At the age of forty-two, Alex Armstrong, has left behind his life as a college professor in Chicago. Alex returned to school, graduated from seminary, and has accepted his first call to serve two tiny parishes, Hilltop Community Church and All Saints Church, situated in Hilltop Township just outside the little town of Grassy Valley, population 1,254, North Dakota. Alex has left more than his career as a professor behind in Chicago: he also hopes he left his broken heart there. He was set to marry fellow professor Natalie until she announced, just a few weeks before the wedding, that she had fallen for someone else. Now Alex is looking for a fresh start, professionally and emotionally.
Alex has never experienced anything like life in the little Scandinavian community. First, he must understand how the two congregations became so bitterly estranged from each other so that he can encourage them to forgive, reconcile, and work together. He must get to know the members of each church individually — and they are indeed a colorful, quirky bunch! Alex must also become a full-fledged member of the community and that means he needs to learn about the ways of rural North Dakotans. It seems the most important rule is that all activities and events revolve around pots of coffee and enormous quantities of home cooked, as opposed to “store-bought,” food! Alex immediately realizes that he is going to have to maintain his fitness regimen if he wants to avoid gaining weight!
Then there is the church secretary, Gandy, a bigger-than-life woman with a heart of gold and a lifetime store of knowledge about each member of the churches. America’s economic struggles have not left Hilltop unscathed and one of its prime victims is none other than Jonas Owens, Gandy’s brother, who is in danger of losing the family farm. Hilltop folks pride themselves on the fact that none of the area’s prime farmland has been sold but, rather, remains with the descendants of the original pioneers who homesteaded in the area. If Jonas, with the help of Alex, as well as his friends and neighbors, cannot find a way to pay his debts, he will lose the property to foreclosure or be forced to sell to investors, bringing shame upon himself and disappointment to the community.
There are plenty of other parishioners with their own problems. The eccentric group includes elderly folks in need of care; a widow trying to keep a troubled teen boy out of trouble; an honest, hard-working man who cannot seem to forgive himself and left go of the past even as it destroys his relationships with those who love and care for him; a woman who has lived with her bachelor brothers her entire adult life, but wants a chance to experience more of life; and a desperately single woman who, having so far failed to snare a husband, sees Alex as the next viable candidate for the job! Alex is immediately befriended by committed bachelors Dixon and Mark, who are happy to see her attention turn to Alex.
Readers who, like me, love author Jan Karon’s beloved Mitford series focusing on the adventures of the Episcopalian Father Tim will be equally enthralled with the first two volumes in Judy K. Baer’s stories about the fictional Hilltop Township in rural North Dakota. To put is simply, the books are charming, filled with completely endearing characters. Reading them is like getting to know a whole group of wonderful friends and I can’t wait for the third book in the series to be published!
Alex Armstrong is principled, compassionate, aware of his own foibles, and imbued with a deep and consistent faith. He is at a crossroads in his life when he arrives in Hilltop. His plan to marry and start a family with the beautiful Natalie crumbled when she fell in love with another man. Heartbroken, disappointed, and beginning to doubt that he will ever have the kind of family life he longs for. He arrives to begin his call to serve the two little neighboring churches to find that they aren’t very neighborly in their dealings with each other and the expectations of the Call Committee couldn’t be any higher: there were no other job applicants, so he learns from Lauren and Mike, the first folks to welcome him, that they believe God has sent them the perfect pastor for their parishes!
Born and bred in the city, Alex immediately starts learning about life in a midwestern farm community. Before he can even completes his journey, he finds himself waiting for Ole Swenson’s pig, Twinkle Toes, and her piglets to be rounded back up into Ole’s overturned truck! Accompanied by his teenage nephew, Jared, Alex begins exploring his new churches and is delighted to find that the parsonage boasts a fully remodeled kitchen, even though he does not know how to cook. No problem . . . the new pastor is quickly inundated with offerings of food from his eager congregants.
And what a bunch of salt-of-the-earth characters they are! Most of them have resided in Hilltop Township all of their lives, the rare exception being Mark who went away to college and then worked in New York City in the financial sector before returning home to a quieter way of life. Along with Dixon, Mark and Alex become an unmarried band of fast friends, hiding their hearts from poor Lolly Roscoe who wants nothing more than a husband, and will settle for any single man in residence.
Alex also quickly learns that the life he thought would be dull, ordinary and marked by routine is anything but. As he gets acquainted with his flock, he finds out that each has his/her own unique set of challenges, some of them in urgent need of prayer and supplication. One of his first orders of business is helping find a way for Jonas Owens to hold onto the family farm — and his dignity. Poor Jonas is a victim of the economy and his long-held, i.e. well before organic farming became hip, beliefs in farming the land in a manner that preserves and enhancements the richness of the soil. While other farms have churned crops out quickly and profitably, Jonas has lagged behind and is now suffocating in debt. Alex rallies the community to help save their neighbor and preserve their heritage.
Alex must also find a way to convince Alf Nyborg to let go of his past demons. His hurt and resentment has festered over the years, causing his fellow members of All Saints to emulate his distrust of and disdain for the members of Hilltop Community Church. Alex immediately recognizes that Alf is a man unable to forgive himself and with his ingenuity and a lot of providence, the two factions slowly begin the process of reconciliation.
Perhaps most enthralling is Alex’s tender relationship with little Will Packard, a boy who loves all animals, especially those in need. Will has set up a “hoomain” society in a couple of locations — without the consent or blessings of the landowners. When Alex allows Will to move his shelter into the shed on the site of the parsonage, a beautiful friendship between the pastor and the attention-starved little boy begins. More importantly, Alex gradually appreciates the depth of Bucky Chadwick’s problems as Will continues bringing animals he has rescued from Bucky’s cruelty into his makeshift shelter and Alex counsels Bucky’s mother about monitoring her son’s activities. Things become even more urgent as Alex gradually comes to see that Bucky is indeed very disturbed potentially dangerous.
In the second installment, Surprising Grace, Alex finds himself finally forced to confront his conflicting feelings for Natalie. Can he ever trust her again so that they can resume their relationship? And if he does, what might that mean for Alex’s now-flourishing ministry in Hilltop Township? Might Alex still have a chance to live the type of home life he has always wanted, if not with Natalie, with another attractive, intelligent, and quite accomplished woman? All of those questions remain unresolved as Surprising Grace draws to a close, the promise of a third novel dangled before readers anxious to pay another visit to Hilltop Community.
Also promised in the next installment is Alex’s first encounter with lutefisk and lefse! Alex naively instructs the church’s secretary, the uber-resourceful Gandy, to have the Ladies Aid surprise him with a menu for the upcoming dinner fundraiser. Gandy responds, “That could be dangerous. Last time the ladies surprised someone, they’d gotten a line on a hundred pounds of lutefisk. I’m not sure you’re ready for that.” Born and bred in Chicago, Alex has absolutely no idea what lutefisk is. After Gandy explains that it is cod which is boiled in lye, then boiled and slathered with butter, Alex is not convinced he ever wants to experience the church’s annual lutefisk and lefse supper! (Dinner is the noon meal in the Dakotas, while supper is eaten in the late afternoon or early evening. All other meals are simply referred to as “lunch.”) Gandy assures him that he isn’t “going to get out of eating it forever, you know. Around here some people compare it to eating lobster.” Alex replies that “[p]ouring butter on overshoes would make them taste better too, but I’m still not convinced.”
Anyone who has ever been within one hundred yards of lutefisk, Scandinavians or the Dakotas will find themselves frequently laughing at loud while reading Forever Hilltop and with good reason: Baer is a native North Dakotan who studied English at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. But the books are equally as enjoyable for those who are not versed in the nuances of life on the Prairie. Baer deftly keeps the action moving in both books, bringing readers along on Alex’s adventures as he gets to know the people of Hilltop, as well as much more about himself and his faith, especially as he struggles to discern whether he still has a future with Natalie. Each and every character, even the despicable Bucky, bears the stamp of authenticity, as do their stories. Both books read like a loving homage to Baer’s home and its people. Stated simply, Forever Hilltop is completely delightful and earns my highest recommendation.