the mountain people. Although this book doesn’t take long to read, it is suspenseful, heartwarming, and well written. I recommend it for all readers. It would be a good choice for a family read aloud or a book club selection.

–Pearl

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