Up From Dust: Martha’s Story

Mar 19, 2024 | Book Reviews

For many years, my diet of Biblical fiction consisted of authors Francine Rivers, Angela Hunt, and Tessa Afshar. More recently, I became acquainted with the ones listed below, which includes Barbara Britton. Now, after reading Up From Dust: Martha’s Story, I’ve added a new one to my reading menu: Heather Kaufman. 

Heather took a leap from writing Christian contemporary romance and a children’s picture book to tackling Biblical fiction. But in reading it, you’d never guess it was her first venture into that world. 

Other Biblical Fiction featured on Standout Stories (dates indicate blog date):

  • Defending David — Barbara Britton (March 1, 2022) — The tale of the Ittai the Gittite who aided King David during Absalom’s rebellion. Derived from II Samuel 15-19:8.
  • Lioness: Mahlah’s Journey —Barbara Britton (March 8, 2022) — The oldest daughter of Zelophehad summons all her courage to ask Moses for their dead father’s land. Based on Numbers 27.
  • The Brother’s Keeper — Tracy Groot (April 12, 2022) — Get a new perspective on Jesus from his family’s point of view, particularly his brother James.
  • The Stones of My Accusers — Tracy Groot (April 19, 2022) — Get a closeup view of life in Caesarea Maritima after the resurrection of Jesus. From the perspectives of a harlot, a former zealot, a sister of Jesus, and a Roman—chief secretary to Pontius Pilate.
  • Ezekiel’s Song — Naomi Craig (October 4, 2022) — Experience the time of Ezekiel when Judah went into captivity in Babylon. 
  • Keeping Christmas; “The Weary World Rejoices” — Naomi Craig — Herod the Great’s palace is abuzz with news of a king born in Bethlehem. A fresh view of Jesus’s birth from the perspective of a scribe in Herod’s palace.
  • Hosea’s Heart — Linda Wood Rondeau (June 21, 2022) — A contemporary allegory based on the book of Hosea—clever, witty, and fraught with meaning.
Bethany House Publishers (January 23, 2024)

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My Thoughts

Prepare to time travel to the turbulent Roman Empire in Palestine, to the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. It’s not all that you think. The author has given Martha a believable backstory that leads up to the time of Jesus’s ministry, when he periodically makes himself a guest in their home. Her words and actions in the Biblical account make sense in light of the traumas of her childhood and early adult years.

The characterizations of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are strong, along with their father, and Cleopas, Uri, Simon the Pharisee, and others. The story is compelling and poignant, told through Martha’s point of view. Well-researched, the historical facts and details blend perfectly into the beautifully-written narrative. This tale pushes all the right buttons with its portrayal of faith, doubt, love, longing, sorrow, anger, sibling rivalry, forgiveness, and healing.

I’m always a bit apprehensive when reading a story with Jesus as a character, but Kaufman treats this with great care, staying true to what we know of the Biblical Jesus. She deepens the scenes we’re familiar with, through Martha’s own pain and perspective, and creates a few scenes and dialogs of her own.

The story takes us just beyond Christ’s resurrection. Though Martha wasn’t present during any of the events on Good Friday and the days following, the author kept the tension going, even when Martha was only hearing things secondhand. 

There were a couple of things that frustrated me, but I can’t mention them without spoilers. But overall, my frustrations arose from being heavily invested in the characters and their problems. That’s a good thing. I feel like I know these people now. 

But the point isn’t just Martha. The story shows her way to finally grasping who Jesus is, and why he’s there. How knowing him moves her from trauma to triumph. And how that  impacts the rest of her life.

Be sure to read the author’s notes at the end.

Join me for some Q & A with author Heather Kaufman.

Author Heather Kaufman

Questions about Up from Dust: Martha’s Story

Interestingly, Biblical fiction is a genre I came to reluctantly. I’d read in the genre and knew it could be done well and in a way that upheld the inherency of the Word of God, but it was never on my radar to write. It felt like a task better taken up by someone much more learned than I. 

As He often does, however, God had other plans. After three years of pushing the story aside, I finally said “Yes” and stepped out in faith. Ultimately, I was compelled by what this story was doing to me. It was firing me up for the Word of God. It was causing me to slow down and really linger over the person of Jesus Christ. It was forcing me to feel what the Bible characters might have felt—to linger and ponder in ways I’d never done before. 

It was changing me in so many good ways that I became less fearful over “getting it wrong” and more hopeful for how it might also impact others.

This story snuck up and surprised me. During an Easter sermon in 2016, I was overcome by a deep admiration for Martha. Her confession of Christ in John 11 is stunning, but overwhelmingly the message surrounding her seems to be cautionary. 

Martha is remembered most as a busy and fretful woman, when Scripture as a whole presents a much richer picture. I began wondering about her backstory. What were all the “many things” that she was worried and troubled about? How did she grow into the woman of faith we see in John 11? And so, the seed of the story was planted.

Her backstory began with one simple question: Did Martha live with her siblings? If so, that would be unusual, because a woman typically married young and moved into her husband’s home. Perhaps she was unmarried. Oh, that’s intriguing! Perhaps she longed to be married but wasn’t. Why wasn’t she married? What hurt is she hiding? Everything else snowballed from there.

For example, Mary has a deep desire to be seen and loved for who she is but senses that her older sister resents her and so responds by defying everything that comes out of Martha’s mouth. This seed of defiance serves to separate Mary as a distinct character. 

Ultimately, it’s the desires of the characters’ hearts—and how they respond when those desires are thwarted—that makes them nuanced, interesting, and distinct from one another.

I was very intentional with how I handled Jesus in this story. From the beginning, I set up boundaries for myself. Any major dialogue in Jesus’ mouth is taken directly from Scripture. Whether it’s the Psalms, the Gospels, or some other passage, I knew I wanted His words to be from the Word

Now, of course, there are some smaller snatches of dialogue that depart from this (i.e. greeting Martha, thanking her for the food, etc.), but as best I could, I tried to keep anything big directly tied to Scripture. Because I knew I wanted to be careful with Jesus’ words, I infused the nonverbal—and even the location of certain scenes—with hidden meaning. 

For example, where Jesus has the conversation with Martha about being the resurrection and the life is brimming with meaning. Likewise, when Jesus takes Martha’s hands in His own, there is more going on beneath the surface. I tried to add layer upon layer of meaning without adding additional words and in this way allow Scripture to be Scripture.

I read a ton! I love research, so the problem was knowing when to put the books down and actually write. Here’s some of my top recommendations:

For understanding how to approach the Bible through a cultural lens, I highly recommend Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg, and Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg and Ann Spangler.

For daily life in Bible times, I recommend all of Miriam Feinberg Vamosh’s books as well as Manners and Customs of Bible Lands by Fred H. Wight.

For more about Jesus’ giant heart toward women, check out Jesus and Women by Kristi McLelland and Jesus through the Eyes of Women by Rebecca McLaughlin.

I have never been to Israel, but it’s on my bucket list! I’m thankful for resources that allow me to “travel” there even while stuck at home.

This is such an interesting question because you’re right . . . even the best research will ultimately fall short since it’s impossible to know everything. One choice I made was to depict Benjamin (and then later Cleopas) as owning a pottery within the walls of Jerusalem. There is debate as to whether or not potteries were located within the walled city. Some Rabbinic teachings indicate potteries were not allowed due to the smoke from their kilns. Yet Jeremiah 18:2 talks about the house of a potter in Jerusalem. 

In the end, I chose to depict the pottery as inside Jerusalem because 1) It was important for Cleopas to be a potter, since pottery serves as imagery in the story and 2) It was important for Cleopas to live inside the city so the siblings had a front row seat to the Passion events. 

The needs of the story and the fact that the research was conflicted on this point helped me stick to the decision to keep the pottery inside Jerusalem.

Questions about Writing

In college, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards introduced me to “literary writing,” and I came to understand that stories could be both deeply entertaining and deeply beautiful.

Four years ago, I stumbled upon Tessa Afshar and wondered how on earth it had taken me so long to find her! Tessa’s combination of storytelling, historical detail, and spiritual depth make her an author who continues to influence me.

My book ideas usually start with a character and then snowball from there. What makes him or her tick? Why do they act the way they do? I’m drawn to character-driven stories, so it’s no wonder that’s how my storyteller mind works. 

When it comes to the writing process, I’m more organic and intuitive. The idea of outlining an entire book before writing sends chills of anxiety down my spine. So much could change! So much must change as I learn more about my characters! I admire writers who work this way, but I’m not one of them. 

Instead, I have a general idea of where I’m going and typically outline a few chapters at a time. I liken it to holding a flashlight in a dark forest. The flashlight illuminates enough next steps that I feel comfortable moving forward, but I can’t know the whole path at once or I’m immobilized. I just need to know enough to take the next few steps and then the next. 

Typically, I finish the first draft in around nine months but since I edit as I go (yes, I’m one of those people), the first draft usually feels like a second draft by the time I’m done.

My heart has found a home in Biblical fiction. The genre I used to shy away from has now become one of the deepest blessings in my life because as I research and study, I’m also building my faith. It’s exhilarating! The more I learn, the more I love my Lord. What a gift! 

There are two more books in the Women of the Way series, and each one focuses on another female follower of Christ. I can’t say who the main character of book two is just yet, but I will say she is a lady full of surprises. I went into book two wondering how I could possibly enter this woman’s story, and God was so faithful in leading me to solid research on her that has left me speechless. I simply can’t wait for folks to find out more! 

Book two is currently scheduled for January of 2025 with book three following about a year after that. My hope is that readers will enjoy learning more about the women in the Bible who are perhaps the “lesser known” followers but who still played such a vital role in Jesus’ earthly ministry!

Don’t be afraid to take risks. For too many years I was afraid of my own voice. I tried to copy others because that felt safe. And whereas we do learn from imitation, maturity comes when we step out on our own and grasp our own unique, God-given voice. Surrender the fear, step out in faith, and trust God with your voice.

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Meanwhile . . . If you like dual timeline fiction, you might enjoy my novel, A Hundred Magical Reasons. This story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, his friendship with a young girl, and his impact through the decades. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here. The story recently won Scrivenings Press novel contest and is currently under consideration at another publisher.

If you like Southern fiction and/or small town/rural stories about family dynamics and secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.

  • Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
  • Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest

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Heather Kaufman Bio

Heather Kaufman is the author of multiple books and devotions, praised by Kirkus Reviews for writing “a charming and well-crafted tale” (Loving Isaac). She delights in highlighting the goodness of God through storytelling. When not reading, writing, or accumulating mounds of books, Heather can be found exploring new parks with her husband and three children near their home in St. Louis, Missouri. Learn more on her website.

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Join me next time for a visit with author Michelle Shocklee.

Meanwhile, have you read Up From Dust or any others by Heather Kaufman? What’s your favorite Biblical fiction? Answer in the comments below.

Ever reading,

Laura

Coming soon: A Hundred Magical Reasons, a novel

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12 Comments

  1. Stephanie H.

    As Heather Kaufman is a new author to me, I haven’t read any of her books yet. I have seen her newest book mentioned on many blogging sites, social media, and on other author newsletters as well. I’ll add this delightful book to my TBR list today, so thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      You’re welcome, Stephanie! So glad you dropped by. Enjoy your reading!

      Reply
    • Heather

      Thank you, Stephanie!! I hope you enjoy Up from Dust. Blessings to you! Heather 🙂

      Reply
  2. Ruth Schmeckpeper

    I read Up from Dust and loved it! I was curious how Heather came up with Martha’s backstory, so I was glad you asked. I loved that she kept Jesus tied to scripture. It’s a well-written story. I’m hoping we’ll see more from Heather Kaufman.

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      Glad to hear you loved it, Ruth! I’m sure we’ll see more Biblical fiction from Heather and I look forward to it.

      Reply
    • Heather

      Thank you, Ruth! Book 2 will release next January, and I’ll be announcing more about its content soon! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Mary Larson

    Typically I do not choose to read Biblical fiction. I’m wary of mixing scripture with fiction. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the care that Barbara Britton has put into her writing. Her Daughter’s of Zelophehad series helped me visualize a part of the Bible I have always found fascinating. Having read your interview with Heather Kaufman I think I may give her book a chance. Martha, Mary and Lazarus were important to Jesus. It is fascinating to consider who they were as individuals. Amazon allowed me to read the first few pages of Up From Dust: Martha’s Story. It looks like a great read!

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      I completely understand your reservations about Biblical fiction, Mary. I think that’s a common perspective, and I certainly respect it. I agree with you regarding Barbara Britton’s fiction. If you venture into Up From Dust, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about regarding the role of Jesus. Heather is very conscientious about sticking to the facts of Scripture.

      Reply
    • Heather

      This thrills me, Mary! Thank you for considering giving Up from Dust a try! I so respect your hesitation because I actually shared that wariness for many years! My hope is that Up from Dust drives readers TO the Word of God to explore its truths and riches for themselves. Blessings to you!

      Reply
  4. Nancy Radosevich

    I’ve always felt bad for Martha, maybe because the emphasis is usually placed on her choosing task over relationship (with Jesus.) I love how this novel will show how Martha is so much more than that, putting the emphasis on her faith. She really will come “up from the dust.” I love the title!

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      I know–Martha gets a bad rap sometimes for that incident, but she truly did exercise great faith, especially after Lazarus died (John 11:27). She’s definitely a three-dimensional character in the novel.

      Reply
    • Heather

      Yes! I couldn’t agree more, Nancy. Martha is sometimes pigeonholed into a “busy” personality type when the Martha of John 11 is such a stunning woman of faith!

      Reply

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