Reviewed in the United States on April 24, 2022
Of all the books in the world, I did not expect to give Willow five stars. Forget the stars, I didn't expect to love and be drawn in by it as much as I was and did. As my title indicates, I lost sleep over this book. I quite literally read about two-thirds of it in three hours.
Willow and her story are one surprise after another, in the best way. First off, I loved Willow and Chiji. This gave me a big gulp of fresh air after how I felt about Stone and Brighton. More than that, these characters fit great into the Metcalfe universe, but are their own people. I especially loved and identified with Willow, the lone pacifist, compassionate, heart-ruled member of the tactical, heroic Metcalfe family. Between Willow and Chiji, she was the more down-to-earth, human, and relatable character.
Chiji though, is absolutely no slouch. First, he gave me new respect for people who go under deep, heavy cover for the sake of saving people from the earth's versions of hell. I felt for and with Chiji as he executed his duties while still begging God for forgiveness, understanding, strength, and courage. And as he spent more time with Willow, I invested in Chiji as a hero, in every sense. He's not swoon-worthy like a romantic hero, because Willow is not a romantic story (nor should it be in any sense). But Chiji is God's man all the way. He's the exact guy you want to have on your team, in and out of a crisis.
Whoa, did somebody say crisis? Oh, my *gosh,* Willow is full of them. This little book is one gut punch after another, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I'm an author who has studied her craft for a lot of years. But with Willow, for the first time, I understood what my teachers mean when they say, "Get your protagonist up a tree, throw rocks at them, and then get them down." Holy guacamole chocolate chip cannoli! In one book, you've got trafficking, firefights, black ops, a lost at sea thread...at one point, I said out loud, "Are you kidding me? Can you give them a break?" But actually, I didn't mind much, because Willow, Chiji, Ife, Nkechi, and other characters are so strong. You root for them to be okay--and yet you know they will be.
Now, "okay" does not mean, sweet and romantic resolutions. In fact, I want to warn readers of this review--if you're looking for a romance novel or even a good relationship novel, Willow is not your book. It's about as graphic as a Christian novel is allowed to get in terms of trafficking and rape--and before you scoff, I can tell you, that's pretty graphic. Plus, the undercover nature of Willow and Chiji's relationship means they come to love each other in ways that a lot of Christian readers may not approve of (such as the fact that, they come to deep and abiding feelings within ten days, or that Chiji felt ready to marry Willow because of a photograph).
However, if you stick with Willow, you'll find a much deeper truth at the heart of the story. More than anything, this story is about the heart of God for His children--and what that heart can look like, including the unexpected facets. For instance, we don't like to think of God as angry or vengeful--and yet here, He is the angry Father, the strong hero, on behalf of His children. There's a place where Chiji finds his "fellow" traffickers raping little kids and shouts out, "Animals! You are evil, you are sick!" I shouted it right along with him--out loud--and I knew God would have too in a real situation. There's also a place where Chiji calls six-year-old Ife "little warrior," and--whoa. My heart nearly melted right out of my chest. Because boy or girl, God sees all His children as brave warriors. Dear God in Heaven, may I live up to it. Forgive me for the times, daily, when I fail You.
Willow's spiritual threads were just as memorable for me, partly because she and I are both civilians and again, her journey felt more down-to-earth. I identified with Willow's struggle based on the idea that she wasn't needed, and that she didn't count in her family. I'm a believer, and I rooted for Willow to become one, yet even after she did, I commiserated with her. I also loved and embraced the part where Chiji finally tells her what Olamma means. I hope to be and become an Olamma.
Again, caveat emptor. I recommend this book for adults only, based on frequent mentions and aftermath of rape, brutalization, and humiliation. These include but are not limited to scenes of chained captives soiling themselves, Willow being stripped to a torn bra and underwear, and mentions of the rape of children well under teenage years. And although Ronie did pull back on the language, there are some near-curses and instances of strong, ahem, emotional responses. That being said, Ronie's risks worked this time. She crafted a book that encapsulates both the realities and redemption found in human trafficking, if those on the outside are brave enough to step up, step in, and stop it. I'd call Willow required reading for adults, especially Christians, and especially those who have lived sheltered or sanitized lives.