Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster

A Whitney Award finalist in the General Fiction category, Mile 21 is a moving account of grief, loss, and the painful process of healing in a uniquely LDS setting.

It's been a year since Abish Miller's husband of only seven months died from a fluke pulmonary embolism. At the age of 21, she'd never envisioned herself a widow and is struggling to maintain any semblance of a life.  Her monotonous on-campus job, doing payroll at BYU-Idaho, and managing her mother's fourplex married student apartments is almost more than she can handle.

Likewise, relationships with friends and family have suffered - "withered on the proverbial vine" she says - and "right now, I just can't scrape together enough...initiative? Pride? Anger?...Enough of anything, to care."

And then it just gets worse.  Her mother fires her after one too many lapses as apartment manager, forcing Abish to look for a new place to live.  In a singles' apartment.  With roommates.  In the ward where her boss - "Burt the Turd" in her mind - was just called as bishop.

Abish's only salvation is running.  She runs to work in the morning, runs home at night, and runs at every opportunity in between.  She finally decides to sign up and train for the marathon she and her husband Mark had talked about running together.

Dunster's depiction of Abish's grieving process is so real and raw, it almost hurt to read.  She's lonely and sad and angry and afraid of forgetting even as she knows it's inevitable that she'll forget some things.  She feels guilty about wanting to move on, but there's another part of her that resents Mark for leaving her and God for taking him, but then she feels guilty for that, too.  Dunster does an incredible job of juggling all of those conflicting emotions and layering them with Latter-day Saint beliefs in a way that comes across as real rather than affected.

Abish's parents, her friends, and her bishop, in particular, try to help her come to terms with what has happened and learn how to be happy again, without pretending to have all the answers.  Bishop Barnes - no longer "Burt the Turd" - insists, "You've got a right to mourn. Don't be ashamed. You should let others mourn with you." while reminding her that the plan of happiness is "about this life too, Abish. Heavenly Father wants you to be happy here too."

Dunster also meets some of the less attractive aspects of LDS culture head on.  For example, I wanted to smack Abish's roommate Maddie during this exchange:
"You know, you're pretty lucky, Abish." 
"Lucky how?"
"Well, you found your eternal companion. You're totally taken care of. Like, you get to be in the top tier. You're not even, like, divorced or something where you have to go looking again to gain celestial glory."
"Yeah," I say dryly. "I should go join a convent or something."
Maddie's eyes are round and serious. "Well, it wouldn't be a sin if you did. And now I think of it, I mean, it would be kind of selfish for you to..." She shrugs. "I mean you've had your chance, and there are only so many good guys in the world..."
Mile 21 hits on some hard, heart-wrenching topics, but doesn't shy away from either the pain or the questions that accompany the pain.  It doesn't sugar-coat or white-wash LDS culture either.  There is a romance subplot, but it takes it's proper place as a portion of the story rather than the predominant feature.  The bulk of the story is about Abish's journey through grief and healing. Dunster acknowledges the reality of incredibly difficult struggles in this life, but also shows the hope and happiness that exists even through the dark times.

Mile 21
by Sarah Dunster
ISBN: 9781462112975
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).


  1. I am glad you enjoyed the story. Thank you for the wonderful review!

  2. You're quite welcome! Thank you for writing such a wonderful story and for stopping by my little blog! :)