A hidden bonus of being a Catholic author is that I've spent my life steeped in story-worthy elements. You want beauty and drama? Walk into a Mass and breathe in the incense and beeswax candles. Let the music of Byrd and Tallis echo in your ears. See the gleam of brass in the smoking thurifer and the sheen of silk on the tabernacle and vestments. You want the perfect story? Read the Bible, with all its heartache and betrayal and sacrifice and longing and love. Or the lives of the saints, echoing this story in their own unique lives.
But the downside to being a Catholic author? It can get annoying when non-Catholic authors steal from the treasure box of Catholic imagery and items. When they do it well, I don't mind so much (I loved The Inquisitor's Tale, for example…even though it did say Dominicans wore brown...). But when they do it poorly and the book wins acclaim, it's honestly painful. A recent award-winning title by a truly brilliant author missed the mark so much on angels and religious life (to a Catholic, "religious life" means living as a nun, sister, priest, brother, or monk) that I was honestly astounded by its stellar reception. Didn't it matter to anyone else that sacred elements of our Faith were being appropriated to add drama and mystique to a story?
Last week I read Back to the Bright Before, by Katherin Nolte--a newly-released story that very much takes advantage of the "Catholic mystique," but also very much gets it right. I am assuming that the Nolte is Catholic or was at some point, because she not only uses Catholic elements carefully and respectfully, but she never lets them get in the way of a really well-told story. It would have been easy to point out much of her symbolism to her readers, but instead she leaves it there like a little Easter egg for her readers to notice or not notice—you don't need to know all the answers because what you're there for is the story.
Here's a description from the publisher:
When eleven-year-old Pet Martin's dad falls from a ladder on their family farm, it isn't just his body that crashes to the ground. So does every hope her family had for the future. Money is scarce, and Pet's mom is bone-tired from waiting tables at the local diner, and even with the extra hours, it's not enough for a third surgery for Pet's dad. Her five-year-old brother, Simon, now refuses to say anything except the word "cheese." Worst of all? The ladder accident was Pet's fault.
She's determined to fix things--but how? Good old-fashioned grit...and maybe a little bit of magic.
When a neighbor recites a poem about an ancient coin hidden somewhere on the grounds of the local abbey, Pet forms a plan. With her brother, a borrowed chicken, and a stolen pony, Pet runs away from home. If she can find the coin, Daddy can have his surgery, Momma can stop her constant working, and Simon might speak again. But Pet isn't the only one who wants the coin...which means searching for it is more dangerous than she ever imagined.
This dazzling debut novel filled with magic, family, and adventure is sure to be an instant classic.
Here's the thing. This book will be classified as magical realism, but to a Catholic reader, it will read as something even better: a story of miracles. As Pet learns in the story and I have learned in my life, miracles are all around but you'll miss them if you're not looking. How wonderful it was to read a story where faith moved mountains and hope overcame the darkest evil! If you want to see it as magic… that's ok. Maybe we can agree it's the "Old Magic" of Narnia and The Secret Garden, a power bigger than the powers of this world, bigger than evil and bigger than even our biggest problems.
On a final note—and I know I can't really work this in with a perfect segue—the NUNS ARE SO GREAT. Having lived across the street from a Dominican monastery for several years, and knowing many nuns and sisters very well, I do get prickly when they're portrayed in literature as socially-awkward mystics or repressed goody-two-shoes. Nuns are real people, guys. :) Every single one I've met has entered religious life because she feels called to something bigger and deeper than herself—she is running to a great love, not running away from the world. And that deep love and complete normality was perfectly portrayed in Back to the Bright Before. Sister Melanie, the novice sister who befriends Pet, is just like many young nuns I know: kind and funny and nerdy and normal. I just loved her.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!