The Promise of Jesse Woods Week #6

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    Daeus Lamb

    I believe we’ve come to the end by now. That’s what I want to talk about. Did the ending satisfy you? Why or why not?

    Daeus Lamb

    I’ll start out.

    The ending basically satisfied me. It did everything it needed to. But it felt grade B compared to the rest of the book.

    I’m actually rarely invested in a book as much as I was in this one. While I knew Matt’s dad wasn’t a villain and that he did care about Jesse, once he burned the rape evidence, I started to feel dread. My imagination was preparing for how bad this could get. Fabry kept preparing my for drama with grim stuff like Matt’s line that when you’re a kid in a situation like him, you should be able to trust your father. And when the Mothman appeared…I was ready for something heart-wrenching.

    It didn’t happen.

    In my opinion, Fabry should have paid off the foreshadowing with a stronger climax. However, should he have lessened the foreshadowing to match the payoff he was planning for the climax? I’m not sure. I liked the anticipation so much that I think I’m even willing to ignore the insufficient payoff.

    Thematically though, it was a tight ending, so three stars out of five for the ending from me and five stars for the book over all.


    I agree with @daeus-lamb in that I was expecting something very dark and terrible to happen, too. I knew someone would die, and I feared it would be Daisy who got electrocuted on the roof of Jesse’s house. Nevertheless, I was satisfied with the ending because everything was as it should be—most importantly, Jesse and Earl belonged together and Matt accepted that—and no one I cared about in the book had died.

    wrote, back in The Promise of Jesse Woods forum #1, that in the first chapter “…we’re told what Matt’s character arc will be—Kristin rejects Matt because she doesn’t like how he tries to save people on his own power apart from God.”

    I found this prediction helpful as I read through the book. Sure enough, in the last chapter, when all the drama is over, we find Matt explaining to Kristin that he has changed. I would quote from his words, but I can’t find my copy of the book, confound it. But Matt essentially tells her he now realizes he can’t rely on his own power apart from God.

    In the narration at the very end, Matt goes so far as to compare his pain in letting go of Jesse to the life she chose, out of love for her, to Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, out of love for us, that our sins may be forgiven. I found this to be a very satisfying way to tie the whole story up.

    Taylor Clogston

    I dislike this book. I hate this book. It dredges up some deep personal wounds that probably won’t ever heal. That biases me and maybe makes me see some things as worse than another person might have seen them.

    But after thinking about it for a long, long time, every day since we started reading this book, I’m confident enough to stand behind my opinion.

    Fabry, as far as I can tell, set out to write a sentimental story about young love, summer days past, and a boy becoming a man by learning to let go and let God. On the surface, I suppose that’s all there. At least, the characters claim all those things fell into their appropriate places.

    In practice, I saw this as a story about a bunch of dudes claiming ownership and control of a young girl. I see it as a story about a boy who learns that the people you should be able to rely on will betray you, and that it’s wrong to try to save people, even when God won’t do it Himself.

    That last point is the grimmest thing about this book. The world does not get better by its end. Matt learns to accept that fact in the guise of relinquishing himself to God.

    Good grief. I don’t have the organizational skills to write this post. As a wise writing person once said, if you have a problem with your ending, you actually have a problem with the beginning. To talk about the climax, let’s roll back toward the early story.

    A Death in the Family

    Fabry was practically screaming at us from early on that something bad would happen to Daisy. On page 29, Jesse tells Matt that Daisy “swells up big as a pumpkin” when she is stung. (While we’re on the topic, there’s a motif of stinging creatures showing up at the same time as Gentry. I’d assumed that would be part of the plot I assumed would come up, but it didn’t)

    Then as adult Matt talks to the retired sheriff:

    “‘My dad mentioned your name at one point. The night that…’ I didn’t finish my sentence, and by the look on the man’s face, I didn’t have to.

    ‘I got the call. When I pulled up, your daddy was talking to her … I’ll never forget how sad that girl looked up there.’

    A wave of guilt swept over me and I wished I hadn’t set foot in the restaurant.” (Fabry, 127)

    I highlighted all of that on my first read through. It screams “Something terrible happens to Jesse, and it’s somehow Matt’s fault.” I assumed it resulted from Daisy getting stung to death.

    A few pages later, Matt mentioning Daisy stops Jesse in her tracks and ends the conversation.

    “Just the mention of the name brought her eyes to mine. And there we were in the parking lot of Dogwood Food and Drug staring at each other and remembering, the salty and sweet of our past close enough to taste.” (Fabry, 131)

    True, the reaction isn’t “How dare you bring her up!” but still. “The name” instead of “her sister,” the very past tense remembrance of it confirmed my suspicion.

    Then, at the halfway point, as they’re putting up an antenna:

    “‘…See that electric wire? … if we slip and the antenna touches it, they’ll be burying all three of us.’

    Jesse’s mouth dropped open. ‘I climb up there all the time and I’ve never gotten shocked.’” (Fabry, 219)

    Which puts all the pieces together. The worst thing that could happen to Jesse would be Daisy’s death. It’s not a long shot to think Matt might have had something to do with it.

    Matt mentioning that he saw the Mothman on “that night,” (page 331) a figure the book connects to utter disaster, confirms this further.

    Then… We get to the actual event. It was just that she lured her dad into killing himself when he was pursuing her. In real life, that would be a horrific thing. In literature, where something much worse was foreshadowed throughout the whole book and a herald of destruction appeared before our main character just beforehand, that’s weak.

    I’d put good money on Fabry having originally planned Daisy to die. It wouldn’t have made the current story better, but it would have paid off the tension Fabry used to great effect beforehand.

    Please note that throughout this post, when I say I don’t think something works, that doesn’t mean I want the implied something worse to occur. I wouldn’t have rathered Daisy die. I would have rathered the buildup not suggested she would.

    Decline and Fall of Matt’s Arc

    “It feels like … you want to throw on a Superman cape and run to the rescue. I can’t fix what’s wrong at Cabrani. And neither can you. We can help some kids, maybe … But it feels like you’re doing all of this in your own power.” (Fabry, 11)

    As @corky pointed out, this frames Matt’s arc. He will learn not only to let go of Jesse (we know this because he has another love interest) but also to let go of feeling like he can save people and instead let God do it.

    The first aspect of the arc, the Jesse-aspect, proceeds from the second, the reliance-aspect. Matt believes Jesse belongs with him because he equates that with saving her. Thematically, he cannot release Jesse without learning that it isn’t his job to save her.

    The problem is I don’t see that lesson learned. Both of you, corky and @daeus-lamb, said you thought the ending worked. I don’t see that. I see Matt claiming he’s learned his lesson and I see Kristin saying “oh yeah I definitely see it” but where does it happen? This is the passage where Matt has his epiphany:

    “There was no one to give Jesse away. And that was fitting. No one could have given her away but me. And that was exactly what I was doing.

    The congregation sat as my father began his ‘Dearly beloved’ message, and a strange sense of peace came over me. There are some things you do from duty and some that come from sheer love, but you don’t realize the difference. Right then, in that pew where I had sat as a teenager, where I had heard the message of sacrifice and offering, things came into focus. I was letting go not because I was required to by any force on earth or principality or power in heaven. I was letting go because I wanted to for Jesse. That release, that surrender, felt like nails in my wrists, but at the same time like love from a bursting heart.” (Fabry, 392, emphasis original)

    Matt begins this passage still full of possessiveness over Jesse. He thinks of himself as a father figure giving her away, something no one else has a right to do. Then, out of nowhere, he decides he’s doing this for Jesse’s own good. He finally, arbitrarily, decides it’s okay for Jesse to make her own decision.

    To be clear: Matt does not realize that he has no right to save Jesse, or others, that it isn’t his job to do it.

    After, Jesse says:

    “But the way I figure it, you got to see that you can’t rescue everybody. There’s only one who can. And from what I can tell, you need to let somebody rescue you, PB.” (Fabry, 399)

    How shallow a person is Matt? We spend the bulk of the book discovering how he became the bitter, disillusioned person he is today, how that happened over the course not only of the actual events of the described summer but also in the following years because of Jesse’s promise to his dad.

    Yet all that was disrupted not by new, powerful experience, but by a few days spent talking with people and realizing “Oh, Jesse didn’t actually have the giant nest of complexes I spent my adolescence trying to extricate her from, leaving me with a rabid obsession with overcoming my failure to be a savior, it’s just that my dad just let me down even more than I thought he had, I guess I should put all this behind me now uwu”

    As with the roof electrocution foreshadowing, I thought this was incredible buildup with laughable payoff.

    Brother Out of Arms

    Ben, Matt’s draft-dodging older brother, is an immense presence in the story despite his literal absence. Seeing a conclusion to the Ben subplot in which Matt has to come to terms with what he believes about his brother’s decisions would have been amazing, and potentially a major factor in his approach of the end of his character arc. Seriously, in a story about trying to figure out what is right, and what actions are right, we have a character who fled service to his country for what could have been any number of reasons. How amazing could that thematically have been for Matt to come to terms with him? We’ll never know.

    I Can’t Even Think of a Dumb Title for This One, Everyone Owns Jesse, That’s All I Have to Say About It

    This was the most infuriating part of the story to me. Pretty much every dude in Jesse’s life, aside from Dickie and Earl, tries to own or control her. Her dad physically abused her, the cousins molested her at best and gang-raped her at worst, Mr. Blackthorn tried to get her property, Gentry tried to rape her, Matt’s dad strong-armed her into staying away from Matt, and Matt himself made her promise to marry him in exchange for keeping her baby sister away from the rapey cousins.

    I came to this post thinking “I can forgive a moron kid like Matt for something so sappy, but older Matt’s a terrible human being for trying to hold her to it.” Then I remembered the context of the original promise and I think I hate young Matt as well.

    At least she gets to end up with Earl. Granted, she’s staying in a horrible town filled with horrible people, but at least she’ll be happy. It’s good that Fabry at least had the decency to have Jesse angrily ask Matt and his dad why they’re discussing who Jesse should marry as though it isn’t her decision. Though Matt’s dad waiting for the thumbs up from Matt before agreeing to marry Earl and Jesse doesn’t help things.

    Sins of the Father

    Speaking of that… Matt’s dad is a monster. I don’t agree with your assessment, Daeus, that his dad isn’t a villain. Covering up the attempted rape of a young girl and then blackmailing her because you want what’s best for your son is… One of the most horrible things I can imagine from a pastor. In fact, the latter is literally economic abuse.

    Matt’s dad only sort-of-more-or-less repents when he’s called out on what he made Jesse promise. Considering at that point we learn that Matt inherited his acting chops from his dad, I believe his dad’s sort of breakdown was a show. He realized this was his last chance to reconcile with Matt, and so he focused all his efforts on trying to say the right things and make Matt happy. Hence him caring more about Matt’s reaction than Jesse’s.

    He’s a narcissist, just like Matt, wanting to control everyone around him because he thinks he knows what’s best for them. Hopefully Blackwood will cause him to never preach in that town again. Jesse and Earl deserve a better pastor than him.

    God’s in His Heaven, All’s Right With the World

    Over the course of the book, we’ve seen that people can’t save the day by their own power. Well, sort of. After all, Matt being at the right place at the right time and boldly risking his life saved Jesse from Gentry. Every other time, either the “saving” made things worse or did nothing at all.

    The alternative, Fabry tells us, is to let God save us. But where is that made manifest in the narrative? Aside from God putting Matt where he needed to be that one time, where do we see Providence piercing the darkness and making the broken whole?

    We see Jesse and Matt hope that it will come to them as they grow as believers and in life, but the fact it doesn’t appear on the page is bleak to me.

    This was a 1.5 or maybe 2-star book to me. It’d be a single star at best if it weren’t for some very excellent bits of writing here and there which betray immense talent.

    As I said at some point before, I think this should have been a much longer book. We needed a completely different version of present-day Matt. Vast swathes of the younger Matt section are truly great, but they set up events and themes which never materialize. Dickie, one of the best characters, disappears completely, for heaven’s sake.

    It infuriates me to see such wasted potential. If Flannery O’Connor had been Fabry’s editor, this might have ended up one of my favorite books of all time.

    Two books which kept coming to mind as I read:

    White Trash by Nancy Isenberg. Nonfiction. Chances are you’ll have a better understanding of Jesse’s background and potential future if you read this.

    No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. An anti-Western asking “Why did God abandon us?” through bloody conflict between several Vietnam veterans. Lots of violence. There was probably a bunch of language in it too.

    Thank you all for reading through this with me. As is usually the case, the things I had to think about over the course of it were more valuable than the text itself. The insights of y’all have been a big part of that.

    Daeus Lamb

    @taylorclogston Well-thought out. I actually agree with a lot, though I think some things might have more than one sensible way of looking at it. Like, while I can see that Matt thought possessively about Jesse, I’m not sure that shows up quite as omnipresently as you saw it–though perhaps I’m wrong.

    I do want to amend my statement about Matt’s father. He was definitely a villain. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so betrayed by a fictional character. However, what I meant was I don’t think he enjoyed suffering or his actions like the classic mustache-twirling villain. He was a coward, not a Hitler.

    The only thing I disagree with is that God didn’t save anything. I think Earl is the redemptive focus of the story. However, with everything awful that happened in the story, I could have appreciated a larger payoff as well. 😛


    So the ending didn’t satisfy me, but it did seem … lifelike?

    I’ve known people like Matt. I and some of my friends have dated people like Matt. The real-life arc for those stories is just as meh in the end as Fabry’s, so it felt very true, but not incredibly meaningful. In fiction there’s an opportunity to do better that I wish Fabry had taken advantage of.

    The setups and payoffs weren’t honest. The things we expected because Fabry told us to expect them fell flat, and the things we got didn’t have enough background to mean much when they arrived.

    There is a lot of wasted potential here. I think Fabry has the talent to do it right though, and that’s maybe the most disappointing thing about the ending. Overall I’d give it a 3 star rating. For me it was very much in the middle, with Fabry’s skilled descriptions and ability to tell a story that really felt like it might have happened balanced out by some confusion of plot and unfulfilled promises of his own to the reader.


    I'm nobody, Who are you? -Emily Dickinson 뜻이 있는 곳에 길이 있다.

    Daeus Lamb

    @caseybold Mmm. I like the way you put that. That’s just how I feel, but I didn’t know how to say it.

    • This reply was modified 3 years ago by Daeus Lamb.

    This has been an interesting book to read (or listen in my case cause I’m lazy and busy) through together and analyze as there is a lot going on thematically, so I’ll do my best to express myself properly here.

    The Good

    One of the aspects that gripped me most about this book is how certain scenes actually made me dread what was going to happen next. The best example is when Matt and Jesse are racing to try and “rescue” Daisy from her father. Storytelling in general was fine and Fabry did a good job conveying how he wanted characters to be perceived and what emotions they were expressing. Unlikable people were certainly unlikable, sometimes to an extreme. The color in writing was good, though sometimes it seemed as though the “seasonings” in writing were sprinkled a little strongly.

    The Bad

    Unfortunately I didn’t really enjoy the book.

    The town as a whole, as a character, was unlikable. Between general bullying by most people to straight up sexual assault- which I’ll get to in a second- Jesse and Dickie were not given a single bit of leeway throughout the entire story. Jesse did manage to grow from it to become a strong young adult, but we weren’t shown enough of her in 1984 to see the results of it.

    Jesse was treated as an object in this book. She is something for Matt to save, his father to protect him from, Blackwood to look down upon, the town to shun. Even Matt’s grandmother, upon learning that Jesse’s mother has been dead for a time and social services needed to get involved, shook her head and said something about the mess Jesse made. When she is getting married, her decision is only made after everyone else in the room had their say and Matt even gave his dad permission to marry them AFTER everything had been said. Matt very much sees her as “his” due to a promise made a decade earlier by a young teenager running on hormones.

    I would have liked to see some setups to have been paid off, and agree with @taylorclogston that the book seems to have been cut short. Things like Daisy’s allergy to bees and Matt’s brother were mentioned with consistency but never “cashed in on.” Seeing Matt either confront his brother or admit to himself that his brother truly was in the wrong would have been a growing point.

    The Ugly

    “The Promise of Jesse Woods” has an attempted rape and at least one implied sexual assault as well in it. While it does deal with death very seriously, recognizing the emotional impact to those close to the deceased, it fails to give weight to rape.

    Victims of even attempted rape are forever changed. At the core, rape is a betrayal of basic human trust. It’s something that changes how you perceive intimacy forever. Some who experience it can never be physically close to their partners again. Such an emotionally and physically scarring assault can be written but it has to have respect and careful consideration as to how it’s used in the story.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s not portrayed as a good thing. The fact that Jesse seems numb to it should be horrifying. When Matt’s father was told and Blackwood entered his office I was anticipating a tension and emotion filled scene where at the very least Blackwood admits it was a very bad thing. He’s so concerned about the reputation surrounding his family that he hardly acknowledges the deed was done. Matt’s father should have been much more impacted knowing the kid his son hangs out with, a young girl, was sexually assaulted and nothing was done about it. He seems more upset because Matt is angry with him and that doesn’t sit right with me at all.

    The End

    I didn’t enjoy this book very much. It was pretty well written but seemed too short. For a Christian book there wasn’t an overbearing amount of preaching at the reader, choosing to use themes instead of direct passages most of the time. The specifics of relevant sporting events helped cement the story in the time period, even if I wasn’t familiar with what was happening.

    “The Promise of Jesse Woods” did what it set out to do. Flavorful writing, harsh characters, and a constant feel of dirt and sun fill this book.


    "Only a Sith deals in absolutes"
    -Quipmaster 2005


    Thanks for putting this book club together, @daeus-lamb ! It’s been so interesting to read everyone’s perspective on this book.

    I totally agree with everybody that the buildup for the disastrous night was huge and the payoff was…not. And I specifically agree with @taylor-clogston that I felt very led to believe Daisy Grace was the one who would die! It was terrible that Jesse’s father died, of course, but he wasn’t a character we even met until 75% of the way through the book or something, and he was never given any redeeming qualities. I felt like a dangerous bear had been shot down, not like a character I was emotionally invested in had been destroyed. It did almost have the feel that Fabry intended to have Daisy Grace die, then shied away from it.

    I did like how Fabry wrote Matt’s internal process while Jesse was getting married, and I was glad he didn’t make the ending too fairytale perfect, as most Christian stories do. But like others have said, I would’ve liked to see the redemptive aspect in motion much more. Yes, Earl gets redeemed, but we don’t really get to see that. He was very bad, and then he was pretty good. We don’t get to watch him change, wrestle through the early phases, fail and get up and try again. As @allertingthbs said, we don’t get to see much of Jesse’s change and growth either.

    It’s hard to write a satisfying book where the big change at the end is nothing changes. Matt goes back to life as it was. Jesse and Earl continue as they would have if Matt had never returned to Dogwood. Yes, Matt has new perspective, but nothing external is affected by that. As another commenter said, nothing in the world is improved by the events of the story.

    My biggest hangup with this whole book was Jesse’s promise. From the way Matt talked about it in the early chapters, I thought Jesse had honestly, independently promised to marry him. Which would still be ridiculous for a 25-year-old man to hang onto. But then her promise turns out to be a coercion from Matt in return for helping Jesse when her mother has just died? It was so off the wall it didn’t even make me feel angry because I just saw the characters as the author’s tools at that point. Fabry needed Jesse to promise to marry Matt, which she had no good reason to do–except a bribe that her sister’s safety depended on? What kind of grown man would hold her to that? “Jesse never breaks her promises,” but I wouldn’t count something a binding promise if it was made under those circumstances. And Matt never seemed to quite internalize how crazy he was to cling to that all along. If Jesse’s promise had been real, and if the story had actually made it important for Jesse to keep all her promises (yet another expectation I had for the story that was never fulfilled), I think a lot more would’ve come together. As it is, the ending kind of felt like “Everyone was right, Matt. This crazy rescue mission was impossible. And guess what? It was unnecessary, too.”

    That feels kind of harsh for a book that I did find very interesting, unique, and thought-provoking. I would’ve been a lot easier on the book as a whole if not for reading other book clubbers’ comments. XD But I have to agree with y’all…there was potential for greatness here that didn’t get realized.

    "...by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

    Josiah DeGraaf

    Fascinating thoughts! I really enjoyed reading through all of these different perspectives this morning and considering your take on the book.

    My take on the ending of the book has shifted somewhat. The first time I read the book, I found myself disappointed by the actual climax (where they’re all talking in the sideroom) since it felt rather pointless. It was important for the father’s character arc to make his decision, but nothing changed for Jesse and Matt. Both still made the same decisions and there was no reversal of any kind. So it made for a tense scene that really didn’t lend much to the novel and (in my opinion) detracted from Matt’s decision. After reading it again this year for this series and book study, though, my earlier concern didn’t bother me as much because of what the scene represented for Matt’s father (who I agree is rather villainous in a Neville Chamberlain way), and I understood more of why the scene worked as it did. It probably helped that suspense isn’t as relevant to a re-read, but I saw a different side of the ending than I had before.

    Regarding the presence of Providence… for me this is most clearly seen in the conversion and transformation of Earl, because I’d also argue this is what gives the book its thematic resolution. If the story is about Matt’s desire to rescue Jesse from a bad marriage, in the middle of the story we’re given the solution to the problem: Earl is no longer who he was as a kid, and so as a result she won’t be in a bad marriage (though it won’t necessarily be an easy one). A lot of the latter half of the story is thus Matt learning to accept the fact that God has already saved Jesse (not him) and that he needs to recognize the work that God has done in Earl’s life and stop trying to bring his own solution to the problem.

    I agree that Jesse was treated like an object for a lot of the book. I’d also argue that this was somewhat the point: all of the characters are treating her as an object for their lust, misguided salvation, quest for money, etc. instead of as an actual human being, and Matt needs to learn to respect her desires more and stop treating her as a means to his own heroic story.

    The comments about Daisy’s death being foreshadowed are interesting. I certainly felt the same way when reading through the book and while I didn’t mind the fact that she didn’t die (since I was mostly just thankful that she didn’t!), I can definitely understand why this would feel disappointing to other readers. One of the things that Fabry mentioned in the interview we did with him that we’ll be releasing at the end of our blog series on the book is that he actually did significantly change the ending from the first draft. We didn’t probe into specifics about what that looked like, but I do wonder if this was part of the original ending of the story.

    Anyways, don’t expect my thoughts to change anyone’s overall views of the book since in my experience that rarely happens. xD But it was great to hear everyone else’s opinions, especially on bringing up a couple things I hadn’t noticed before, and I’ll be interested to hear your further thoughts when we begin publishing the article series about the book later next week!

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