Review: South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger

Review by April Line

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South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibilitysouth-of-forgiveness cover rocy beach ona misty sunset (Skyhorse Publishing, May 2017) is a remarkable experience. A catharsis. A symbiosis of grief and joy. As I have tried to conceive this review, to give it shape in my head around all the platitudes and normal writerly things I would say about a book, words have proven inadequate, my vocabulary lacking. I do not respond to this book as a writer or a word nerd, but as a woman, a survivor, a faulty, flawed, complicated creature.

I considered making a recording of a series of wails and sobs and guffaws and submitting it instead of these paltry squiggles which I endeavor to wrestle into compliance. All being as it is, before we begin, I offer a content warning. What follows includes frank discussion of sexual violence.

Almost immediately after agreeing to review this book, I had buyer’s remorse. I was fascinated by the premise of the story—that a rape survivor and her victim could not only face one another, but that she could forgive him. I am comfortable talking and writing about sex and sexuality. I thought I would be able to put on my cool distance cap and power through.

As a reader, I metabolize books quickly, I clamor to return to an engrossing written world with the singlemindedness of an addict. And South of Forgiveness is a fast, smooth, affable read. Still, it took me six weeks to get through it. It was, emotionally, like climbing a long, slow hill with two twisted ankles. I stopped for days at a time to process, to nurse my ankles, to shore up enough bravery to press on.

So often, I wanted to get annoyed with the book, to give up on its seemingly endless self-indulgence. But Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger are unbelievably likeable. They drew me back again and again because I wanted to know if she could forgive him and what would become of them, if so.

Their situation is unique. Before its dark turn, their relationship was genuine and affectionate. And as I struggled toward my eureka moment with this book, I kept asking, “how is this one, specific situation in which most survivors will never find themselves going to help anyone outside the pages of this book?” and “How often is it the case that two individuals are willing to do such emotionally devastating work, or are even introspective enough to be capable of it?”

What I learned about myself as a person is that criticism is where I go when things get uncomfortable. Whenever I am triggered, I find fault in that which affects me so as to reduce or erase its power. I can dismiss anything to which I feel intellectually superior, warranted or not. In a strange way, this book taught me patience and gameness I thought I already possessed in abundance. What I learned about this story is that self-indulgence, plot devices that occasionally seemed to be forced or at least over-edited, and a few turns of purple prose, are all completely irrelevant.

I am a rape survivor. I do not talk about it very often, and for at least 10 years afterward, I would not call it rape because I was asleep; I did not feel it happen. I did smell myself on the stranger I found in my bed, I felt his breath on my ear when he told me about giving me “great head,” felt his weight and heat next to me, and the strange moisture in my crotch that I scrubbed immediately after banishing him and before dressing for my 12-hour shift as a banquet server—skipping over altogether the possibility that what had transpired was neither legal nor normal, and that I was in no way to blame for it. All of this, I re-lived on what felt like every other page.

I recalled how the word pussy could undo me for years, I felt the real weight of that secret I kept, and I got sucker-punched by my own rage and fear and sadness over and over again. But somehow, I continued to read. And, eventually, it got easier. Elva and Stranger’s candor helped me to understand and to release my own experience, even if I know I will never email, speak to, or see my rapist again. Even if Elva and Stranger’s situation is particularly unique, it helped me. Their truly remarkable humility, their commitment to serving a greater good, and their elaborate and admirable effort to record their thoughts and experiences separate from each other’s influence are all elements of what makes this a book that defies review. Because it’s not about that it’s a book. It’s about healing, forgiveness, and the experience of observing a shared journey. It is transcendent. It is empowering. Read it. Immediately.


april line at micApril Line is a writer and maker. When she’s neither writing nor making, she’ll be hanging out with the Tarot or in hot pursuit of some cash-generating endeavor. Her fiction appeared once in Sou’Wester, and her journalism has been in various regional publications in north-central Pennsylvania. She earned her MFA from Wilkes University. She’s been writing and rewriting her memoir since 2012, and hopes to finish it sometime before 2045.


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