The Shack Chapter 1

Chapter 1

A Confluence of Paths

This chapter is slightly better than the introduction. The author is still rambly in places and goes on for longer than he needs to, but he’s not nearly as rambly as “Willie” was.

We start off with an ice storm. Mack, the protagonist, is working out of his home office because of this. The author goes on for a while (3 long paragraphs) about how great ice storms are:

There is something joyful about storms that interrupt routine. Snow or freezing rain suddenly releases you from appointments and schedules….There will be no apologies needed for not showing up to some commitment or other.

I have no doubt this is true for some people, but this reads to me like privilege talking. If I do not show up for work, I will be fired. I am not allowed to call in sick, and I am certainly not allowed to call in for weather. If I’m lucky I might get a boss who understands, but if not, I am expected to come into work or die trying.

There’s then another long paragraph about how, when the weather is rough, even simple chores can feel like huge accomplishments. This reads very real to me. What also reads very real to me is the fact that, even in an ice storm, the US postal service will still be delivering the mail. This is why our protagonist is ice skating his way down the driveway, which we are told is a hundred or so yards long. Like, dude, is there a reason you have to check the mail today? Maybe don’t go to the mailbox at all until you can salt your driveway? You just– Oh never mind.

It took almost a minute to knock off the ice that had already sealed shut the door of the mailbox.

If he has to break the ice to open the mailbox, I’d  guess that the mailman hasn’t come by yet.

The reward for his efforts was a single envelope with only his first name typewritten on the outside; no stamp, no postmark, and no return address.

So, some dumbass has forgotten that it’s a federal offense to go around sticking things in people’s mailboxes?

Curious, he tore off the envelope….turning his back to the breath-snatching wind, he finally coaxed the single small rectangle of unfolded paper out of its nest. The typewritten message simply said:

Mackenzie,

It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.

I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.

-Papa

It’s here that, if I were the author, I would pause and go to my first flashback. We’d have several of these interspersed throughout the story, rather than getting an infodump in the next 3 chapters. This would actually deepen the mystery–what does a camping trip have to do with a Shack? Who exactly is “Papa?” Why is it all relevant?

Mack stiffened as a wave of nausea rolled over him and then just as quickly mutated into anger.

Credit where credit is due, this is good. This works.

He purposely thought about the shack as little as possible, and even when he did, his thoughts were neither kind or nor good. If this was someone’s idea of a bad joke, he had truly outdone himself. and to sign it “Papa” just made it all the more horrifying.

This is…. a little clunky. I would have said something like, “he shuddered at the very thought.” But it gets the message across without taking up 3 paragraphs, so we’ll let it slide.

Mack angrily stuffed the envelope and note into his coat pocket and turned to start the slide back in the general direction of the house.

Good. This is showing Mack’s reaction to the note.

Mack is angry at the mailman, thinking that he’s an idiot to deliver an envelope that wasn’t stamped. It never once occurs to Mack, until he calls the post office, that someone besides the mailman could have put it in there. Yes, doing so is a federal offense, but it happens.

Mack almost makes it back to the house, but then he slips on the ice, almost crashes into a tree, and slams the back of his head onto the icy gravel.

It takes two long paragraphs to describe this. This is the point in which I suspect that this chapter is mostly filler. Don’t get me wrong, the events in this chapter are important, but it could have been a much stronger novel if this was either a shorter chapter, or some of the stuff in the coming infodumps was placed here as a flashback.

Remember, as a Christian, I wanted to like this story. Even though I am no longer a Christian, I still want to like this story. The idea still speaks to me.

In any case, when Mack hits his head, he blacks out for a few seconds. This is, again, a realistic detail. Despite what movies lead you to think, when one sustains a head injury, one is not usually unconscious for more than a few seconds, maybe a minute. When Mack comes to, he realizes he should get up and get back to the house before he becomes a Mackenzie Popsicle.* He discovers that his head wound is bleeding and he can feel a lump starting to form.

Once inside the house, Mack bandages himself as best he can, then takes some painkillers that we are assured are “over the counter.” Can’t have the readers thinking Mack takes any narcotics, I guess.

Instead of calling the doctor and asking if he thinks he has a serious problem, Mack calls the post office. He’s still mad at the postman for delivering the note, and while I understand the anger, I kind of want to smack him for not realizing that the postman would not have put it there. Like Mack says, there’s no stamp. Postal workers don’t deliver your shit for free.

Mack talks with Annie, who knows him by name, because apparently this is a small town. I like this bit because this shows that it’s a small town rather than taking 4 long paragraphs to tell us about it.

Annie tells him that mailman, Tony, hasn’t even gotten to Mack’s house yet because of the weather, and that it’s likely he won’t be able to get there at all.

“Whaddya want me to tell him if he gets back alive?”

“Actually, you already answered my question.”

No, she didn’t. Your question was, “who the hell put this in my mailbox?” Because sticking things in people’s mailboxes is a federal offense, Mack has every right to tell the post office about this and ask them (or the police) to investigate. Though probably not before the ice storm ends.

There was a pause on the other end. “Actually, I don’t remember you askin’ a question. What’s wrong with you Mack? Still smoking too much dope or do you just do that on Sunday mornings to make it through the church service?

Sigh. This is not how real people talk. Well, it might be how a real person actually talked–if she knew for a fact that Mack either has or used to have an addiction.

Mack is quick to assure Annie–and the audience–that Mack has not only never smoked dope, he never wants to. So this bit of text feels clunky and unnecessary.

We are then given a paragraph about how Annie makes up stories and then spreads things around town. It could be a nice little bit of character development–if we ever see Annie again. As it is, it feels like this part of the conversation could be cut out and the novel would not be affected in any way.

Mack hangs up the phone, trying to ignore his pounding head. We are told that the painkillers haven’t kicked in yet, but have started to take the edge off of Mack’s anxiety. If that is the case, then he is not taking over the counter painkillers, because OTC painkillers don’t have any affect on one’s mental state.

Mack rests his head on the desk for bit and ends up taking a long nap. I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on tv: is this a bad sign? If someone goes to sleep so soon and suddenly after a head injury, is that a good, bad, or neutral thing?

Mack wakes up to the telephone ringing. It’s his wife, telling him it’s too icy to try and drive home, and that she and the kids are going to spend the night at her sister’s house.

Mack doesn’t tell Annie about the note he found in the mailbox, even though Annie asks him how on earth they had mail if the mailman wasn’t able to make it up to the house. Mack dodges the question, and asks how Kate is doing.

“Mack, I wish I knew,” [Nanette replied] “She is just like talking to a rock, and no matter what I do I can’t get through. When we’re around family she seems to come out of her shell some, but then she disappears again. I just don’t know what to do. I’ve been praying and praying that Papa would help us find a way to reach her but it feels like he’s not listening.”

I’m going to spoil this right now because I think it’s kind of obvious: Kate’s sister, Missy, died. That is the source of Mack’s, “The Great Sadness(tm),” and it seems to me to be causing Kate a great deal of worry, too. Have these parents tried taking her to a therapist? Kate probably has all kinds of feelings about her sister’s death, and she may not feel comfortable talking to her parents.

In case we didn’t pick up on the fact, we are outright told that “Papa” is how Nanette refers to God. Authors, trust your readers. We do not need everything spelled out for us.

Instead of suggesting some kind of therapy for Kate, Mack tells Nan that God knows what he is doing, and it will all work out. But it’s clear that not even Mack believes what he’s saying.

Nan tells Mack where the emergency candles are, and to be careful with that head injury.

Mack eats dinner, clutches a picture of Missy to his chest, and then falls asleep in front of the TV. We are told which TV show and why and what the TV show is about. It takes a good 2 paragraphs. If it only took 2 lines, I would think it a nice bit of character development. As it is, I find myself skimming.

 

Next chapter we begin to get into some of the backstory, and I have a lot to say about that.

 

*(He didn’t say “Mackenzie Popsicle,” I added that.)

 

 

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