I recently finished Jason Gurley’s originally self-published novel Eleanor and was generally unimpressed. I found it predictable and unconvincing, but as I’ve thought more about it I keep coming back to one particular area that left me wanting, and unsurprisingly it is theologically related. Spoilers follow so if you’ve been hoping to pick this one up, proceed with caution or just turn back now.


The climax of the story comes with the revelation that Eleanor’s twin sister Esme (who died in a car accident at the age of six) and her unborn uncle still exist in some sort of Limbo between life and death, waiting—as in most traditional ghost stories—for a wrong to be put right. This wrong turns out to be the suicide of Eleanor’s grandmother and namesake (we’ll call her Eleanor I) while pregnant. Now, the means for setting things right involves rewinding time itself and helping Eleanor I choose to continue living, and this was the element I found most unconvincing. I don’t mind stories that mess with time; they can be quite entertaining. But in Eleanor there’s no explanation for how Esme and Patrick knew that such a thing was possible. They never saw any other being like themselves in this Limbo and so how could they discover it could be done? No one did it before them. There’s no one there to tell them how. There’s no one to demonstrate the principles or even explain the laws so they know how to break or bend them. Maybe I just missed the convincing explanation for how they knew or learned this, but Gurley lost me there.

They explain to Eleanor that if they rewind time the emotional damage her mother, Agnes, has suffered due to the pain of losing one of her daughters will still exist, but it will be without foundation. There will be no diagnosing why she feels the way she does because the accident will never have occurred and she will never have lost a daughter, so there may not be any good means for Agnes to know healing or restoration. When they ask Eleanor if she’s willing to go through with it anyway of course she agrees. Why wouldn’t she? They ask if she wants to improve her family’s life without any real consequence for her except needing to relive her whole life (minus the tragic accident). To be perfectly fair, it’s possible they don’t know how far back time will need to be rewound in order to set things right, so the lack of any real risk for Eleanor could make sense in that light, and this is precisely where the story leaves me wanting.

The stakes simply aren’t high enough because it seems to me that Gurley asks the wrong question. He makes the mistake of assuming Eleanor and Esme are necessary beings rather than contingent ones. They don’t have to exist unlike Eleanor I and Agnes whose narratives will pick up from the tragic moment that so shaped this family. If time is rewound, Agnes will then have her whole life to live, and that life will be radically different because Eleanor I will still be alive, will never have committed suicide, will not have left all the emotional wreckage in her wake, and will then be able to offer a different kind of presence and attention to Agnes. Basically, the story neglects to discuss the butterfly effect and for a story revolving around changing the past to leave this out is a serious shortcoming.

With all the changes that would take place, effectively making Agnes a completely different person in the new timeline, would Agnes still have married Paul? Would they have even met? Even if they did, how likely is it that the exact combination of sperm and egg would combine to form Eleanor and Esme?

So it seems to me the right question, the high stakes question that would have transformed this book’s ending significantly, would have been, “Eleanor, are you willing to risk your very existence for the chance to give your mom a happy life? If you do this, you may never actually come to exist. Is her happiness worth the risk? In light of how she’s blamed you for your sister’s death, hating and shunning you for the past eight years—the most formative years of your childhood—is her healing, health, and happiness worth it?” In short, “Do you love her enough to risk so much?”

Now that is interesting question. That makes her choice to move forward truly courageous. That makes her a self-sacrificial hero like Frodo who saved the Shire but not for himself. Frodo’s was a true act of love and heroism, of sacrifice and generosity. His decision cost something, and its price was high. Turning Eleanor’s choice into one like Frodo’s transforms her character into someone completely different. It turns her into someone who is willing to lay down her life for her enemy, who truly loves one who hates her—it turns her into someone who lives and loves as Jesus did.

Frodo’s Hopeless Quest

It occurred to me as I began re-reading LotR again, that Frodo’s quest is hopeless from the beginning. Utterly hopeless.

When Gandalf returns with news of just what the Ring is, both he and Frodo see that even after such a relatively short span of time (if you consider 14 years a short span) he is unwilling to see it harmed. It already has a hold on his soul. If already (at page 45 or so) he can’t bear to see the Ring harmed, how can anyone expect him to cast it into the fire 900 pages and around a year of story-time later? Especially when we consider the Ring’s growing power and its corrupting influence; the Ring’s desire to get back into Sauron’s hands and its constant pull toward destruction and sin? Tolkien makes it clear from the very beginning that Frodo cannot succeed in this quest. And in the end, he doesn’t. Frodo doesn’t complete his quest. Don’t get me wrong, he did everything within his power to even get the Ring that far, and the fact that he got it to the Cracks of Doom is remarkable, but he cannot complete the mission. The Ring won’t allow it.

So it’s not that Frodo fails. His quest is simply not possible for him to complete. In fact, the intentional destruction of the Ring, while being the only hope for Middle Earth, is also the one thing that no one within Middle Earth can actually accomplish. No one could have done more than Frodo did. Not Gandalf. Not Galadriel. Not Aragorn. The Ring would have corrupted them and turned their desire to be rid of Sauron into them taking Sauron’s place as a new Dark Lord, wielding his power to possess and subdue. If Gandalf and Saruman, who are beings of comparable status to Sauron, could not have followed through on its destruction (and it is clear from their individual story arcs that neither of them could have), then certainly none of those of lesser status (be they elves, dwarves, men, or hobbits) could have either.

So how is it that the Ring is destroyed and Sauron defeated if no one within Middle Earth can willingly do the job? The Valar do not step in. They are actually committed to staying out of the war aside from sending Gandalf, Saruman and the other Istari to fight against Sauron. So what other power is there of greater power than Sauron? The Power that made it all and proposed the music in the beginning; the Power that meant for Bilbo to find the Ring and pass it on to Frodo; the Power that delights in Mercy and Freedom; the Power that Sauron, Gandalf, and Saruman know personally (even though only one of them has stayed faithful) has been at work providentially guiding the history of the world toward its fulfillment and eventual healing. This is just one chapter in Arda’s long march toward restoration. It will be mended in the end and there is only one Power who can accomplish that…