Plum Upside Down by Valerie Comer

Plum Upside Down by Valerie ComerI have read many of Valerie Comer’s books and keep coming back because of the strong characters, and the conflicts they face in both life and faith. It says a lot for her writing. I got confused when I started Plum Upside Down as to whether I’d already read this book because I knew the two main characters in relation to each other. I soon figured out where Keanan was first introduced and his conflict with Chelsea begun, but it had been a couple of years since I read Dandelions for Dinner, and for even minor characters to stay so clear just demonstrates why I enjoy this author.

I believe Plum Upside Down may be the most complex of her works I’ve read so far, regardless of series. This is definitely a discussion-worthy book for the faith aspects as well as what these two people face as a couple. I had some issues with how the book seemed to be condoning peer pressure where faith was concerned, though it was often unintentional, especially in how it made Chelsea feel unworthy and worthless. I shouldn’t have worried. That is only one of the very real issues struggled with in the story. There are a lot of snap judgments and assumptions between the two of them that make everything more difficult.

Chelsea is not firm in her faith in the beginning, though she refuses to admit it to herself as much as to anyone else. She sees how easy and deep a relationship with God seems to be for the other inhabitants of Green Acres and considers herself lacking in comparison. It doesn’t help that the organizational skills she thought would make her a valuable member of the community are unnecessary on the farm. She’s reduced (her words, not mine) to simple farmhand labor, an indication that she’s certainly not perfect either. The pressure to do something more, be something more, is never stronger than when she’s with Keanan.

He dismisses Chelsea’s gifts and how she’s been using them, because he sees anything tied to privilege as tainted. He embodies the phrase “Holier than thou” for me not in how he acted as much as in how he judged the worthiness of others, or most specifically, of Chelsea. He doesn’t seem to have any difficulty accepting how the other members of the farm have chosen to express their faith or find their calling, but from the start, he judges Chelsea as a pampered princess who should face up to her own lack of value.

It’s interesting the contrast in perceptions from one of the other farm members who pointed to how Chelsea jumps in where needed without complaint, but it’s Keanan’s perspective that has the strongest impact on Chelsea, and not always in a good way. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my mother years ago. I said I felt like I wasn’t contributing enough to helping people. She turned around and pointed out the many hours of programming I did while volunteering for my online writing group, efforts, along with being part of the moderating team, that helped others get the inspiration and encouragement that’s critical to living full lives. I had not even considered that in the context of giving because I fell into the position and enjoyed what I was doing.

This is how I see Chelsea. She devotes hours organizing events for her church in Portland even after she moves to the farm, allowing them to provide for the less well off in their community and even fund outreach missions like Keanan went on. Without efforts like hers, those missions wouldn’t happen, but because it’s not hands on in foreign countries, it has no value to him. This also raised another issue for me because elevating missions abroad while ignoring the suffering at home is another form of judgement. It’s saying because people in Africa, to use the example from the book, don’t have the same life as in America, their life is worse off than every person in America (where the book is set). Starving in a land of plenty is still starvation. I’m not saying Keanan believes this, but that his words imply that he does, something tied up with his own history and an attitude that exists in the real world.

Remember what I said about discussion worthy? As a reader, I had to be patient, but Keanan has his own issues that brought him to such judgements. His break from privilege left a bad taste in his mouth, and he can’t see how that’s tainting his view of the world until he’s hit over the head with a very heavy brick. I still think he has room to grow in that direction, but he comes to some pretty shattering conclusions by the end that point him in the right direction. And to his credit, he doesn’t fall back on the bad habit of blaming others as he does with Chelsea in their early relationship but faces up to the truths God reveals to him.

After what I said above, you’ll think I didn’t like Keanan at all, but that would be far from the truth. He’s wonderful with children, caring, and truly focused on helping people see into their own hearts. It’s quite likely an afterimage of fighting his attraction to Chelsea that makes him so blind to her strengths and to her weaknesses. She’s the only one he pushes to abandon everything she’s known and do what he thinks is the proper calling, and while that’s the part I don’t agree with, he does recognize her own fears eventually and helps her to resolve them where her faith is concerned, so it’s certainly not all negative between them. If it were, Chelsea would not have been inspired to break down her barriers instead of settling for an okay, but not transcendent, life.

I thought for a while that Chelsea would be called upon to make all the adjustments in the story, which isn’t why I read romances. A proper relationship is a mutual compromise that allows something stronger to grow out of the union. Had she persisted in seeing herself as the lessor, a child at Keanan’s knee, the relationship wouldn’t have worked for me at all. Instead, she grows and he’s hit with a brick. Yes, I’m avoiding spoilers, but things get scary and crisis-filled for a good while which allows both of them to look at what they are doing to each other and in their relationship with God, making this a fascinating, deep story.

This book focuses very heavily on faith and learning your own value and purpose, but it is still true to the Farm Fresh series by also having hands-on work descriptions and out-there housing options that involve everyone to put into place. I love how Green Acres brings disparate people together as a community and a family whether they live at the farm or only come to visit. The heart in these books is tangible even when the main characters are frustrated or struggling with what their hearts tell them is true on both a faith and relationship level. Besides, the characters are real enough to linger across years, as are their questions.

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