Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Book Review: Joey's Story

When we rode the school bus back in Minnesota, we picked up THAT family about two miles west of us.  A big blended family, they lived down a long lane, and the house had an air of hidden poverty.  Some of the children were clean, others were very dirty, with greasy hair and unbrushed teeth, and you got the sense that the kids were raising themselves and surviving a pretty high level of chaos and untold secrets.  Today, they never come to high school reunions, and don't show up on Facebook, and none of our classmates seem to know what happened to them.

I feel like I've just read their story.

And you know those little kids you pick up for vacation Bible school who live in the trailer house with the cars in the back yard and the broken steps, and who smell of smoke and punch the other kids?

This is their story too.

And then there's that girl who grew up Old Order Amish and then Beachy Amish, with a hot supper on the table every night and family devotions in the morning, but with hidden family chaos from mental illness and poverty and anger.

This is her story too, by which I mean mine of course.

I glibly agreed to review Joey's Story a long time ago, and then I was intimidated by its length (631 pages!) and put it off until I could do it Right, so it slipped into a to-read pile and for various reasons it never rose to the top of the pile.

My apologies for the long wait, Timo and Joanna, and thanks for your patience.  At least I learned to be more careful with agreeing to do book reviews.

But maybe the timing was just right, having been through some hard-won healing of my own in the meantime.

In summary, this book is the story of Joanna, known as Joey, who was born in Michigan into an unbelievably chaotic situation, with a sick, detached mom, lots of siblings, a well-meaning dad who simply didn't have the tools to keep his life and family functioning, a revolving door of aunts and half-siblings and--worst of all--men who boarded in the basement.

Eventually the children are taken elsewhere and have a series of foster homes before they are finally adopted into a family.

The family joins a Mennonite church, which is how Joey became a Mennonite and indirectly how the story came to be written by Ruth Ann Stelfox and published by Christian Light Publications.

That is the very short version of Joey's young life.  The long version involves almost impossible quantities of loss, grief, confusion, separation, abuse, neglect, and pain.

And yet, there is a thread of hope, of God's presence, of being called and drawn to a loving Father, of Jesus bringing healing, of redemption.

A few things that stood out to me:

1. The length was appropriate.  I expected to find it overly wordy, with unnecessary detail, but there was never anything I felt should have been omitted.  If Ruth Ann Stelfox would have told the story in a humdrum "Then this happened, then this person showed up, then they went to this other home," it would have been a lot shorter and less interesting. Instead, she creates a vivid scene with each step of the story.  You see the moldy towels on the floor or the clean curtains at the window.  You get to know the characters and hear the dialogue.

2. The author did an astonishing job of telling Joey's story without inserting herself into it or distracting us with her style.  It reads with the vividness and immediacy of a memoir, and the writing style loses itself in the story, so it was hard to separate the two.  The mark of a good biographer, I would say.

3. It's real but discreet.  I will be honest and say that I've come to expect a few annoying quirks from Mennonite publishers, such as stilted dialogue, "Would you like to come with us?" said Susan. "Oh, yes, I surely would!" exclaimed Julia.  And a subtle condemnation of worldly clothes and habits, even on children. I was happy to see that Joey's Story has remarkably realistic dialogue all the way through, even when people were fighting or drunk.  Cursing is referred to but not quoted, which came across as discreet rather than stilted.  Also, the little brother tugs at Joey's pants without any hints that she should have been wearing a dress instead.

The most notable example of the real-but-discreet was the handling of sexual abuse and acting out as a result.  As an adult, I saw clearly what was happening, but if I had read it at age 13, most of it would have flown right over my head.

4. Joey's courage and honesty in telling this story, and in letting it be told, are astonishing.  "Telling" is a large issue throughout the book, and any of us who have sinned, or been sinned against as children can understand the inner turmoil she went through before she finally finally TOLD.  Abuse changes how you see the world, and truth gets skewed, and things somehow become your fault, and the shame is suffocating, and sometimes there's no safe person around, and it is just extremely hard to TELL.  Yet, from the perspective of adulthood and knowing the infinite relief of having TOLD, we can hardly stand how long Joey waits.

Even then, some of us can't bring ourselves to tell the whole world.  There are hard things I finally shared with a few select people, and fewer things that I've shared with a group, and far fewer that I've shared in writing.  So the fact that she's this honest and detailed in a BOOK--I think it's amazingly courageous.

5. Joey's life story is so painful and so full of loss that at times I was in tears.  And yet, there was one way in which I envied her, and that was that she and her siblings always seemed FOR and not AGAINST each other, pulling together to survive.  During the dark period of our lives when I was about 8-12 years old--no particulars because I am not as brave as Joey--one of the saddest memories is of my siblings being against me and not for me, and the pain I inflicted on them.  Despite the occasional sticking up for someone else, we did not coalesce as a group.

That sibling support was one of several bright spots in Joey's childhood, and one of the encouraging aspects of the book is these glimpses of grace.  This kind person, that attempt by the dad to give them a good Christmas, Joey's phenomenal spunk and determination.

6. That a story like this can end joyfully is purely the grace of God.  The ending feels miraculous, and the redemption is deeply satisfying.  Best of all, you get the clear message that what is true for Joey is true for all of us, that we have value, no matter how broken we are.  That Jesus will forgive and heal us.  And that our pain can be turned into something beautiful to offer to others.

Go buy and read this book if you:
--had a rough childhood or want to understand people who did.
--want to know how to reach out to those people in the rundown trailer, either as an individual or a church.
--are wondering if you have a story worth sharing, and how to tell it.
--just want a good read.

Joanna's husband, Timo, offered to sponsor a giveaway of two copies of Joey's Story.  To be included in the drawing, comment below with an example of grace and/or redemption in your own life.  And please include enough info that I can contact you if you win.

Quote of the Day, from the afterword:
"This book is not about my heroic triumph over a difficult past.  This book is about suffering that finds resolution in Christ Jesus, the Sacrificial Lamb who suffered that we might be set free."
--Joanna Miller a.k.a. "Joey"

Later: the giveaway signup is now over and the winners are Rhoda Hostetler and!!  Congratulations!


  1. I would love to win a copy of this book.
    Thank you!!

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  3. The sad moments, the unbearable moments of my childhood do not feel so hopelessly dark as they once did. Grace comes in the form of loyal friends who listen and love even while I am unlovely, thus being Jesus to me. And because of it, there is healing and redemption every day!
    I would love to have a copy of this book! You can contact me at

  4. Redemption looks like loving on kids who face some of the very same things I've struggled through, but who have it so much worse off than myself.
    I would love to read this book. Veronica (veronicadawn98 AT

  5. Thank you for the recommendation!

  6. Sometimes, looking back at the difficult and painful times of your past, you realize that grace has colored them in muted tones, no longer are they the deep dark tones that they had been for so long. Now, God has, with the years, given you the gift of forgiveness for those who hurt you, His mercy continues on working, even when we are not always aware of it.
    I've heard this book highly recommended by many, and I would love to win a copy!

  7. For some reason a perfect example of redemption in my own life doesn't come to mind. Maybe because, what comes to my mind first after reading your review, are the people in my life who I long so desperately to see redemption happen for. I would really love to read this book!

  8. I would love to read this book!

  9. That sounds like a powerful book!

    During the past few days, I've had several "little" moments of grace. I've been praying that God will make me less of a control freak. Yesterday, my car broke down for the third time within the last two months. Immediately, I felt angry and asked a bunch of "why me?" questions. Throughout the process, I felt so defeated and disappointed in my attitude. Yet, several friends came alongside me, offering to help in any way they could. We eventually had to call a tow truck driver, and he ended up fixing my car in my driveway for free. When I look back, I see grace in each of the friends and the tow truck driver who paused their days and offered to step into my mess.

    My email address is PinkTree.13 AT

  10. Work with plenty of these kids and 'tweens' thru our children's ministries at church. It's always awesome to get their perspective and to know there's is hope and redemption available when at times it feel like no progress is being made... My email

  11. My words and emotions get all tangled up as I read your review....not sure how it would be to read the book....grace has found me in so many ways....yet, I wait, not so patiently, most times , for more.....for it not to hurt so bad!
    God bless this lady for telling her story.....I think I would like to read it, one day.

  12. My example of Grace: being given a husband and family when I told God for years I never wanted them. Crystal Kupper,

  13. I have read this book and it is excellent! Brought me to tears. I would love to have my own copy!

  14. Looking back on your childhood and seeing all that happened and should not have happened and realizing you wouldn't change anything because it would change who you are today is part of redemption and God's

  15. One small example that comes to mind is God giving me grace, just yesterday, to accept a situation that I simply was not in control of. It is so true that...'with acceptance comes peace.' :-) I would love to win a copy!

  16. Adoption from the foster system was a redemption from the life my daughter could be currently living. It also showed me who I really am and redeemed me from the feeling that I could do things on my own strength and made me realize how heavily I have to lean on God's strength.

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  18. Forgot to insert my info:
    Lois J.

  19. I am a foster parent so deal a lot with troubled children. Your review made me want to read the book so I just ordered it! Can't wait to read it

  20. I would love to have a copy of this book. Someone shared their copy to read some time ago. I would love to read it again, especially after reading your review. Thanks for sharing.

  21. Thank you for this recommendation. I would like to narrate this book for the author. (I will research that option.) Thank you for all of your wonderful writing. I am so pleased that you are a part of our local community.
    You can listen to me at
    Happy Holidays

  22. It does take courage to tell your story. Especially if it's painful. I really had a wonderful childhood, christian parents, a pony to ride, life in the country.
    Yet somehow, I strayed and entered my painful years at my own rebellion. So, I do know pain and redemption. Grace, that still continues to amaze me today.
    I'm honestly not sure I could read this story. Hearing about childhood abuse almost seems to traumatize me. I think because, I grew up in such a wonderful home I cannot bear the thought of children who do not.
    In fact, it was the thought of the life I was giving my own children that caused me to once again turn back to God. I still had that long road to walk back but, I did it as much for them as for me.
    If I got this book, I would read it and weep for Joey. And rejoice in God's Grace.

  23. Looks like a good book to read. So many are hurting whether in or out of the church. Enjoyed your review!
    Dorcas S.

  24. I grew up in a "churchy" but essentially non Christian home. We were not poor materially, by any means, but I always felt poor, somehow. We fought and betrayed each others as siblings, always being on the look out for a chink in someones armor to aim our hateful darts. Through the death of my infant brother, we stopped going to church on the military base, (the minister refused to officiate at a funeral for an unbaptized baby,) and we ended up being shuffled off to Sunday school at a nearby church, so Mom could have the morning to herself and her grief. Our parents warned us beforehand that we were likely to encounter people who believed the Bible was true, so we should watch out for them and not believe their message. Our teacher was an elderly godly lady who introduced me to the loving Savior, who I gladly received and embraced as my own. I have been walking with Him now almost 60 years, imperfectly, to be sure, but with gratefulness for God's redemptive purpose in allowing me to attend that Sunday School.

  25. This looks like a great book. Thanks for a chance to win.

  26. I would love to read this book.

  27. I grew up in a Christian family and yet I felt like it was a rather turbulent time in my life. We were not a close knir family and I only had 1 sibling and we were 6 years apart so we were not particularly close until after she got married and yet I felt like I was losing my best friend at the same. I was also being told over and over to never get married because you can't do what you want and yet I was longing for that kind of love. It all left me very confused. As I look back over those years and see where I am now I definitely know that I have found healing only through God's grace. I used to be filled with a lot of anger because I was hurt so deeply however as I found forgiveness through Christ, I also found healing and redemption. I would not be where I am today if it were not for God's grace in my life. I would love to win this book. You can reach me at

  28. me it looks like security in Christ after years of not "measuring up" to the expectations of others. He looks at me and sees who I am in Him!

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  31. I know that I do not have to somehow "measure up" to be worthy of love. God loves me so, so much, that He would rather die than spend eternity without me. Living in that reality brings such a measure of grace to my life that I cannot even begin to tell how much.

  32. I grew up in a loving Christian home and have little to deal with but myself. But myself. That's a big one. Impatience with my children. Unthankfulness. Selfishness. His mercies are new every morning. That is grace!

    When I imagine my turn being judged, I know I can only bow at His feet and depend on His grace.

    I'd love to have a copy of Joey's Story.

  33. I already have the book and have read it. It is an amazing story and well written. It's hard to quit reading that book once you've started. And thank you Dorcas for your well-written review.

    One incident showing God's grace is when Joey was going to walk away from secure surroundings, but God intervened in a marvelous way to keep her from that steep, down-hill path. LRM

  34. I read this book and would be happy to own a copy. I pray daily that God would redeem and restore all the mistakes we made raising our children.

  35. My childhood was tough. Dad was and still is a very angry and controlling person. He seems to have now just shrunk into himself and lives in his own world even though Mom is still there. Maybe too many regrets but also having grown up with a father the same as he was to us. Lately I have been thinking that there was no kindness in our home and so it is really something that I have learned as an adult but it has taken decades. These things did spill over into the raising of my children, too. It is hard when you knew nothing different. I would love to read this book.

  36. I think I would enjoy reading this book. I enjoy reads that give me a glimpse into someone else's life, in an effort to understand their pain, to walk a mile in their shoes. For I feel I am in great need of empathy. It seems there is enough grace from God to be a mother. I can't do it alone.

  37. Grace and redemption for me is when at the end of the day I am overwhelmed by my many mistakes, but then God speaks hope and love into my heart instead of condemnation.

  38. When I think of God's grace, I think of the dying heroin addict we took into our home. She lived with us for 9 mo. She got her feet under her but some of her next decisions seemed to us like she was throwing away the chance we had given her. God kept leading though, of course. Five years later she is married and holding down a good job and praising God.

    Presently GRACE comes to us daily as we raise her niece. It is not easy for a sheltered Mennonite girl to do. A spanking doesn't change the years before she came to us. So we try to educate ourselves how best to help her. Marilyn
    I have read the book but would love to own it.

  39. I was given this book when I was recuperating after a painful surgery and I could hardly lay it down... It was difficult to read and I fought depressing thoughts. This was real life. On the other side God's Grace and Hope shone through real life and made a way through it all. Then I felt such over-whelming thankfulness for all that God has done, and will do. Even though my life has not been easy, Joey's made the trials in my own life seem small. But it's also true that each one's trials are our own and they are giants we each much slay and with God's help, it can be done.

  40. I would love to receive a copy of this book. I am drawn to stories like this. My own childhood was nowhere near as bad as Joey's, but we had our own troubles to deal with- deaths of close family members, difficult moves to faraway places, overlapping grieving processes that took so long to heal... I am inspired by anyone who can grow up and learn what love and happiness mean despite their childhood; anyone who can realize that the past is the past and that they can now take responsibility for their lives and turn themselves in the direction they want to go. With God's help, of course. I am so thankful for all the He has done for me and so many others.

  41. I love reading those books but it makes me feel so unworthy of the secure childhood I enjoyed. I am so thankful God gives grace for each one to live with what their life hands to them. My address is