Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Relevance Gets Back Before Dark

  • Tim Laitinen Contributing Writer
  • 2013 22 Mar
Relevance Gets <i>Back Before Dark</i>

Author: Tim Shoemaker
Title: Back Before Dark
Publisher: Zondervan

Writing for teens can’t be easy work. With all that’s competing for their attention, kids today have developed a highly selective sieve of relevance. Through this sieve, they let lots of things fall that don’t immediately capture their imagination. So, right off the bat, author Tim Shoemaker faces a daunting challenge: how to craft a story about loyalty, commitment, and perseverance – and somehow make it all compelling for adolescents?

In Back Before Dark, Shoemaker sets up an average tableau in suburban Chicago that quickly degenerates into a horrific kidnapping. Between grinding remorse over falling for the kidnapper’s trap, being so panicked they inaccurately memorize the getaway vehicle’s license plate number, and combating helplessness in the frantic search for their abducted friend, our protagonists simultaneously juggle a battery of challenges that, although only spanning a matter of days, illustrates how time can crawl during a tragedy.

Shoemaker puts his audience squarely in the middle of the anxiety, despair, and frustration any of us would likely suffer if this were to happen to somebody we love. And he narrates virtually all of it through the eyes of teenagers. Kids who’ve suddenly been forced to confront major life issues at the expense of whatever innocence suburbia is supposed to afford normal families.

It helps Shoemaker’s case that, frankly, none of his protagonists are particularly attractive, smart, or rich.  Right away, a broad empathy is established between them and most of his readership. After all, when authors give preferential treatment to the most beautiful and most popular kids, they forget that by definition, the most beautiful and most popular are generally the smallest part of any population, especially in a school. Shoemaker also keeps it real by omitting extraordinary bursts of genius and displays of heroic might that can easily spoil a plot’s integrity.

Relevance to his readership continues as Shoemaker incorporates repeated references to the mortgage meltdown into his storyline, and a blunt depiction of the conundrum with registered sex offenders re-entering society. Both of these issues play key roles in Back Before Dark while also acknowledging the complexities our modern culture throws at our kids. The sex offender issue, in particular, is handled with a mix of both candor and kid-friendly care.

At the end of Back Before Dark, Shoemaker includes an overview of several themes from his story. This overview is designed for use in a small-group environment, and incorporates some pointed advice for dealing with “stranger danger” and other safety threats. Towards the end of Shoemaker’s story, some troubling inferences regarding ends justifying the means begin to take shape, as one of the protagonists becomes impatient with what he perceives to be the police department’s lack of progress. It’s also puzzling that somebody with Shoemaker’s evangelical credentials takes as nuanced an approach to the Gospel as he does.

Indeed, some of his wording could benefit from a stronger emphasis on the sovereignty of God, even when we can’t see how He’s working in an urgent situation. “Sometimes rescuing a friend from darkness means going in after them,” Shoemaker’s publisher prints on the cover of Back Before Dark.  But then, after he’s told his story, Shoemaker admits that doing so “is rarely going to do any real good.” So why say it at all?

Hopefully, kids can ignore what’s weak about Back Before Dark and benefit from its strengths. It’s the second book in his Code of Silence series, so Shoemaker may still be in ramp-up mode for his plans with our hardy band of teenaged friends in suburban Chicago. Just be back before dark, you guys.

*This Review First Published 3/21/2013