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Book Review and Author Interview: Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster

I read a lot. And I read a lot of good books that I enjoy a great deal. But I very rarely read something that keeps me awake all night turning pages. I had that experience a few weeks ago, and loved it. Perhaps even more surprisingly, my wife had the same experience with the same book. That is surprising because we have different literary tastes, so it's unusual for us to both be captivated by the same book.

Mile 21, by Sarah Dunster, pulled me in with the first few sentences. The fluidity of the writing, and the unique voice of Abish Miller quickly intrigued me.

Once I was intrigued, the plot and characters kept me riveted.
Mile 21 is a poignant book that made me laugh and cry as I raced through it, reading nearly as fast as the title character runs. I don't want to say too much about the story because there is an important plot point early on that will be more effective if it's a surprise.

My favorite thing about the book was the characters, each of whom seemed so very real to me. I loved how nuanced they were. No one in this book was completely good or bad. They were very real people, combining human frailties with strengths and goodness.

Sarah also managed to avoid a few pitfalls that I think often pop-up (I've struggled with these in my own writing). The way she addressed the culture of the Church was both honest (and humorous) while being warm. I was able to laugh at some of our excesses and quirks, but it was the sympathetic laugh of understanding, not mockery. That kind of balance is not easy to achieve.

Another thing I really appreciated was the way the male characters were portrayed. In a lot of contemporary media, father figures are portrayed as either stupid or evil (or both), and one of my biggest complaints about a lot of books I read by female authors is that the male characters are either figments of nightmare or fantasy.

Abish's father surprised me. He's a character I just assumed would be malevolent or, at best, an unwittingly damaging force in his daughter's life. And he does cause some problems. But he's a good man who loves his daughter and does his best. That was refreshing to me.

When I read about another of the characters becoming a bishop, I braced myself. I knew what was coming--he was going to be a jerk and exercise all kinds of unrighteous dominion, possibly be abusive, and so on.

Instead, he was a human. Someone who wanted to do the right thing, but was flawed. He made mistakes but was still able to be bless Abish's life.

Even the least-sympathetic characters are real people. They aren't villains; they are humans with some real problems, and a few traits that are not so bad either.

I've focused on the male characters, but the female characters are equally well-drawn. They are not pedestal-dwelling plaster saints. They struck me as so real and human. Simultaneously imperfect and likable. Abish's mother was wonderfully real to me, and the revelation about an apparent Molly Mormon made me weep.

These are characters like people I know, like the person I am. Humans who try and fail, and try again.

Abish's story reminds me of something I have experienced in my own life: the Gospel of Jesus Christ can heal souls, but that healing does not come easily, or quickly. Sometimes, in fact, the medicine seems to be worse than the illness, and it may often come through imperfect channels. But, with time, faith, and love, that medicine truly does work. We have to have faith and move forward, acknowledging that life is messy and very difficult.

Mile 21 reminds me that the Church is an institution composed of profoundly flawed people, each of whom is likely carrying around hurts and burdens of their own. But, in spite of those flaws, the Church and its leaders can still be instruments of divine healing and grace. Even flawed bishops and Molly Mormon Relief Society presidents. Appearances are so easily misunderstood, and so easily misinterpreted. Many of the heaviest burdens we carry are not visible to the casual observer.

I finished this book with a renewed appreciation for all of these reminders, and with a renewed desire to be a better person, a better husband, and father. To be better in my Church callings and kinder in all my interactions. I've been thinking about this book ever since, and wanted to find out more about the author and writing.

The author was kind enough to answer some questions about this book.

Q: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the writing of Mile 21?

A: I love BYU and BYU-Idaho culture. I loved it when I was at school. Even the annoying parts of it, I just love to the depths of my heart. I wanted to write a BYU novel and I wanted it to be about someone who was sort of outside the norm, a "looking in" or "not fitting in" perspective because I find that stories like that help us examine our own culture and beliefs in a new light. I also wanted to write a story that would help people understand why people who have gone through something very difficult might act badly, or differently--but they still need compassion and unconditional love and help.

Q: It seemed to me that you wrote about Mormon culture from a place that was affectionate, but also clear-eyed. There was honesty mixed with affection. Did that just happen, or was it something you consciously worked on?

A: It might be because I love Mormon culture, but have also been hurt by it. But I still love it. Seriously, love it so much. You love people and you know they aren't perfect. You forgive them. I love Mormon culture. I know it isn't perfect, and I forgive it.

Q: You have a large family. Can you tell us about your family/writing balance?

A: I think I truly have some divine intervention going on. I have goals--1100 words a day when I'm drafting and a chapter a day when I'm editing. I take time when the kids are doing school and napping to get my goal accomplished. If I don't get it done by bedtime, then I get it done after the kids are in bed. I do take breaks for big life events and if I need a break occasionally. But I also know that I am a much better mother, wife, church person, and overall general person when I am writing regularly.

Q: Mile 21 is your second novel and is contemporary, while your first was historical. What is your process for choosing what to write?

A: I have a bunch of stories I want to tell. When I finish one, I start on the one that feels right to write next. I love writing Historical, Contemporary, and Fantasy. And I want write serial mysteries one day as well.

Q: Male characters in contemporary fiction often strike me as either very shallow or totally unsympathetic. I felt the opposite with your book. They had flaws, but even one of the most flawed characters also had some sympathetic points.

A: I feel like every single person has some redeeming quality. I have a hard time believing anybody is evil. I don't like reading stories where people are one-dimensional. People are fascinating. When I think about a characters, I try to think about who I know in real life that might have my character's traits, what their natural strengths and weaknesses would be. I try not to allow myself to get caught up in the self-indulgence of either putting someone on a pedestal or demonizing them. I actually write for the characters. Plot comes a lot less easily for me.

Q: Who was your favorite character to write? Why?

A:Oh, Abish. And Bob. I love Abish because she is so snarky and messed up, but she is trying and she's real. I've had reviewers say they hated her and others says they really identified with her. And I love Bob. Bob, in real life, would be one of my best friends, I think. And that makes sense because I used a few people I really like as inspiration for his character.

Q: Who was your least favorite character? Why?

A: Julie. I feel like if I made a character one-dimensional, she came the closest.

Q: How and when did you start writing?

A: When I was given my first journal at age 8, I didn't write much about real things. I wrote stories and poetry. That is, for me, my journal. I process things through stories and poetry, not writing about what has actually happened to me. I'll have a lot of confused ancestors one day.

Q: What are your next projects?

A: I just finished up a manuscript and submitted it to my publisher--a sort of sequel to my historical novel, Lightning Tree. Now I'm working on something contemporary again--a story about a man who is aging out of the BYU singles's wards and realizes he needs to figure out his life. I think it will be pretty funny. I hope. My plan is for it to be funny.

Q: What can you tell us about you--your hobbies, background, family, whatever you'd like to discuss?

A: My family is big on music. Our little town puts on musicals every summer for the Pioneer Day celebrations--we love participating in those. And my daughters have been in several recently for the high school and junior high. My kids are singing constantly and I love it. It's like a live in a real-life musical where people actually do randomly burst into musical song-and-dance numbers frequently throughout the day. I also really love the outdoors. I love the mountains.

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Braden Bell is a husband, father, teacher, director, and writer. He's the author of The Road Show, and The Middle School Magic series. His next book, Luminescence, will be published in March. He blogs about all of the above at

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