Day 663: Pastoral

Cover for PastoralAndré Alexis states that his intention for this novel was to write a modern pastoral. If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s not surprising, for pastoral literature hasn’t been popular for hundreds of years. A pastoral is a work about life in the country, sometimes comparing it to life in the city, showing the pleasures of a simpler existence.

Alexis tells us explicitly, though, that his protagonist, Father Christopher Pennant, expects the rural town of Barrow, Ontario, to be simple but finds it is not. Indeed, events force him through a crisis of faith.

Father Pennant is a little disappointed by his posting to his first parish of Barrow but is determined to do a good job. There he meets a young woman, Liz Denny, who has just discovered her fiancé is sleeping with another woman. Another parishioner with a problem is Father Pennant’s caretaker, Lowther Williams, 62 and certain he will die at 63. He has set Father Pennant a test to determine if he is the proper person to attend to his affairs after his death.

This is an unusual novel and I’m not quite sure what I think of it. Although I enjoyed Father Pennant’s journey, his conclusions about faith are not definitive and we’re not sure where he will end up. I was also interested in whether Liz would decide to marry Rob after all.

The novel takes place in an indefinite time period that could be any time from the 50’s on. If it is in the present, the town seems old-fashioned. A detail that struck me as odd is that at least three characters keep prayer books with them, and these characters are not religious. Now, things could be different in rural Canada, but as far as I know, I have never even seen a prayer book outside church and don’t know anyone who has one. So, I had to wonder whether something was meant by it.

The descriptions of nature are truly gorgeous. Father Pennant spends more and more of his time exploring it and wonders during his struggles if the study of nature may not be enough for anyone. The novel is written with a gentle humor and sense of irony, and the language is truly lyrical at times.

By the way, my copy is an expensively produced paperback, very nicely printed on thick, high-quality paper. Unfortunately, the last 8 or 10 pages are out of order, which was momentarily confusing.

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Day 498: The Hour I First Believed

Cover for The Hour I First BelievedThe Hour I First Believed is described on its jacket as an exploration of faith, and as such I didn’t think it would be very interesting to me. But it is really more about a man’s struggle to face the problems of his life and his own demons. It is an extremely interesting and affecting work.

Caelum Quirk is not always a likable protagonist. He has anger issues—went after his third wife’s lover with a wrench—can be withdrawn and drink too much, says the wrong thing quite often, and earned my personal disregard at the beginning of the novel by referring to two different women as a ballbuster and a nutcracker. Lamb had to work hard to get my sympathy for his character after that, but he did accomplish that by the end of the novel. Still, whether I liked Caelum or not, I couldn’t tear myself away from his story.

Caelum is trying to salvage his marriage after the wrench incident, so he and his wife Maureen decide to move away from Three Rivers, Connecticut, the town where his family has a lot of history, and get jobs in Colorado. They are settled there and are doing okay, although still having relationship issues, when Caelum is called back to Connecticut because his beloved Aunt Lolly has had a stroke. She dies shortly after he returns, and Maureen is making arrangements to come for the funeral but decides to work one more day at the high school where Caelum teaches English and she is a nurse. Unfortunately, the high school in question is Columbine, and the school day she works is the day two students go on a rampage.

Maureen would normally be out of the area of trouble, but that day she decides to help Velvet Hoon, a troubled drop-out, fill out some papers in the library. Although she is not killed, she hides in a cupboard for hours before she is found, and subsequently suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that barely allows her to function. She also struggles with an addiction to uppers.

Caelum and Maureen move back to live on Caelum’s family farm, a place for which he has mixed but mostly negative feelings. His father was a drunk of whom he was ashamed. He remembers his grandfather as judgmental and his mother as cold. Only Lolly seemed to care for him.

Troubles are not over for Caelum and Maureen, but I don’t want to reveal more about that. Caelum must also deal with his feelings about his family. His great-great grandmother was an early fighter for abolition and women’s rights, and she was instrumental in establishing the women’s prison down the road from the farm. It had a long history of treating the women with dignity and had a low rate of recidivism until its values were changed by modern tough-on-crime politics. Caelum’s great-great grandmother’s papers are in a spare room of the house. When Caelum is forced by financial circumstances to rent part of the house to a couple evacuated from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina, the wife, a women’s studies graduate student, asks if she can examine them. This and other events lead Caelum to several discoveries about his family.

This novel is sprawling, even a bit messy, because it seems to want to deal with everything. It features large events such as Columbine, 9/11, and Katrina, as well as the inequity of the American justice system, PTSD, drug addiction, grief, love, trust, religion, infidelity, and other issues. It is interesting, frustrating, and ultimately worth reading.

Day 281: Gilead

Cover for GileadBest Book of the Week!
Gilead is the novel that precedes Marilynne Robinson’s Home, although it is set in the same time frame and covers some of the same territory. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

John Ames is an elderly Congregationalist minister in 1956 who believes he is dying. He has a much younger wife and young son, a surprising blessing in his old age. The novel is in the form of a diary addressed to his son in the expectation that he will not live long enough to personally pass on his family history and advice.

Ames lives in Gilead, a small Iowa town on the prairie near the border with Kansas. The town was founded by abolitionists during the Free State wars in Kansas as a refuge for slaves and fighters the likes of John Brown. Ames’ grandfather, also a minister of the warrior-for-God ilk, had visions of God and once preached a sermon in a bloody shirt with a gun in his belt. With that upbringing, his son was naturally a pacifist, who left the church for awhile after that sermon to worship with the Quakers. One of Ames’ most powerful memories is of the journey he made with his father to Kansas, in terrible conditions, to retrieve the body of his grandfather, who had returned there.

Although Gilead is certainly about the history of the town–the wars, the Depression, the Dust Bowl years–it is more about the relationship between fathers and sons, both from the secular and religious points of view. Not only does it explore the relationships within Ames’ own family, but it also looks at that between Ames and the son of his best friend the Presbyterian minister–Ames’ surrogate son–John Ames Boughton.

The story of John Ames Boughton is the one more thoroughly explored in the sequel Home, although interestingly enough, Gilead tells Boughton’s story more explicitly, while Home, narrated by Boughton’s sister Glory, only hints at some of the facts.

The novel, a celebration of life and faith, is beautifully written and full of ideas to ponder. That being said, as I do not particularly have a religious background or bent, I did not fully understand some of the narrator’s ideas and preoccupations. I found Home, although told from the point of view of the same goodness and piety, a more accessible novel than Gilead.