Published by Thomas Nelson on January 19, 2021
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Marriage, Memoir, Parenting
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The astonishing, Job-like story of how an existence filled with loss, suffering, questioning, and anger became a life filled with shocking and incomprehensible peace and joy.
Vaneetha Risner contracted polio as an infant, was misdiagnosed, and lived with widespread paralysis. She lived in and out of the hospital for ten years and, after each stay, would return to a life filled with bullying. When she became a Christian, though, she thought things would get easier, and they did: carefree college days, a dream job in Boston, and an MBA from Stanford where she met and married a classmate.
But life unraveled. Again. She had four miscarriages. Her son died because of a doctor's mistake. And Vaneetha was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, meaning she would likely become a quadriplegic. And then her husband betrayed her and moved out, leaving her to raise two adolescent daughters alone. This was not the abundant life she thought God had promised her. But, as Vaneetha discovered, everything she experienced was designed to draw her closer to Christ as she discovered "that intimacy with God in suffering can be breathtakingly beautiful."
This profoundly moving memoir tells the story of Vaneetha Rendall Risner’s life, and how God has been with her in the midst of excruciating loss, physical suffering, and emotional pain. Because of the heavy topics that Walking Through Fire: A Memoir of Loss and Redemption covers, people with similar trauma stories should be aware of the ways that this book might be triggering for them, but Risner writes about her life in a way that is deeply engaging for anyone, making it very difficult to put this book down. When I first picked this up, I thought that I was just going to read a chapter or two, but I read the book all the way through in one night, going to bed in the wee hours.
An Unforgettable Story
This is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. Risner writes with tremendous pathos and honesty about her polio disability, her miscarriages, her husband’s adultery, the loss of her son to medical mismanagement, chronic pain and fears for the future, the dissolution of her marriage, and the parenting challenges that she faced after her husband abandoned their family. Throughout the book, she weaves in different elements of her life story while keeping the chronology of events clear, and she writes with precise and vivid detail, bringing people to life on the page. For example, it is obvious how deeply she and her sister love each other, because in addition to telling us how much this relationship means to her, she shows us their bond and their dynamic through vivid, dramatized scenes from the past.
This book is full of personal details that bring the story to life, and Risner selected her emphases carefully. She never wastes a detail, and each element that she draws into the story has an impact on how it unfolds. I am very impressed with how well she structured this memoir, and she also made me laugh multiple times with her clever observations, humorous stories, and ability to see the funny side of life even in the midst of suffering. Despite how heavy this book is at times, it is an enjoyable and rewarding reading experience, and Risner’s vivid writing brings her story to life in an unforgettable way.
Raw, Unfiltered Honesty
Risner writes about her life and family with unfiltered detail, but she does this with other people’s permission. According to the disclaimer at the beginning of the book, she changed some names and identifying details to protect others’ privacy, and in the acknowledgements, she thanks her ex-husband and daughters for supporting her in telling her story. With their blessing, she is incredibly honest and forthright about raw details from their personal struggles, and that gives this book power to change people’s lives. I was particularly touched by the elements of the story related to parenting challenges, since she dramatizes on the page what other authors might only vaguely refer to. She gives a sense of the trauma that her daughters dealt with as their father left the family, and she writes about both typical and unique ways that her relationship with her girls suffered during their teenage years.
Because Risner is honest about her own sins and failings, she is able to write about other people’s wrongdoing without blaming them or seeming unfair, and this realistic, honest portrait of her family can be incredibly helpful to people who are walking through similar trials. Although I deeply appreciated what she wrote about her infant son’s death in the late nineties, I have read other books about the loss of a child, and recognized many similar elements and themes. What she wrote about dynamics with her teenage children was incredibly different from anything that I have read before, and I greatly admire her daughters’ willingness to give up this element of their privacy, letting their mother minister to others by writing with such specificity about their interactions and struggles.
I found this entire book profoundly moving, and could not put it down. Risner writes beautifully about how God has sustained her through the fire of suffering, and she is honest about her spiritual doubts and struggles without oversimplifying life or seeming preachy. She also writes about her church experiences in a balanced, nuanced way. I found the details of how her church leadership supported her very encouraging and inspiring, but she is also honest about the struggles that she faced with feeling like other people couldn’t understand her, and with having to overcome people-pleasing tendencies that made her feel overwhelmed and inadequate in the face of conflicting advice from well-meaning people.
Because Walking Through Fire is so raw, authentic, and personal, I believe that people can connect with it regardless of their faith background. I would recommend this to Christians, first and foremost, but I would also encourage people who don’t share the author’s faith to give this a try, if they are curious about her story or have gone through something similar. This is a wonderful book for fellow sufferers, whether they have walked a similar path or struggled in different ways, and this book can also be life-changing for people who have never suffered in an extreme way, but who still need to process how God can allow suffering and still be good. This book can help people find greater peace within heartbreaking circumstances, and can help them become more understanding and caring to sufferers in their lives.