Harley Jackson is a quiet man. He works at a factory and continues to run beef cattle on the small portion of the family farm still left to him. When his dairy cow, Tina Turner, gives birth to a calf on Christmas Eve, he is startled and dismayed to see a clear picture of Jesus on the calf's side. Some people would consider this a miracle and trumpet it to all and sundry. Harley, on the other hand, is completely dismayed and tries to decide how to camouflage the inconvenient marking, from confining the calf to the barn to rubbing shoe polish over Jesus' face to try and make it less visible at least and invisible at best. It doesn't even occur to him to try and capitalize on the image, even though his best friend Billy suggests that cashing in would solve many of Harley's financial troubles, one of which is that local real estate developer, Klute Sorenson, has it out for him, wanting to get his hands on remaining 15 acres of Harley's farm and already owning the rest of the original is using the town's generally unenforced statutes to try and force Harley out. Preferring to avoid confrontation, Harley can and does put his head in the sand about the likely outcome of Klute's bullying and about the cow's miraculous mark until he has no choice but to face both situations. When Harley falls head over heels for a woman new to town, inviting her into his life, and then the calf escapes the barn and is spotted by the devout mail carrier, who promptly uploads a photo of the Jesus on its hide to the internet, life as Harley and the rest of the small town knows it explodes wide open.
On the surface, Perry has written an entertaining and folksy tale about the three ring circus media storm that results when Hollywood and rural Wisconsin collide but on a deeper level, he has penned an examination of the challenges facing small farming communities--development versus conservation, poverty, lack of funding for vital services, outsiders versus locals, and what success looks like among other issues. Harley is a lovely character, plain spoken and honest, not given to anything showy or unconsidered. The large cast of unusual secondary characters around him, best friend Billy who lives in a trailer on Harley's land, local junk yard owner Maggie, disgraced former academic and stubborn environmentalist Carolyn, developer and avid listener to cliched self-help business books Klute, his welder-artist girlfriend Mindy, and slick Hollywood agent Sloan are all fantastic and well developed and all are vital to the story in their own ways. As in his memoirs, Perry draws an appealing picture of place and the connections that people feel to it. His questions about faith, which weave through the whole of the story, are respectful and balanced as he shows both the sensational and vocal faith of many of the pilgrims clamoring to see the calf as well as the quiet, modest, and unpretentious faith of people in the community. And his very Midwestern sense of dry humor shines through in both small moments and the over the top ridiculous ones as well. The novel is well-paced, off-beat, and happily engrossing and those who have enjoyed his memoirs will appreciate the straightforward and entertaining way in which he has tackled his first work of fiction as well.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.