Feed on

“This land is ours because of what is buried in the ground, not what words appear on a paper.  But all know this: what is buried in the ground isn’t always what you think.  It’s just the beginning…the beginning of all of us who call ourselves Homo sapiens.  Fitting, I guess, that what I found buried [a bone], just as I was trying to figure out how to become a man and still be human, was the very thing that threatened to take it all away.” – Cowney Sequoyah, 1942.

cover clapsaddleDebut author Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle adds a whole new element to the Native American novels published in recent years.  Her main character, Cowney Sequoyah, in his late teens, has recognized an opportunity to improve his life beyond what he experiences on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, by working for the summer at the Grove Park Inn, an elegant hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, several hours’ ride from Cherokee.  Cowney dreams of completing his college education, but he is in desperate need of funds if he is to do that.  He also has additional problems:  He never knew his father, who died in World War I when Cowney was only four months old, and he was brought up by his grandmother, who now has “empty kitchen cabinets” and no way to feed him.  An often drunk and vindictive uncle who served in the war with his father has been employing Cowney in recent years to work long hours on his own farm, and Cowney sees no future there.  His only “salary” consists of small amounts of milk, eggs, and meat which he quietly sets aside for his own daily sustenance.

ClapsaddleAuthor Clapsaddle moves back and forth in time and place creating vivid pictures of daily life on the reservation and the contrasts to Asheville, establishing some of the pleasant, even important, memories Cowney has brought with him.  At the inn, he learns that some German and Japanese diplomats are being held there as “guest” prisoners until they can eventually be deported.  His job is working on the grounds, helping to maintain the barbed wire around the property to prevent escapes, while Essie, a young Cherokee girl, whom he has transported with him from the reservation to the inn to work, has a job inside the inn.  Almost immediately, while digging holes for fence posts, Cowney finds a curved bone, which “reminded me of home and what I loved about home – the simplicity of knowing what each day held.” The bone itself was “smooth and porous, a slight c-curve angled in motion…like a subhuman scythe, though innately human.  Maybe even the core of humanity,” an inflated conclusion that he now regards as “an embarrassing indulgence of make-believe for a nineteen-year-old.  It’s all right to laugh.  I don’t blame you [ he adds].”  The bone, however, becomes symbolic for Cowney and for the reader, reappearing throughout the novel and linking Cowney’s culture and his feelings for the bones of the earth and bones of humanity.


(Omni) Grove Park Inn, Asheville, NC

Foreshadowing plays a large part in much of the action here, as does the use of flashbacks to connect sections from Asheville (and Essie) with other sections, often involving the greatness of nature which Cowney notes when he returns to Cherokee, occasionally, on weekends.  Essie’s discovery of a secret room on the fourth floor of the inn allows the two to get together, innocently, to compare notes about life at the inn and their own goals.  Essie, though Cherokee, comes from a significantly different background, with a father often away for his job, and a mother who wants Essie to marry someone relatively well off to keep her “entertained” when when her husband is gone.  Still, they continue their friendship – until two events occur almost simultaneously:  Cowney discovers that Essie has become very friendly with another man, and a little girl, the daughter of one of the foreign “guests,” goes missing.  Somehow, Cowney is suspected of being involved in the disappearance, and the bone he has discovered and treasured is now regarded as grounds for suspicion.

Cherokee, N.C.,Having established two radically different settings – Cherokee, N.C. and Asheville – and people who differ greatly in culture and values – the author moves in for a closer look at both cultures.  The dominant white culture, which assumes almost automatically that a brown person is responsible for the missing child – and therefore should be investigated thoroughly – and the innocence of someone like Cowney, who never suspects evil motives from those with whom he has become friends at the inn.  When he has to return home to oversee the final days of his grandmother’s life, and later those of his Uncle Bud, he learns more about his parents, but he also learns that he has the inner resources to deal with many unexpected twists and turns in his life on his own. His knowledge of the natural world has grown as he has grown, and he has developed some insights into people and their motives.  He has become confident enough to trust some people who want to help him and to forgive others who have deliberately hurt him in order to help themselves.

Charlie Chaplin in his first "talkie," THE GREAT DICTATOR

Charlie Chaplin in his first “talkie,” THE GREAT DICTATOR

One of the great joys of this novel is that author Clapsaddle’s point of view is totally honest, an honesty reflected in the character of Cowney. Since the author herself is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, she obviously knows what she is talking about here, having been immersed in the culture of the people who are so important in this novel, and she clearly loves the connections to nature which the book celebrates.  In a great irony, Cowney, at the end, goes to see Charlie Chaplin’s first “talkie” film, and is stunned by Chaplin’s final speech in which he says, “The Kingdom of God is within man, not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men….I thought of about how utterly different everyone [in the audience] seemed.  How each of us was motivated by so many different things, and yet here we were, all sitting together being reminded of our commonality by a comedian.”  Years later, as Cowney, an old man, contemplates his own life, he knows in his heart that “this land is ours because of what is buried in the ground…and the only thing separating us is the stories we choose to tell about them.”  This novel’s stories and its people will echo throughout the memories of many of its readers for a long time.

Human rib bones, like the one Cowney found shortly after his arrival at the inn.

Human rib bones, like the bone Cowney found shortly after his arrival at the inn.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.asaunookeclapsaddle.com

The Grove Park Inn, now an Omni hotel, is found on https://www.omnihotels.com

The welcoming sign to Cherokee, NC, is from https://www.pinterest.com

Charlie Chaplin, appearing in his first “talkie,” The Great Dictator, 1940, gives a concluding speech which Cowney thought was the best speech he’d ever heard.  https://medium.com

Human rib bones, like the bone Cowney found while working at the inn, led him to see the world differently.  https://www.skullsunlimited.com


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Literary, Native American, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, United States
Written by: Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
Published by: Fireside Industries, University of Kentucky Press
Date Published: 09/08/2020
ISBN: 978-1950564064
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering without redemption.” – Giovanna, on contemplating her past.

cover lying lifeGiovanna Trada begins this first-person account of her life and dreams when she is only twelve, a young adolescent who is beginning to have doubts about what she has always taken for granted during her earlier childhood.  An only child, she has felt close to her parents, her father always able to make her smile and laugh.  Her mother, who had been her father’s childhood sweetheart, has aways been a sensitive listener, but she has become increasingly concerned about Giovanna’s problems at school. Both parents, working hard as teachers, try to ensure that Giovanna studies diligently, and Giovanna claims that she does, but both parents are getting frustrated at her lack of progress.  An argument between her parents, who believe that Giovanna is out of earshot, creates a situation which instantly illustrates “the lying life of adults,” as Giovanna sees it.  Her loving father lets slip his true reaction to her issues, indicating angrily that Giovanna’s adolescence has nothing to do with her problems.  Instead, he says, “She’s getting the face of Vittoria,” his sister, the family pariah, whose “ugliness and spite were combined to perfection.” Giovanna has always imagined Vittoria as a “childhood bogeyman, a lean, demonic silhouette, an unkempt figure lurking in the corners,” and she does not understand how her own face, previously regarded by her father as pretty, could have suddenly become that of a monster.

Villa Floridiana, where Giovanna liked to play in the park near her house.Photo by sailko.

Villa Floridiana, where Giovanna liked to play in the park near her house. Photo by sailko.

Very much in the tradition of  her previous Neapolitan Quartet, author Elena Ferrante delves deeply into the psychology, culture, and social and romantic goals of characters whom the reader comes to know from within.  In the course of the novel, she first presents Giovanna, her family, and their friends – those living at the top of the hill in Naples – and sets up contrasts between their lives with those who live at the bottom of the hill, a much poorer area in which life is far more difficult. When Giovanna decides she wants to meet her mysterious aunt, the “demon” at the bottom of the hill, the family’s interrelationships become more complex.  Giovanna’s father grew up at the bottom of the hill, and he has worked for his whole career to expunge that dialect from his speech and become more restrained and thoughtful, unlike those “howling shapes of repulsive unseemliness” who live at the bottom. Vittoria and some others in the family are understandably envious of his success, but Vittoria also has a special reason for her hatred –  she has never forgiven her brother for destroying the love of her life.

Trips up and down the Naples hill are often by funicular.

Trips up and down the Naples hill are often by funicular.

Gradually, other stories responsible for the hostility between Giovanna’s father and his extended family in metropolitan Naples emerge when the father agrees to help Giovanna meet Vittoria.  As time passes, however, Giovanna and Vittoria continue to meet, and Giovanna also becomes friendly with the family and children for whom Vittoria works as a maid there. The marriage of Giovanna’s parents begins to crack, and Vittoria tells Giovanna to pay close attention to their arguments and actions to learn what is happening behind the scenes.  Gradually, Giovanna begins, for the first time, to see and recognize the depth of the deceptions that both of her parents have been promulgating.  Complex details involving all of these characters give new meaning to the “lying lives” of the adults. While these revelations are occurring, Giovanna herself is feeling her own sexual interests come alive, adding intensity to the atmosphere and more tension in Giovanna’s life.

In her teens, Giovanna sometimes meets with friends at Gambrinus, one of Naples's most famous caffes.

In her teens, Giovanna met with friends at Gambrinus, one of Naples’s most famous caffes.  Photo by Tony French.

During Giovanna’s teens, the relationships of those around her are constantly changing – among her parents, her friends, and those she hopes to befriend.  It is not until she, not yet even a “late teen,” meets a handsome man in his mid-twenties, that she begins to pay more attention to issues of love.  She considers joining his church and getting baptized, and her alienated father even gives her copies of the Gospels, but she finds that she cannot appreciate them, venting her anger both at her own father and at God the Father, and seeing them both in the same light. She has discovered that “I liked lying more and more, I felt now that praying and telling lies provided the same consolation,” though she gets depressed that she has not inherited her parents’ abilities to cover up facts.   It is this discovery, more than anything else, that awakens in Giovanna a sense of her responsibilities to herself and her future, and inspires her to make up her “lost year” at school.  She becomes a more serious student, though not to the exclusion of romance and a recognition of the importance of sex.

Perhaps the bracelet resembled this antique.

Perhaps the bracelet resembled this antique.

Throughout the novel, a bejeweled silver bracelet acts as a symbol of various relationships.  Originally given by Vittoria to Giovanna upon her birth, Giovanna never knew it existed until Vittoria told her to ask her parents about it.  It is then that she discovers that it once belonged to Giovanna’s grandmother, on her father’s side, and that it was later given by Giovanna’s father to a lover, someone whom Giovanna has seen wearing it many times.  The bracelet gets passed around several more times throughout the novel – stolen, recovered, given away, and “owned” by numerous people, becoming symbolic of love and its lies and complexities throughout the novel.  Those who have loved the Neapolitan Quartet will find this novel a good counterpart with its emphasis on psychological development, the inner thoughts and quandaries of its main character(s), and the constant reliving of the past and its mistakes.  The emphasis on specific detail helps create a sense of well developed main characters, though some readers will find them shallow in their interests and commitments.  The conclusion brings the themes and the symbols to conclusion, and book clubs will have a fine time analyzing the “adult” Giovanna as she makes a life-changing decision in the last pages.


Photos.  A park at the Villa Floridiana was a favorite place for Giovanna to play as a child, not far from her house.  https://commons.wikimedia.org. Photo by sailko

The funicular stretches the entire height of the big hill on which Naples is built.  https://en.wikipedia.org

Gambrinus, one of Naples’s most famous caffes.  https://www.alamy.com   Photo by Tony French

Antique white gold and jewel bracelet, perhaps similar to the one that appears in this novel.  https://www.etsy.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Coming-of-age, Italy, Psychological study
Written by: Elena Ferrante
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 09/01/2020
ISBN: 978-1609455910
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“What the foreigners did among themselves had nothing to do with her…They were animals in their hearts, untouched by the grace of Lord Buddha and his bodhisattvas, touched instead by something subtly demonic and alien.  Even their kindnesses were odd.  They existed in a prison of their own making, and she entered that prison only to make a living.” – Goi, a maid at the Glass Kingdom.

cover glass kingdomThe Glass Kingdom, a large high-rise community in Bangkok, has seen better days.  A once-fashionable community built in the 1990s, consisting of four towers connected by glass walkways, gardens, and a swimming pool, the Kingdom today is “a corner of upperclass affluence hidden within a forgotten ruin.”  The original atmosphere and ambiance have been altered over the years by military coups and counter-coups, and the area surrounding the Kingdom is a constant construction site with poor drainage, sluggish fountains, and local police known for “their enormous indifference to crimes and punishments.”  Mrs. Lim, “the landlady,” and her recently deceased husband were once owners of the entire site and all the surrounding land, but like the Kingdom, which is far less elegant than it once was, Mrs. Lim’s life, too, has changed for the worse.  Into this scene comes Sarah Mullins, now using the name of Sarah Talbot Jennings, a thirty-something American who left New York just a week ago, with newly dyed white-blonde hair, blue contact lenses, and an intention of making herself “invisible” in Bangkok.

Author Lawrence Osborne

Author Lawrence Osborne

Though Sarah is the main character, she is by no means a heroine, nor is she an insightful long-term planner.  She often makes major mistakes in her life.  While in her twenties in New York, she was a great admirer of elderly novelist April Laverty, with whom she managed to finagle a job as her assistant.  When the eighty-five-year-old Laverty developed problems with mental clarity and memory, Sarah  began to take advantage of her.  Ultimately, she learned to duplicate Laverty’s handwriting and style, and when a collector of memorabilia in Hong Kong offered a high price for twenty-eight letters written by Laverty, Sarah became the seller of those letters on Laverty’s behalf.  Unable to resist temptation, however, Sarah also included forty short letters to famous people which she wrote herself in Laverty’s style and handwriting.  After flying from her home in New York to Hong Kong to conduct the sale, she deposited the money from the real letters to a bank account in Laverty’s name, but kept the larger sum paid for her forged letters – two hundred thousand dollars – for herself. Already in Hong Kong, she then decides to abandon her home in New York and take off for Bangkok, where she quickly establishes residence at the Kingdom.

The EmQuartier, an elegant shopping area in Bangkok.

The EmQuartier, an elegant shopping area in Bangkok.

There Sarah tries to remain aloof and avoid questions, but she soon becomes friendly with Mali, a woman whom she meets at the pool.  Mali claims to be a single woman and the assistant to a financial manager.  Drinking from a thermos of gin and tonic at nine a.m., Mali invites Sarah to join a group with whom she sometimes plays poker, each person bringing her own bottle and any other “spirits” she might want.  There Sarah meets Ximena, from Chile, who is working as a chef at an elegant French restaurant, and Nat, a forty-year-old married woman who lives in the penthouse with her husband and works as hotel manager at a local Hilton-Marriott.   The poker game, accompanied by both alcohol, joints, and speed, leads to incautious revelations by Sarah, and doubts about her overall story arise among the other women.   Sarah continues to meet Mali regularly for gin and tonics and croissants before their nine-o’clock sessions at the pool, and they begin to shop together at elegant boutiques nearby. Though Mali has figured out that Sarah is “making herself up day by day,” Sarah is discovering that Mali is not telling the whole truth, either.

Thailand's Grand Palace in Bangkok.

Thailand’s Grand Palace in Bangkok.

Having established the characters and their values – or lack of them – author Lawrence Osborne freely shifts points of view back and forth among them, establishing in more detail the atmosphere of the Kingdom and of Bangkok, though he never gives an exact date for the action.  There have been several financial crashes, and Bangkok has developed into a “money-laundering machine.”  Military coups in 2006 and 2014 have led to tightened military control, even as students from a nearby university are protesting and facing brutal counter-reactions from the police.  Most residents at the Kingdom believe that their high “connections” and the army will protect them.  Nervous from occasional bombs going off and the general turmoil, Sarah is concerned about the fact that the only “safe” place she has to store her ill-gotten fortune is in a suitcase under her bed, and she is not sure about the maid, hired through Mali, especially when she learns that the maid is stealing small things from other apartments and apparently has access to all the residences.

Skeleton flower, which Sarah sees on a balcony immediately after the murder. Its white blossoms become transparent in rain.

Skeleton flower, which Sarah sees on a balcony immediately after the murder. Its white blossoms become transparent in rain.

The book eventually veers away from its study of everyday life at the Kingdom and the specific social and political issues related to it when a shocking murder takes place there.  Sarah is implicated in several different ways, as she tries to help a friend, but the succeeding action shows just how carefully her much smarter friend has set up the murder scene and all its details to divert attention from herself to Sarah.  Because the focus of the novel has been primarily on the Kingdom in general, the individual characters do not inspire much self-identification on the part of the reader, but the conclusion, when it happens, is, at first shocking. Later, the reader realizes that the horrors are all integral to life in the Kingdom and the people who have been attracted to it.   Ultimately, an omniscient narrator steps in on behalf of the now broken “glass Kingdom,” declaring that “like karma, life itself always went on, unending and unfair in equal measure, like all things that have been ordained and yet are impossible to see in advance.”

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.irishtimes.com

The EmQuartier, an elegant shopping area in Bangkok.  https://www.airbnb.fr

Thailand’s Grand Palace, a place Sarah visited with Mali.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

The skeleton flower is a white flower which turns transparent when it rains.  It appears on a neighboring balcony when Sarah finds out about the murder.  https://www.ebay.com.au

Note:  This collection was WINNER of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the first time a book in translation has won this prize.  Translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana.

“On working days, the parking lots were full of vehicles and crowded with street vendors, but today the same space looked wide and bright and new.  It was as though the bustling city had put on an undershirt and was sitting quietly by itself in a private domestic moment.”

cover no presents, pleaseEverything I have learned about Mumbai, over the years, I have learned from books, but this is the first time that I have ever felt that I have been given real insights into the nature of this dense and vibrant city and its multitudes of people of all cultures.  Author Jayant Kaikini, who obviously loves Mumbai, presents dozens of characters who live their lives on these pages, sharing their inner thoughts with the reader, living through often stressful moments, and supporting their friends in times of difficulty.  His characters are so fully drawn and so “human” that many readers will simply sit back, settle into their reading, and let the stories tell themselves – as if socializing with a group of friends – however different the characters’ lives and conditions may be from our own.  As their stories develop and relationships begin to intensify or fray, as in real life, the reader may find that sometimes there is no complete closure to conflicts or a totally satisfying “answer” to the fates which may be guiding these people.  Author Kaikini, however, provides enough information that readers will appreciate the choices available to the main characters and feel secure enough to draw their own conclusions, when necessary.

One of Mumbai's oldest cinemas, the Regal.

One of Mumbai’s oldest cinemas, the Regal.

Always reflecting a kind of warmth and acceptance toward his people as they share their intimate thoughts with the reader, Kaikini focuses on the subject of marriage in the first two stories. “Interval” opens with Nandu, a young, new resident of the city, working at a cinema where he and the other attendants sleep overnight.  Working hard to keep the place clean, they have little time to themselves, but they have jobs and can, at least, afford to eat. One night he sees a young woman, Manjari, running in and out of the theatre, before she finally tells Nandu that she is trying to find her missing purse.  He finds, saves, and gives it to her the next day, and they begin an almost silent relationship.  At one point, however, he steps up and buys her some ice cream, something she does not offer to share with him, happily accepting a second serving, which she also devours alone.  Both Nandu and Manjari are unhappy with their living conditions, their relentless hard work, and their lack of warm family relationships. Ultimately, one of them suggests that they run away together, an unexpected possibility which leads to an unusual and surprisingly satisfying ending.

The Kennedy Bridge, a landmark which appears several times in this collection.

The Kennedy Bridge (in background), a landmark which appears several times in this collection.

A second story,  “City Without Mirrors,” continues the marriage theme, describing the life of Satyajit, a single man of forty who is so reserved that he prefers to live alone, saying when someone teases him about not being married, that he is “married to this city.  Where’s the space for another relationship?”  When an old man, a stranger, trudges up to Satyajit’s third-floor flat, he comes with a proposal of marriage between Satyajit and the man’s daughter Shalini, who is also about forty.  Neither Shalini nor Satyajit have ever met.  A seemingly unrelated interlude involving a sad and tattered ten-year-old boy, who appears to be a runaway looking for his father, establishes the misery of children on their own, and, importantly, gives Satyajit a new way to look at the question of marriage, the plight of the old man’s daughter Shalini, and the outcome.

Remand house in Mumbai.

Remand house in Mumbai.

Some stories overlap.  “A Spare Pair of Legs”  is the story of a distressed family from Goa who have a six-year-old son, Chandu, who is totally out of control.  He beats up his schoolmates, attacks his teacher, pees into a pot of saaru being prepared for a wedding reception, and even holds down an infant in a bucket of water.  His parents are at their wits’ end, beating him and even taking him to the police to be yelled at.  His one friend is a legless man on the street who always greets him with pleasure.  Desperate, his parents finally decide to put him in a “remand home” in Mumbai, eventually making arrangements for the long journey there to leave him until he learns to behave. While in Mumbai waiting for the trip to the remand home, Chandu sees, for the first time, the kind of life led by other boys his age, orphans totally on their own within the city.  Impressed by how “brave” these boys are, he wishes his teachers and acquaintances in Goa could appreciate their independence, especially one particular boy, Popat, who has been friendly with him in Mumbai.  Then an emergency gives Chandu a chance to use his own talents to save a man’s life, and, ultimately, his own.

As Popat and his future bride talk about their wedding, there is no talk about having the groom ride in on a horse.

As Popat and his future bride talk about their wedding, there is no talk about having the groom ride in on a horse, as done for wealthy weddings.

Chandu’s orphan friend, Popat, from Mumbai later becomes the main character of the title story, “No Presents, Please,” at the end of the collection, which takes place more than fifteen years later. Popat and his girlfriend, also a street orphan, are planning their wedding.  As they deal with issues such as the fact that they have no parents whose names can be on an invitation, and, in fact, do not even know their own real names, they also raise issues of caste for the first time in this collection.  Just how much of human value they have learned from their lives on the street, as they talk about marriage and their feelings for each other, provides an inspiring end to the collection.

Author Jayant Kaikini

Author Jayant Kaikini

Presenting a broad picture of daily life in Mumbai for those who must make their own way – often from childhood – author Kaikini shows the inherent thoughtfulness, kindness, and care which these neediest of young people have for each other. No trace of self-pity arises here as the characters must often change their plans, find new directions for their efforts, and experience satisfaction within the narrow limits of their environments and lives.  Written between 1986 and 2006, these stories reflect inspiration and hope for the future, and readers of this unforgettable collection cannot help but be inspired and hopeful along with them.  When Kaikini’s more recent stories become available, I hope they will be as positive. 

Photos.  The photo of the old Regal Theatre in Mumbai appears on  https://www.bachilleratocinefilo.com

The Kennedy Bridge, a landmark that appears here several times is from https://www.flickr.com/   Photo by Anannya Deb.  May 6, 2012

The children’s remand house may be found on https://www.livemint.com

For some wealthy weddings, the groom rides in on a horse, as discussed in an earlier story, but Popat and his bride do not even consider this.  https://www.pinterest.com/

The author’s photo appears on https://bangaloreinternationalcentre.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, India, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Jayant Kaikini
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 07/28/2020
ISBN: 978-1948226905
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“A road is a stripe of death.  It requires a streamlined apocalypse to be born: hacking down forests, leveling the ground, blasting through layers of rock.  Then, once the road is there, it keeps on killing until it becomes a trail marked by white crosses and piles of deer, stiff raccoons, overturned possum, armadillo bowls, and coyote pelts.  Patches of mashed, illegible gore….a black line crossing things out.”

cover via negativaFor a debut novel in which main themes of death and sin underlie much of the action, Daniel Hornsby’s Via Negativa comes as a huge surprise.  This story of an unusual person on a most  unusual road trip is so engaging that the reader becomes totally caught up in the intrigue of the moment and the character’s sometimes bizarre back-stories as he contemplates his life.  Father Dan, an unconventional priest by any standard, is recently “retired” from his life’s calling, “Not simply a priest without a parish, but a priest without a rectory, an address, or a home.”  He has been living out of his Toyota Camry for a month, using the showers at truck stops as needed, and carrying a bucket in the car for other purposes, as he lives in his mobile monk’s cell  – a “pilgrim, on my way to some holy place.”  Though the retired priest raises questions about ancient theology as he drives, this book is not a religious tract or treatise, and Father Dan is not really “priestly” in his behavior.  In fact, for this non-Catholic reader, he is more naive and innocent than one would expect a man in his sixties to be, even though his calling must have exposed him to many terrible moral issues and judgments.

Coyote by Frank Schulenberg

Coyote by Frank Schulenberg

As the novel opens, Father Dan is driving west through Indiana when he sees a coyote bounce off a minivan ahead of him.  A kind man, he rescues the coyote, noting that one of its legs appears to be broken, then wraps him in a blanket and braces him in the back seat between the selected writings of Origen and the Venerable Bede’s homilies, anchoring him with a seatbelt.  Later, after giving him a tranquilizer, he sets the coyote’s leg, and heads on out in his traveling  “monk’s cell,” with the coyote in the back.  As he drives, he often listens to his favorite singer, Prince, and “Purple Rain,” his ultimate goal being to reach Seattle to visit some old friends, Brian and Clara, former members of his church in Muncie.  He recalls significant events from his work as he drives, including the time he turned over his church to a group of Roma who wanted a place to have a big funeral for a three-day weekend, something which alienated him from his superior and led to a stern warning. At another rectory to which he was assigned, he constructed a geodesic dome as a private retreat space on church grounds, and then a second one as his workshop.  People he meets while traveling tell him amazing miracle stories – one about a man who ate glass with no problems, and another in which a man goes out fishing one night and after a terrible battle with a “fish” on his line, reels in Carrie Underwood, his favorite singer.

While at one rectory, Fr. Dan creates a private geodesic dome as a retreat space and another as a workshop.

While at one rectory, Fr. Dan creates a  geodesic dome as a private retreat space and another as a workshop.

Occasionally, as he travels, Father Dan is asked to perform services – including one in which he grants forgiveness to a woman who has stolen from both of her parents, and who gives him a gun with a handle made from a human femur, an object which appears and reappears throughout the rest of the novel.  Ultimately, he tells of his friend Paul, a priest with whom he attended retreats and with whom he had a long friendship.  Paul left the church when he fell in love and became a Unitarian minister, and he was anxious for Dan to perform his wedding – to another man.  Dan’s decision is a difficult one for him, especially because of Paul’s sad background with a pedophile priest, which naive Dan never fully understood until it was too late.  Additional “adventures” take place when Dan befriends a pyromaniac teen, visits an attraction in a small town – a gigantic paint ball – and picks up a hitchhiker who has love on his mind.

The Cloud of Unknowing from which Fr. Dan discovers Via Negativa.

The Cloud of Unknowing from which Fr. Dan discovers Via Negativa.

Eventually, some of the philosophies which have interested Father Dan begin to appear here.  Of all the theology he has studied,  “Via Negativa” is the philosophical idea which he takes most to heart.  Found in The Cloud of Unknowing, and written by an anonymous medieval priest, the book “instructs the practice of imageless prayer for young priests and monks, by painting (or unpainting) a mysterious God beyond language,” a program which makes him conclude that “his role is to be on the edge of the outside of things.”  This belief fits his personality well and allows him to reject the evil within the institutional church, while also providing him with excuses for avoiding action at critical points, a personal difficulty of Father Dan which the reader notices increasingly as the narrative progresses.  Eventually, the reader cannot help feeling that Father Dan has tried to become the equivalent of “Persona Negativa,” if such a thing exists, a person who tries not to recognize the existence and importance of images which flood his mind every time some of his worst memories appear.  He also denies himself the ability to atone for the very real “sins” of a past which haunts him.  Eventually, he realizes, with a sense of profound guilt, that he is the only person in the world who knows one particularly terrible secret, something upon which he failed to act, and he is devastated.

On Mt. Ranier, Fr. Dan discovers the red and blue flowers which give him a new view of the world.

On Mt. Ranier, Fr. Dan discovers the red and blue flowers which give him a new view of the world.

Readers looking for something thoughtful but not turgid will find much to love here.  Though Father Dan seems very naive – and even a little silly, at the beginning – he is a constantly evolving character as he makes his pilgrimage from Indiana to Washington State, with several important stops along the way.  Two issues, one involving a friend and one involving an “unfriend,” would create no confusion for most people, but somehow they take him an unusually long time to resolve.  Throughout, the reader somehow remains on Fr. Dan’s side, even when s/he wants to throttle him, and when he finally arrives to meet his long-time friends, Brian and Clara in Washington, they provide some new thoughts and insights.  Even at this point, however, Father Dan takes no immediate action.  In this case however, that is good – at least he does not disappear into a “hole to hell,” like the one he saw in western Kansas.  Ultimately, the reader is left with the idea that Father Dan might, at last, make a real decision – all by himself, independent of historical learning, his own past, and his own fears, and just maybe he will find a kind of peace he has never known.

Author Daniel Hornsby

Author Daniel Hornsby. Photo by Alice Bolin.

Photos.  The coyote photo by Frank Schulenberg appears on https://commons.wikimedia.org

The geodesic dome, which Fr. Dan made on the grounds of the rectory for his use at a private retreat space,. is from https://shelterstructures.en.made-in-china.com

The Cloud of Unknowing, which was the basis of Via Negativa, Fr. Dan’s philosophy, may be found on https://www.thriftbooks.com

The red and blue flowers on Mt. Rainier, which so impressed Fr. Dan, are from https://www.washington.edu

Author photo:  By Alice Bolin:  https://booksigningevent.com/event/virtual-event-daniel-hornsby/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Exploration, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, United States
Written by: Daniel Hornsby
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 08/11/2020
ISBN: 978-0525658474
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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