Cover art for ‘Next of Kin’ by Melinda Mitchell (Arus Entertainment, 2023).
Cover art and design by Honor MacDonald, EyeQueue Graphics and Design Services. Image courtesy of Melinda Mitchell.
‘Next of Kin’: a story of travail and hope
The book opens with Ami, a farmer’s wife, living on a planet sometimes besieged by asteroid alerts, yet a place where she and her husband Max are happily building a life, growing crops, and looking forward to a bright future together.
Unfortunately, this idyllic moment is brief, as the alerts to head for underground shelter begin, and suddenly, Ami is not able to contact, let alone warn, her husband of the need to come in from the fields. Planetary devastation follows, and Ami finds herself suddenly in the disruption and grief of the way life sometimes plays out. Her husband and brother-in-law are dead, along with countless others who did not get to shelter during an asteroid calamity. Her mother-in-law Mara and her sister-in-law Sheya are suddenly the only immediate family she has, all three women traumatized as the losses compound.
The story launches out into the vacuum of space, changing the dire bunker underground with struggling environmental systems and decreasing hope to a ship willing to bear Ami and Mara to their destination. In this novel, space is not traversed quickly, nor easily. Months below ground are placed by months onboard the freighter, hoping against hope that their destination would be eventually reached. Navigating these stars is a matter of great difficulty, and not a matter of certainty.
Space opera science fiction revels in the slower pace of human life, not enjoying the narrative cheats of “warp drive” familiar from television shows like the Star Trek franchise. Instead, the grit and determination of the characters may be the only tools they have. The technology is faulty and imperfect, and the galaxy is far more filled with overwhelming odds than anything approaching glamorous or exotic.
Entering into the story, some readers may begin to realize the “source material” informing Mitchell’s storyline. The novel draws upon the book of Ruth, familiar to those acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures or the benefit of some religious background. Indeed, Mitchell had the idea years back when she attended divinity school, thinking of Ruth’s story as befitting a space opera setting.
Like its biblical inspiration, Next of Kin features strong female protagonists, breaking past obstacles of economic ruin and great hardship to find a way forward. The novel is its own story, not meant to present a story simply parroting the narrative beats of the Book of Ruth. Yet in its new setting, the story that the Book of Ruth tells gets a refreshed lease on life.
Writing under the pen name of Melinda Mitchell, Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell brings her training and formation as a seminary graduate and her lifelong immersion in science fiction to create a futuristic tale that never loses sight of the ancient drama of Ruth, a refugee with very little chance of surviving, and the Book of Ruth’s other characters, which inform the novel’s other main characters of Mara and Bo (Ami’s eventual newfound love, the Boaz to Ruth from the narrative).
The beauty of the Book of Ruth’s original story is found throughout Next of Kin. Ami learns, bit by bit, to embrace the steadfast presence of her mother-in-law Mara, who eventually comes out of her own shell to help Ami embrace the faith that has somehow kept Mara over the years, coming from a distant place and people, losing her husband and then her sons, and traveling onwards with Ami with no surety left to her.
Like its biblical inspiration, Next of Kin features strong female protagonists breaking past obstacles of economic ruin and great hardship to find a way forward. The novel is its own story, not meant to present a story simply parroting the narrative beats of the Book of Ruth. Yet in its new setting, the story that the Book of Ruth tells gets a refreshed lease on life.
In an era where churches struggle to attract or retain faithful congregants, we look for insights into how to connect with generations otherwise disinterested. Story is a powerful tool for engagement, and this book opens conversation and sparks curiosity about matters human and divine.