Book review: ‘A Hill of Beans: The Grace of Everyday Troubles’
“A Hill of Beans: The Grace of Everyday Troubles.” By Valerie Schultz. Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2022. 152 pages. Paperback: $16.95; Kindle: $10.49; eBook: $10.49.
Several months ago, when I read the pre-publication blurb for Valerie Schultz’ new book, “A Hill of Beans: The Grace of Everyday Troubles,” I was intrigued by the first line of the description which read, “Do we make too much of our day-to-day problems?” I don’t know about you, but I saw myself there in bold, upper-case letters. As a friend of mine put it at Christmas, when trying to decide what kind of gift to get for a particularly difficult person to buy for (and we all have one), “Yeah, I know. First World problems.”
So when my copy finally arrived, I dove in with anticipation. What I found was a book so honest that at times it drove me nearly to tears. I also found that yes, our troubles do matter, to us and to the people around us. More than just little hills of beans, they can be moments either of mind-numbing despair or evidence of God’s grace, and that is no little thing. “Most of us do not have problems with any global consequence,” Schultz says in her introduction. “But our problems can be enormous to us, and the way we solve or don’t solve them can determine the course of our lives. It occurs to me that we do ourselves an injustice by minimizing the issues we face to hill-of-beans status.”
Schultz organizes the book – which is actually a series of essays, making it very easy to read in smaller chunks of time – according to themes, although the essays themselves were written over the course of a number of years, beginning in 2002 and ending, for this book, in 2021. (For the sake of a timeline, the author includes the year the essay was composed at the beginning of each selection.) The issues with which she deals are not trivial; they are the sorts of things that many families, including Catholic ones, find themselves struggling with. She speaks honestly about the serious money problems she and her husband found themselves in, caused by unbridled credit card use. The essay about bailing her daughter out of jail could only be described as excruciating, as is the one about dealing with her mother’s dementia, a condition that made this once loving parent turn “simply mean.”
She also addresses the pain when family members move away from the faith, especially when such a move is totally unexpected. And it couldn’t have been easy to talk about her daughter’s addiction (“Good Morning, My Beautiful Child”) but she does so. The longest essay, taken from journal entries written during 2006-2007, outline her attempt – an ultimate failure – to be a teacher. (“Failure High: My First and Last Year of Teaching.”) Finally, whether or not you read the entire book, the essay entitled “The Privilege of Skin” should be at the top of the list of the ones you do. “Shopping with the Dead” is a close second.
So what was her purpose in writing this book? Certainly not to merely complain or to say something along the lines of “You thought YOU had it bad.” It is to remind us that our God, who has counted every hair on our heads, does not consider our struggles just so many piles of beans, no matter what those struggles are.
“Every hill of beans we encounter on the journey is a chance for us to navigate the best course around it or over it or through it,” she concludes. “To face each earthly obstacle, to rise above the many challenges of a unique but ordinary life. With God’s help, with grace, with luck, with humor, we may find that we are the saints of the everyday.”
Valerie Schultz is an award-winning free-lance writer whose work has appeared in Give Us This Day, America magazine and in her regular column for the Bakersfield Californian. She recently retired from a position in a state prison library, which inspired her book “Overdue: A Dewey Decimal System of Grace,” which was released 2019. She is also the author of “Closer: Musings on Intimacy, Marriage, & God.” She and her husband, Randy, have four grown daughters.