The Shack

The Shack Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William P. Young's The Shack. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of William P. Young

William Paul Young had what he calls an “unusual” upbringing—although he also likes to point out that each person’s life story is unusual in its own way. In his case, Young spent the first ten years of his life in the highlands of New Guinea, where his parents were missionaries. There, he became close with the Dani people, an ethnic group from the region. The Dani became a second family to Young, teaching him their language and welcoming him into their homes. Though Young was sent to boarding school at the age of six and moved around schools in Western Canada for the rest of his education, his early days in New Guinea were formative. From there, Young attended Bible College and received an undergraduate degree in religion. Though Young held down a number of jobs—working in churches, construction companies, insurance, food processing, and more—he never imagined himself as a professional author. One year, he wrote The Shack as a Christmas gift for his six children. Friends saw potential in the book and encouraged him to self-publish it. Just a few years later, the book had rocketed to the top of The New York Times’ bestseller list, catching on largely thanks to word-of-mouth and church groups who shared the book. Young has gone on to write other Christian-themed novels.
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Historical Context of The Shack

Though initially intended only to help his family understand faith, The Shack, as well as Young’s later books, also attempt to combat a perceived decline in faith and growing disillusionment with religion. Indeed, some Pew Research Center polls have shown that the number of Americans who do not practice religion or who have left the religion they were raised in are on the rise. Young’s book attempts to make it easier for readers to maintain their faith even in the face of growing disillusionment with the church. Young has also said that he hopes his unconventional portrayal of God as a black woman in The Shack, as well as characters in his other novels who are people of color, can help to dispel racism. The Shack’s success also reflects a unique moment in publishing, when technology has made it possible for amateur writers like Young to reach wide audiences. After the manuscript was widely rejected by a swathe of both religious and secular publishers, Young self-published the book with a few friends and spend around $300 to create a website for it. From there, word of the book spread on the internet, which also facilitated bulk orders of the book by churches and religious groups who then resold the book at a profit. In 2008 The New York Times wrote that sales from the book’s website likely accounted for a greater-than-average portion of the book’s sales, demonstrating that access to online publishing and distribution methods were important to the book’s success.

Other Books Related to The Shack

Following the success of The Shack, Young has gone on to pen other Christian-themed novels. In Cross Roads, a 2012 novel about a ruthless businessman who rethinks his ways after a cerebral hemorrhage brings him in contact with God, Young returns to many of the themes present in The Shack. Like The Shack, Cross Roads features an encounter with a three-part divinity, comprised of God in the form of a young girl, Jesus, and a holy spirit embodied by a Lakota Native man. Young hoped to use the book to “delve deeper into the human soul.” He also hoped the book would represent community more than The Shack, which he saw as being focused on an individual journey. In 2015, Young published Eve, a retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden from Eve’s perspective. Like The Shack, Eve focuses on relationships and especially gender equality, a theme briefly touched on in Young’s first book. Though The Shack achieved significant popular success, it also inspired a number of critiques from religious leaders who saw the book’s unconventional take on the identity of God and the nature of faith as heretical. One such critique, the book Burning Down The Shack, points out perceived discrepancies between The Shack and the Bible, and argues that the doctrine presented in the novel is dangerous. Those critiques in turn inspired theologian Randal Rouser’s Finding God in The Shack, a more sympathetic guide to the book offering deeper exploration of ideas in the novel as well as responses to some of the most common criticisms against it.
Key Facts about The Shack
  • Full Title: The Shack
  • When Written: Early 2000s
  • Where Written: Oregon
  • When Published: 2007
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Christian Fiction
  • Setting: Pacific Northwest, United States
  • Climax: Law enforcement, led by Mack, recover Missy’s body from the cave
  • Antagonist: Missy’s killer; grief and doubt
  • Point of View: Second person

Extra Credit for The Shack

Off the Charts. Although millions of copies of the book have since been sold, Young initially printed only fifteen copies of The Shack, thinking it would only be read by friends and family.

The House. Young has said that the shack in the book is a metaphor for “the house you build from your own pain.” He cites sexual abuse he suffered as a child and the ongoing impact of his own extramarital affair as inspiration.