Chapter Four in Janette Oke's fictional series about a young Christian family struggling to survive in the Wild West begins with Missie LaHaye's father coming for a visit. He's just in time to witness tragedy. And to lend a strong shoulder to his daughter and her husband, Willie, when their youngest daughter, still an infant, dies unexpectedly during the night.
Missie and Willie spend the rest of the film trying not to give in to bitterness as they process their grief and doubt. And while they do that, they also have to figure out a way to make enough money to keep their house ... and stay alive. When the grief-stricken Missie finds herself unable to continue her teaching job, Willie hands over the day-to-day chores of their homestead to a hired hand and takes a job as the town's sheriff. Little does he know that the scheming mayor, who offers him the job, has ulterior motives for hiring a letter-of-the-law public servant.
Family. Friends. Duty. Selflessness. Ethical behavior. Morality. All get due consideration in Love's Abiding Joy. Missie sacrificially sells a cherished possession to help a friend's family stave off foreclosure. Willie is known to be honest and trustworthy. And he follows and enforces the law even when it's hard, and even when it means he has to give an eviction notice to a friend. (He couples his dedication to doing what's right with an equal amount of determination to help his fellow homesteaders in any way he can.) Even the mayor, who tries to exploit Willie's steadfast and honorable character for his own gain, is ultimately made to respect it, too.
Friends come to Missie and Willie's aid when their daughter dies. And Missie benefits from loving (and good) advice. A hired hand who has become one of the family urges her, "Don't let dark clouds steal your joy." And he warns her that lies will attempt to divide her from her husband and make her bitter. Missie's response to tragedy, then, is treated as a choice; it doesn't relegate her to victim status. If she is going to be bitter, the movie preaches, it's because that's what she's chosen.
While Missie and Willie are struggling with their relationship, Pa tells Missie to go visit her husband at his office to begin working toward healing. She takes his advice.
Faith becomes a central element as the LaHayes try to reconcile tragedy and loss with God's good character. "The Good Lord" is credited for providing in a time of drought. And Missie expresses confidence that God will continue to provide the money for her family's needs.
When Pa first arrives, he tells Missie and Willie, "We know God's hand was in the timing of the journey." Missie acknowledges, "We know God has been with us, even though it's been hard."
Many prayers are lifted heavenward, most of which flow out of painful experience. At the baby's funeral, Willie's friend Henry, a former pastor, prays, "Let us rest in Your promise that Kathy is safe in Your arms, safe in heaven. ... Sustain [Missie and Willie] when they feel like giving up." Indeed, Missie and Willie are both strongly tempted to give up, on God and on each other, yet with God's support and the encouragement of others (especially Pa), they persevere.
In her grief, Missie admits that she doesn't know why God allowed her daughter to die, and at one point she even screams the question at God. But she never shakes her fist at Him, nor does she turn her back on Him or completely close off her heart. It's a significant turning point for both Missie and Willie when they admit their brokenness, confusion and disappointment to God in prayer. It's pretty realistic stuff, actually, for a fairly romanticized movie.
Henry, meanwhile, is a character of a different sort. Seething mad at the mayor for duping him into borrowing too much money, he bristles, "I used to be a good pastor. Now I'm a rancher. Get off my land!"
Two teenagers share a quick kiss, as do Willie and Missie.
A drunken and despairing man stumbles into town and lets loose a few stray bullets. Before he's gently subdued, he points the weapon threateningly at Willie. The mayor's henchman strikes a threatening pose nearly every time he arrives onscreen. He also pushes Willie's teenage son, Jeff, around.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Utilizing classic black-hat vs. white-hat symbolism, filmmakers show the mayor chomping on cigars and pouring himself hard liquor in a half-dozen or so scenes.
Other Negative Elements
The mayor's teenage daughter, Collette, is depicted as justifiably rebellious. She sneaks out of the house (and lies about it) on successive nights to go for walks with her newfound boyfriend, Jeff. She also entices Jeff away from his work for an afternoon of adventure. And she steals one of her dad's books to give to Jeff. Before the credits roll, she's softened a bit, but she's most often seen as a rule-breaker who's intent on turning Jeff into a co-conspirator.
For the record, her father's greedy and self-serving actions are certainly more subversive and manipulative than hers. But his sins find him out in the end. Hers don't.
Do you still miss Little House on the Prairie? Did you name your family's goldfish Laura? Love's Abiding Joy is just the thing, then. There are more than a few reason why it feels like a lost episode from that TV favorite. Not least of which is the fact that it was directed (and its script written) by Prairie star Michael Landon's son, Michael Landon Jr., who actually shot the film on the old sets used for that pioneering series.
The result is a nice story, nothing more, nothing less. It's wholesome. It's full of healthy spiritual expressions. It's anachronistic. In all honesty, it's as good a Hallmark Channel movie as we've seen in a while.
Which brings us to a bit of back story: Television is where this film was originally destined. (Opening credits still include the term "teleplay.") The first three movies to be developed from Janette Oke's books landed on Hallmark. And it was expected that this fourth one would, too. Then 20th Century Fox's newly formed division Fox Faith stepped in, picked it up and decided to distribute it as its debut release.
Long story short, that's why Love's Abiding Joy arrives first in theaters rather than in living rooms. Families sick of being held at bay by sleazy comedies and coked-up actioners will love the change of pace. But they may also wonder why they just dropped $50 on tickets and popcorn for a Hallmark TV Classic.