Note: After posting Amy Carmichael’s poem, “No Scar?” earlier this year, I received an invitation from CLC Publications to do a book review of another writing by Carmichael—Plowed Under. CLC Publications provided a free copy of the book.
Getting my bearings
It’s a slim paperback, and it looks like you could sit down and read it in an hour or two. But it took me longer than that.
I got off to a slow start because some of the front matter confused me. Let me start with the title page as an example: it lists the title and subtitle, the author, the original title and subtitle, a poem, a descriptor under the poem that might be the poem’s title, the phrase “A Dohnavur Book,” and the publisher. I didn’t think too much about this at first, but as I continued reading, I would sometimes turn to the title page for context clues, only to find that the information raised as many questions as it answered. Is this a book by Amy Carmichael or about Amy Carmichael? When was the original version published? Did Carmichael write the poem on the title page? Is that the full poem, or an excerpt? What does it mean that this is “a Dohnavur Book”?
The next page, “Notes on Words,” offers definitions of some of the Indian terms used in the story—such as Iyer (a title of respect used for ordained men) and taluk (a division of a district). But because I didn’t yet know what the book was about, I didn’t have any context for these words. I found myself returning to this page as I came across unfamiliar words throughout the book, so it might have been more helpful to include those definitions as footnotes or parenthetical info on the actual pages where the words appear.
The “Notes on Photographs” page identifies the people who took the photos that appear occasionally throughout the book. It seems as though this page may have been written by Amy Carmichael, so maybe the photographers were people she knew, and maybe the photographs appeared in the original publication too. There is also a reference to “the Dohnavur Fellowship,” which might be related to the “Dohnavur Book” reference on the title page.
“About the Story” is sort of a Foreword that gives some background about the main character in the story, an Indian girl named Arulai Tara (“Star”). The author of this Foreword is identified by the initials A.C., but I didn’t realize right away that this must be Amy Carmichael. Since this was the only page with an identified author, I assumed this author must be someone other than the author of the other pages.
These are all small things, but the overall effect is that it was difficult for me to orient myself within the book. Now, it’s possible that this is how the front matter appeared in the originally published book, and CLC Publications feels an obligation to stay true to the original. I respect that, but I think some confusion could have been minimized with a simple introductory explanation. For example:
This book is a re-publication of Amy Carmichael’s Ploughed Under, which was originally published by [publisher name] in [year]. Though book design norms have changed since that time, we have preserved the content—including the front matter—exactly as it appeared in the original. The various “Notes” were all written by Amy Carmichael and appeared in the original publication.
Something like that.
Getting into the story
But anyway, the story itself is an interesting window into Indian culture, a missionary’s compassion, and how the Christian God answered a Hindu girl’s prayers. I grew up in the Christian culture myself, but I also had the good fortune to spend many years writing for an international ministry, and I learned a lot about the different paths people take to Jesus. Reading Carmichael’s story of Star’s questions and hopes and family pressures and cultural expectations—well, it reminded me of stories I heard when I interviewed people in the Philippines, Mexico, China, Cambodia—places where following Jesus is a risk. Star’s story is moving for the same reasons.
In general though, Carmichael’s skill as a storyteller does not match her skill as a poet. The story of Star was probably more meaningful to Carmichael’s co-workers in India, people already familiar with the characters and the context. As an outsider though, I often felt like there were gaps I wasn’t quite able to fill in. Sometimes the chronology seemed to jump around. Sometimes I didn’t understand the significance of events or places or discoveries Carmichael was relaying. It’s possible the original book was never intended for a wider audience than the Dohnavur Fellowship; I think some additional editing would help make it accessible for the rest of us.
Still, there are some beautiful passages worth noting:
To look up into a dark sky and see it suddenly open, as lightning plays across it, to see in one revealing flash deep into the kingdoms of light, is to know what prayer most truly is. There is mystery, but beyond that darkness is not a deeper darkness, but light—kingdoms of light. (p. 27)
[Upon hearing that Star would not be allowed to return to Carmichael’s home:] People tried to comfort me; words, words—it was all words, a wind of words, their comfort, chaff…. (p. 53)
For it is always wonderful to stand with the happy angels and watch a soul take color, like a dewdrop in sunrise. (p. 81)
I am glad I was given the opportunity to read Plowed Under, but it’s hard for me to recommend it to the general reading public. It would probably be most meaningful for Christians who have missions experience in India, or people who are already Amy Carmichael fans.
If you’re curious though, and you want to purchase a copy of Plowed Under, it becomes available July 1, 2013, from CLC Publications. (This is not an affiliate link.) If you do purchase a copy, I’d love it if you’d come back and share a brief review in the comments!