Unforgettable Fictional Friends

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We read novels because we care about the people who live between their pages.

William Shaw develops fascinating characters. Each person is vulnerable and brilliant in his or her own way, including the cast of The Birdwatcher.

Police Sergeant William South serves as Neighborhood Officer in the coastal patch of Kent in Southeastern England near Dungeness. He’s a first responder and the man who tracks down an elder who has lost his way. He keeps an eye on the local drug scene and chases shoplifters. A solitary man, South spends hours along the beaches and bogs looking for unusual birds.

On page one, when Sergeant South is ordered to assist in a murder investigation, he begs off because it’s October and prime birdwatching season and although no one else knows, William South is a murderer.

Luck abandons the Sergeant. The Dungeness victim happens to be his next-door neighbor and fellow birdwatcher. He’s torn between exposure and helping the Serious Crime Directorate find his friend’s murderer. He could leave the investigation in its early stages or later when told to stay away. Call it fate, but even official duties and ordinary acts like shopping or helping a friend, drag him deeper into the mystery. Each involvement redoubles his risk of exposure and even death.

Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi’s past drives her from the Metropolitan Police and London. She’s desperate to make a strong first impression in Kent. A guilt-ridden single mother, she weighs professional success against her daughter Zoe’s adjustment to Kent.

Cupidi sees Neighborhood Officer South as an asset in her investigation. He knows the victim, the territory, and the shortcuts. Their relationship deepens as South eases tensions between Cupidi and Zoe. He rescues Zoe from bullies at her new school and hides her indiscretions.

Zoe is mature beyond her age—an adult trapped in the life of a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. She loves and understands her mother. At the same time, Zoe compromises Alexandra’s professional and personal life. She can’t talk to her mother or the “cows” at school. Surprisingly, she confides in William South and plays matchmaker between him and her mother. Bored, Zoe gives birdwatching a try. Her drawings of birds in flight capture their jizz, amazing the experienced South.

The murderer lurks in the shadows and hides in plain sight. He or she may be stalking Cupidi, Zoe, or South. Cupidi believes that it must be a man. A woman could never kill with such violence and frequency, “Someone who literally cannot control themselves, or doesn’t want to. Someone so consumed with anger they cannot stop.”

Cupidi is anxious to close the case and secure her place in the Kent Serious Crime Directorate. When someone fits her image of the killer, South challenges her conclusions. His experience as a murderer suggests someone else is guilty.

Birds and birdwatching add color and plot twists. Birdwatching focuses on the extraordinary visitors, not the local gulls and sparrows—migrating species and individuals blown off course by ocean storms. South’s birdwatching parallels his police work. The Sergeant scans for anything unusual—a broken window, an abandoned automobile, or a group of individuals camped on a beach. South applies his birdwatching techniques to the murder investigation—high power binoculars and stakeouts even the birds can’t detect.

The Birdwatcher is two stories in one. Each chapter ends with a snippet set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Parallels between the life of young Billy and adult William include their interest in birdwatching and their fear of murder investigations.

The first page of The Birdwatcher accuses William South. Could he get away with murder, suffer imprisonment, or fall prey to the Kentish murderer? He’s an engaging character with great potential. Does he have a future?

 

 

The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch, by T.M. Gaouette

 

 The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch by [Gaouette, T. M.]

At age ten, Benedict carries massive chips on both shoulders. Having passed from bad foster homes to worse, he dreads the uncertainty of new surroundings and new rules. When he arrives at The Sunshine Ranch, he doubts the sincerity of his new foster parents, David and Martha Credence and withholds his affections lest he is ripped again from friends and security. Benedict sees the other foster children as rivals and doubts that his good fortune will last. Over the next four years, he remains aloof, not daring to trust that he has found a home and family.

When foreclosure threatens The Sunshine Ranch, Benedict’s doubts seem to be confirmed. Although David and Martha ask Benedict and their other foster kids to have faith that God will provide, Benedict refuses to believe. But Micah, Benedict’s roommate, and chief rival keeps the faith. Eventually, Benedict realizes that The Sunshine Ranch gives him the only happiness that he has ever known, and that his constant worry and fear prevent him from enjoying it.

David and Martha Credence and their many foster children embody generosity and unquestioning faith. Theirs is an impossible task — they welcome hard-case kids like Benedict and scrape together the resources to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Benedict, on the other hand, provides a counterpoint to everything the Credence family attempts to share. Too wounded by his early life experiences to accept the healing they offer, he’s likely to reject them and run away into the night. Micah, the optimist, has suffered as much as Benedict, but he always sees the bright side and attempts to wear down Benedict’s rough edges.

The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch appealed to every emotion: there are joy and sadness, richness and loss. T.M. Gaouette delivers a powerful story with an emotional wallop, filling her pages with surprises and suspense, mystery and romance, pain and growth. Unquestionably, this novel is a page turner.

I would recommend this book for family reading. Biological progeny and foster children, biological and foster parents can see themselves somewhere in the pages of this book. It will especially benefit students preparing for careers in social services. I enjoyed reading this story because its characters deeply touched me. I pray that many couples will follow the example of David and Martha Credence and provide a loving home for foster children.

Turning in Circles, by Michelle Buckman

Turning in Circles cover, MIchelle BuckmanWithin a sleepy farm community along the South Carolina coast, two families coexist. The Thaines and their neighbors enjoy hard work, hospitality, horseback riding, pie, ice tea, kittens, and each other. The Darlingtons favor extortion, white privilege, domination, abuse, dog fights, and freedom from the consequences of their nefarious activities.

Turning in Circles brings the Thaines and Darlingtons into conflict. A love story but not a romance, it describes how the sins of the parents—adultery and neglect—reemerge in the tragic delinquency of their children—youthful indiscretions that expose the Thaines to the dark desires of the Darlingtons.

The Thaine matriarch locks herself in her studio to focus on her artistic labors, while Daddy Thaine works the fields and pastures from sunup to sundown. He charges his daughters, Savannah and Charlie, with the responsibility of feeding and cleaning up after the horses and chickens. Savannah dutifully obeys, but Charlie evades dirty work, ignores her mother, and fears that her father has rejected her.

More than anyone else, Savannah Thaine loves her sister, Charlie. “Vannah” plans an idyllic life for the two of them, never leaving their rustic microcosm, much like the relationship between their mother and her sister, Myrtle. Charlie has a different idea, though. She craves love and validation from bad boy Dillon Smith—dark-eyed and “trouble on two feet from the day his mama left.” Dillon dominates and controls Charlie, as he drags her into his sinister world. Despite Savannah’s pleadings and warnings, Charlie drifts ever closer to disaster, compromising her family and dashing Savannah’s dreams.

Savannah realizes that Charlie is on a dangerous path, but cannot sway her from it. She is unwilling to expose her sister to parental censure, fearing she would lose Charlie’s love. Savannah views Charlie as a second self, spoiling her and shielding her from parental wrath. When Dillon captures Charlie’s affections, Savannah slips into codependency, enabling Charlie’s secret life. Throughout the narration, Savannah laments her cowardice. If only she had acted.

Sheriff Darlington ensures that his relatives, including Dillon Smith, escape the consequences of their frequent felonies and misdemeanors. Those outside the Sheriff’s clan, such as the Thaines, not only feel the full weight of the law but suffer blackmail and intimidation. Charlie’s delinquency provides the leverage the sheriff needs to destroy the tranquility in the Thaine family. Darlington demands that Daddy Thaine sell him Boudicca, a barely tame mare of spectacular beauty, if he doesn’t want Charlie to go to jail. Charlie senses her father’s resentment, which drives her deeper under Dillon’s control.

Savannah, the narrator, dominates the novel. She is aloof, inflexible, and naïve. She fails to reach most of her goals. The warnings she directs at her sister miss their mark, but change the lives of bystanders. Her dream to live like her mother and aunt is shattered, but she finds that after a horrible gloom there is a new dawn, as she grows into adulthood.

Analytical and inflexible to a fault, Savannah frequently dissects words and gestures, inferring deeper meanings and sinister plots. Despite her cerebral inclinations, her family and classmates describe her as naïve. In her search for deeper meanings, she often ignores the obvious. For instance, although she spends almost every free moment with Ellerbe, the boy next door, she dismisses him because he doesn’t fit into her plans for the future, and she thinks he’s incapable of understanding the implications of recent events. Ellerbe, less given to introspection, believes that a horseback ride is the solution to every problem in the world. Horses feature prominently in the story: Ellerbe loves his mare, Snow, as Daddy Thaine dotes on Boudicca. Woe to the Darlington who threatens the love between a man and his horse.

Although this is a young adult novel, its realism should alert parents to the possibility that their behavior could cost them their children’s loyalty. Parental examples, their obsession with their own concerns, their betrayals-especially adultery-can deeply scar their children, distorting their values and behavior.

Michelle Buckman’s tale opens during August’s heat and humidity—slow and sleepy—but climaxes with the impact of a diesel locomotive hitting an eighteen wheeler packed with dynamite. She bolsters her prose with sensory tones and often drifts into a poetic imagery that may lull her readers into complacency before the shocking climax.

Buckman succeeds in creating a gripping novel that burns its way into the reader’s memory. Turning in Circles begins on a tranquil beach, but ends on the shore of a different emotional galaxy.

Names on Walls

Memorial Day reminds us of those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. Do we take it personally or is it just a holiday that gives us a long weekend?

On a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, I noticed the monument to those who died on the Battleship Maine. Do you “Remember the Maine” that battle cry that rallied us into the Spanish-American War? No visitor stopped to touch the wall, make rubbings, or even read the names. Will the same come true for the Vietnam Memorial?

I made my first contact with war when I was about three and a half. The family gathered around the most magical piece of furniture in the house, the Philco radio. President Roosevelt announced that we were at war. As I grew, the war became part of the family’s life with Ration Books and War Bonds, the collection of tinfoil, scrap metal, newspapers, and bacon fat. Four uncles and many family friends entered military service. One never came back.

Uncle Eddie had arrived in England only eighteen days earlier. On a training mission, he and his crew flew their B-24 Liberator bomber over the Irish Sea. Upon their return to base, the plane exploded. The grateful citizens of Birkenhead, England—south of Liverpool—carved Eddie’s name and the names of his companions on a memorial. My Aunt wrote that flowers decorate that monument all these years later.

In 1944, The Selective Service System drafted my thirty-four-year-old father into the Navy. We walked him to the Green Line Bus and waved goodbye. He called that night to say that he had been assigned to the USMC Reserves. Eventually, he participated in the invasion and occupation of Okinawa.

I vividly remember a day in September of 1945, when Dad, Mom, and my younger brother met me outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. When we had walked home, Dad opened his duffle bag and handed my brother and me Marine fatigue hats and knapsacks. We wore them beyond the point of utility. These battle mementos and endless viewings of John Wayne movies convinced us that we, like Dad would join the Marines.

Growing up, we dressed in parts of our father’s uniforms and joined the neighborhood boys in war games. The only kids excluded from our melees were the young baby boomers and girls.

As the years passed, my younger and youngest brothers joined the Marines. Although my youngest brother and a girl who lived down the block never played our war games, they both saw action in Vietnam. As part of a recon unit, my brother dropped out of helicopters with a massive radio on his back. He has the scars to prove it. The girl joined the Army. Captain Eleanor G. Alexander R. N. died in a plane crash with other nurses and a group of Vietnamese children. You can find her name on The Vietnam Memorial.

I met Rich Roughgarden at Notre Dame. He illuminated his architectural drawings much like an ancient monastic scribe. They were works of art, science, and social commentary. Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Rich took me along on a road trip east. I visited friends in Brooklyn and attended the Notre Dame-Syracuse game in the old Yankee Stadium. Rich and I lost track of each other, but years later, I noticed his obituary in the Notre Dame Magazine. He served in an engineering unit and died in an accident. His name is on the Wall.

Many served and continued to serve. I know three who died in accidents. Like many, they never fired a shot in anger, but they stood between us and the shooters. They and those who fell in the service of their country remain forever young. Take a moment to remember what they did for us. They deserve our thanks and prayers.

Finding Patience, by Virginia Lieto and Carole Hahn Panzner

When the Livingstone family relocates, their daughters miss their old neighborhood and friends. The eldest, Faith can’t wait for school to start so that she can make new friends. Unfortunately, Faith is shy, and the children on the school bus, her classmates, and the lunchtime crowd seem more interested in each other than in Faith.

After a stressful first day, faith runs to her bedroom to hide her disappointment. Her perceptive mother follows her and offers advice, “It takes time to make friends. You just need a little patience.” Together they pray that God will give Faith patience.

Unfortunately, the following days bring neither friends nor patience. Mr. and Mrs. Livingstone decide that a puppy could brighten the spirits of their daughters. No, he isn’t called “Patience.”

Faith suspects that patience, the virtue has arrived when she is able to ignore an obnoxious classmate, but knows God answers her prayers when she makes her first new friend. You’ll never guess her name.

Virginia Lieto crafts a relevant and timely story with universal appeal. Suitable for young readers, for story time in class, and for home reading, it addresses a problem children face in our highly mobile society.

Carole Hahn Panzner’s illustrations capture the emotions of the entire Livingstone family. The poignant drawing of Mrs. Livingstone consoling Faith after her first day in her new school delivers a powerful non-verbal message which not only supports the text, but it touches readers of every age, sharing both Faith’s agony and her mother’s concern.

Consider Finding Patience as a comforting gift for families with young children who have relocated or who will soon do so.

I won my review copy of Finding Patience thanks to the generosity of the author as she supported the launch of Carolyn Astfalk’s latest release, Rightfully Ours.

The Newton Maniac

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At summer camp— away from the smog-shrouded city—the Milky-Way glistened as diamonds flung upon their midnight-velvet backdrop. Each August, constellations fragmented as the Perseid Meteor Shower dropping stars to earth as fireflies, lightning-bugs and glow-worms. Camp’s where I learned to swim, ride horses, mangle crafts, scratch poison ivy, and engrave memories and friendships that endure even now.

PJ and I renewed our bond each June as if the school months between the summers hadn’t existed. We neither wrote nor called. In fact, I had no idea where he lived, but the unspoken link remained.

The camp director assigned us to the same cabin, named after the Lenape, a tribe that had once dominated these forests. PJ and I did everything together—meals, swimming, crafts and team sports. After supper, we shared the mess hall piano to play Heart and Soul. My left hand moved like a spider to key the bumba-dumba, bumba-dumba, bumba-dumba, bumba-dumba. PJ’s right hand added the, tink, tink, tink, datink, datink. We brooked no variation, because this was our song.

Between supper, the piano and the bugler’s mournful taps, our nighttime entertainment occasionally included ghost stories, none more frightening than those told by a Monsignor who visited from a nearby parish. He strolled about as the sun set—wearing his cassock decorated with purple buttons, piping and sash—greeting the boys from his town, but he smiled at all as we gathered under the stars in the middle of the baseball diamond.

The counselors brought him a wooden chair and we campers sat cross-legged before him, swatting mosquitoes until the Monsignor redirected the voice that had preached thousands of sermons, to utter tales of horror.

“Boys,” he’d intoned and looked about, “don’t ever go into the woods after dark. I’m telling you for your own good because there is a maniac running among the trees; it’s stronger than a thousand bulls, and has killed many over the years. I wouldn’t want you to join that number. I’d grieve, even if they ever found your body, to vest in black for your funeral.”

The Monsignor snatched our attention as he detailed the mangled corpses flung by the merciless, Newton Maniac. A shiver rattled my ribs as the goose bumps popped where sweat had just glistened on my arms. The whites of PJ’s eyes grew brighter as he bit his lower lip.

The Monsignor cupped his hand to his ear. “Can you hear the scream? Is that wailing in the forest, the Maniac, his most recent victim or a victim’s ghost?” He turned his head following the piercing shriek as it traveled from west to east.

We could trace the inhuman moan, rising in pitch, crossing the woods beyond our cabins. My grandpa often described the banshee’s screech. My dad said it was an old-country myth, but this scream was real and rushing at us. My knees knocked until I hugged them still. The night air retained enough heat to comfort us, so why my chill, I asked as the unearthly screaming tracked among the darkened hardwood groves. My lips moved in desperate prayers, but as the sound faded to the east, my heart-beat slowed back to normal.

Lest we grow complacent, the Monsignor reminded us, “The Newton Maniac had killed an entire family just a few days ago. The children were about your age.”

I glanced about at nodding heads and quivering lips. Even Jack, our counselor seemed deeply concerned. Later, as we prepared for bed, Jack confirmed the existence of the Newton Maniac, the horror of the recent deaths and our need to stay clear of the woods. He warned we’d best behave or the Maniac would come for us. PJ and I agreed we’d never hike through the woods even in broad daylight lest the Maniac count us among its victims. Nightly visits to the latrines required the company of PJ, our flashlight and our baseball bats should the Maniac leap from the dark.

On one of the last nights of that summer season, campers assigned to the Iroquois, banged on the walls of the Lenape’s cabin screaming, “The Newton Maniac’s coming through the woods. You’d better run.”

We of the Lenape cabin raised our baseball bats, rushed into the dark woods shouting our war cry, to engage the Maniac in battle.

The Iroquois campers stopped and laughed, “You Lenape are suckers!”

It was a foolish thing to say to a tribe, armed and ready to shed blood. Again, the scream of the Newton Maniac pierced the night, breaking the stalemate. The Iroquois campers scampered for safety. We of the Lenape ran to engage the Maniac, now approaching at a tremendous speed. We of the Lenape raised our bats, only to see the Maniac whiz by us into the night. We had prevailed, not over the Maniac, but over our fears and the taunts of the Iroquois. We marched back singing our victory chant, ignoring the Iroquois.

The Monsignor told no lie. A Newton Maniac sped, screaming among the trees. It had killed, usually at railway crossings. The Monsignor for dramatic effect never identified the Maniac as a train in the service of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, nor mention that the deceased had neglected crossing signals and the Maniac’s warning call before the engine’s impact launched them and their shattered vehicles into the waiting branches.

History has consumed The Newton Maniac, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Monsignor, the camp and our final season before high school.

In our last minutes together, PJ and I warmed the piano bench for one more Heart and Soul. We left in silence so that final chord would always vibrate within us. I wonder now, how PJ, the Lenape and other campers fared over the decades. As I recalled those times and friends, I wished them well, especially, PJ, wherever he is.

If you’re out there PJ, I hope you remember Heart and Soul. Do you still feel the vibration?

 

Try this link for a musical accompaniment: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibfJsyx6N_U

Drawing by Nancy Ann Mulcare (© 2014 Nancy Ann Mulcare)

The Newton Maniac (© 2014 Donald J. Mulcare)

Flavia 006: The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley

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Trains, planes and automobiles, along with Winston Churchill and a military escort greeted Hillary de Luce upon her return to her husband, her daughters and her ancestral estate: Buckshaw. Thus began episode 006 of the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series. Alan Bradley had left Flavia, his protagonist, the youngest of those de Luce daughters, dangling at the conclusion of volume 005, only to have her land in volume 006 with one foot in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and the other in Kim’s Game as described by Rudyard Kipling.

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches introduced major plot shifts, revelations, reconciliations and retributions. Relics of the past flickered and flew into view, unveiling secrets that stretched back through three hundred years of de Luce history and service to king and country.  Flavia’s new and more durable personal nemesis emerged, Undine: younger, equal and opposite, perhaps brighter and potentially more dangerous than Flavia. Was she a usurper, a snoop or just a lonely child looking for a friend?

Flavia passed through a substantial stage of metamorphosis to an elevated sense of power and confidence and yet at times she was more flustered than she had ever been. Most importantly, she did emerge as a far more formidable Flavia as she began her trek toward volume 007.

Reviews of mysteries, especially a series in which the initiated would have shunned spoilers other than those offered by the publisher, must focus on style rather than substance. Alan Bradley often invited the reader to tea, a break in the action, an apparent distraction, where the author installed words in place as would a jeweler carefully set a variety of brilliant stones within the gold of a magnificent brooch. There was no better way to review Bradley’s skill than to quote the author on various aspects of volume 006, or as he would have had Flavia say, “Let’s take another squint…”

At their current situation:

We were told the when, the where, and the how of everything, but never the why.

Churchill…still had certain secrets which he kept even from God.

Logical beyond question but at the same time mad as a March hare

At her father:

Windows were as essential to my father’s talking as his tongue.

He stood frozen in his own private glacier.

Father, the checkmated king, gracious, but fatally wounded in defeat

(With Churchill) These two seemingly defeated men, brothers in something I could not even begin to imagine.

At her sister Ophelia:

The image of bereaved beauty, she simply glowed with grief.

Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as a maiden from Tennyson.

She knew me as well as the magic mirror knew the wicked queen.

Her complexion—at least since its volcanic activity settled down

Her voice suddenly as cold and stiff as whipped egg whites

At Flavia on Flavia:

I wanted to curl up like a salted slug and die.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand in case of overlooked jam or drool.

One of the marks of a truly great mind…is to be able to feign stupidity on demand.

The comforting reek of nitrocellulose lacquer

It smelled as if a coffee house in the slums of Hell had been hit by lightning.

That bump in her bloomers was me! (A comment on a photo of her pregnant mother)

My emotions were writhing inside me like snakes in a pit.

There is a strange strength in secrets which can never be achieved by spilling one’s guts.

I slept the sleep of the damned, tossing and turning as if I were lying in a bed of smoldering coals.

My mouth tasted as if a farmer had stored turnips in it while I slept.

My brain came instantly up to full throttle.

There are few instances in life where, in spite of everything, one had to swallow one’s heart and go it alone, and this was one of them.

Giving praise at every silent step for the invention of carpets

My knees gave off an alarming crack.

At flying:

And with a roar the propeller disappeared in a blur.

The roar became a tornado and we began to move.

And then a sudden smoothness…we were flying!

Beneath our wings the marvelous toy world slid slowly by…miniature sheep grazed in handkerchief pastures.

At trains:

The gleaming engine panted into the station and squealed to a stop at the edge of the platform.

(The train) sat resting for a few moments in the importance of its own swirling steam.

At music:

Each note hung for an instant like a cold, crystalline drop of water melting from the end of an icicle.

Humming mindlessly to herself like a hive of distant bees

The music faded and died among the beams and king posts of the ancient roof.

The organ fell silent as if suddenly embarrassed at what it had done.

At children:

They had lost more than one baby in the making and I could only pray that the next one would be a howling success.

“You’re a child.” “Of course I am, but that’s hardly a reason to treat me like one.”

As we await volume 007, we might expect a twelve-year-old Flavia who would have behaved not so much as her teen-aged sisters but as her mother Harriet. The relevance of the photo of Churchill’s statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada will become apparent to the readers of volume 006.

Bradley, Alan. The Dead in their Vaulted Arches. New York: Delacorte Press, 2014.

(© 2014 Donald J. Mulcare)

The Chronicles of Xan III: The Fire of Eden (OakTara Publishers, 2013)

The Fire of Eden (Antony Barone Kolenc, published by OakTara Press, 2013)

For better or worse, others have imposed major decisions and their consequences on the lives of children. Nevertheless, even young people have made decisions that affected the rest of their lives. In Chronicles of Xan III: The Fire of Eden like Adam and Eve, most of the characters in this mystery must decide between good and evil, life and death, hope and despair, which calling they should follow and where should they store their treasures. Once decided, the characters must pay the cost and reap the benefits of their choices.

The third phase of Antony Barone Kolenc’s Chronicles of Xan trilogy reveals long hidden secrets of his all too human characters. Their weaknesses fueled Xan’s doubts as to his own pathway. His uncle pressed him to accept his invitation to apprenticeship. The monks of Harwood Abbey offered Xan a place in their novitiate. His relationship with Lucy intensified as providence brought them together.

The story began as a Church-State conflict complicated plans for Brother Andrew’s ordination. Consequently, a party from Harwood Abbey, including its Prior, Father Clement, Brother Andrew, several other monks, Xan and a select group of orphans traveled north to Grenton Priory, more of a wayside hostel than a rigorous monastic community. Among the other wayfarers lurked swindlers, highwaymen and a mysterious stranger. Brother Andrew’s mother, her servants and armed guards, Lucy and her brother all converged on the Priory.  Brother Andrew’s family secrets and his early-life decisions came to light to the discomfort of many. As the assembled cast of characters awaited the arrival of the Prince-Bishop of Durham, a seemingly impossible theft raised suspicion that an evil magician had moved through walls or bewitched the guardians of a priceless treasure.

Meanwhile the children entertained themselves about the Priory. Once the official investigation of the theft began, Xan and his young friends coordinated their gifts and disabilities to address the mystery. Their adventures included surveillance, tracking the movements of priory guests, including the mysterious stranger and a foray into the lair of the evil magician.

At the conclusion of The Fire of Eden each of the many characters, especially Xan, Lucy, Father Andrew and their many friends from Harwood Abbey reached the point where they must each decide what to keep and what to let go in order to gain a better prize. Their lives could never be the same at least not until the author writes another book in the series.

Kolenc represents the conflicts in the lives of the young while offering hope that despite impossible circumstances, with the grace of our loving God and the assistance of loving friends, the people of God can overcome any situation to walk together through every storm life throws at them. In an often dark and hopeless world and a literature that offers little hope, Kolenc’s Chronicles of Xan calls out in the bleakness to guide readers around the obstacles and traps toward hope and happiness. The Chronicles of Xan trilogy belongs on the top of any school or personal reading list for the young and readers of ever age.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)

Race with the Devil by Joseph Pearce

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Raised in the Shire, he left its tranquility for an adventure that brought him through battles, dungeons and peril until he found an immense treasure. To possess it, he fought a monstrously evil dragon. We speak not of Bilbo Baggins, but noted Catholic biographer Joseph Pearce.

To know the identity of author Joseph Pearce, you must first meet Joe Pearce, just as you must first encounter Saul of Tarsus to fully understand the greatness of Saint Paul. Like Paul, Joseph Pearce endured more than one beating, stoning (actually they used bricks) and imprisonment. Teresa of Avila equated humility and truth. Through Race with the Devil, Pearce opens his early life to the world, revealing pain, promise and God’s hand in his miraculous transformation.

If you judge a book by its cover, particularly the dust jackets of Pearce’s 2012 Saint Benedict Press publications, Candles in the Dark and Bilbo’s Journey, beware the photos, rich in Hobbit-like dimples and engaging smile. This impression clashes with the cold, determined, mask-like face that stares from the cover of Race with the Devil. When first I viewed this image, I wondered as to the subject’s identity. Imagine my shock at the subtitle: “My Journey (What, this is an autobiography?) from Racial Hatred (This can’t be the noted Catholic author that I’ve read.) to Rational Love.” In this amazement, I share, but in reverse order, the impression of Abbot Richard Yeo, OSB, who in the year 2000, “seemed genuinely astonished that (Pearce) had not only become a Catholic but had written books such as Literary Converts and (his) biography of Chesterton of which (the Abbot) was clearly familiar.” Although mine appears the mirror image of the Abbot’s shock, we both rejoice that “God can indeed mould the most unpromising of clay.”

Pearce dedicated his conversion story to the memory of his father, Albert Arthur Pearce, who taught Joseph to love his heritage, to fistfight-observing the Marquis of Queensberry rules, to appreciate English literature and to educate himself throughout his life. Albert also reinforced powerful nationalistic sentiments and bigotry, all of which played a part in Joseph’s life and set the tone for Race with the Devil.

At the age of sixteen, Joseph founded, published, edited, distributed and wrote for the Bulldog, the newspaper of the Young National Front, an auxiliary of the National Front, a “white supremacist organization that demanded the forced removal of all non-whites from the United Kingdom.” Joseph’s precocious achievement brought notoriety and, if not awards, two all-expenses-paid prison terms. Pearce opposed the immigration of Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis and others. (Observe that in Candles in the Dark, Joseph embraced the Jamaican people and the ethnically diverse members of the Missionaries of the Poor.)

His anti-Catholic sentiments brought him “across the sea to Ireland,” not to Galway Bay, but Belfast, “On the twelfth of July when it yearly did come…”* to march with Orangemen, “to the sound of the drum.”* Unprepared for the deadly “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Joseph nearly became a “statistic.” Many of his friends in the Orange Order later died in that conflict.

Pearce made both friends and enemies. As political positions changed some friends became enemies. In Race with the Devil, Joseph reaches out to his former friends, apologizing for infractions even as small as failing to return a borrowed book or record. Thanks to Albert’s influence, Joseph learned to say something nice even about his enemies, such as the Irishman who broke his nose. The kindness of strangers deeply impressed the young Pearce: the policeman who loaned him the price of a ticket to a Chelsea football match, an adversary who after a heated radio debate, invited Joseph to lift a pint at his favorite pub, as well as the American Jewish attorney who resigned from the British equivalent of the ACLU, when that organization refused to let him defend the anti-Semite Pearce

While still sixteen, Joseph, now a full-time employee of the National Front, commuted four-hours, round-trip each work day. If Hobbits lived in burrows, Pearce spent nearly the equivalent of a day each week in the “Tube.” He read his way back and forth beneath London, completing the mandatory list of White Supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist tomes. Although still a teen, Joseph’s critical thinking skills kept him from swallowing the entire bait and hook. His reading extended to Orwell to whom Joseph gives credit for part of his conversion. In contrast to Orwell’s bleak, inescapable despair, Joseph considered Alexander Solzhenitsyn a hero who continued to hope despite his confinement in the Gulag Archipelago. In time it was Solzhenitsyn who read the works of Joseph Pearce, opening the door to Joseph’s writing Solzhenitsyn’s authorized biography.

Conversion to Catholicism snuck-up on Joseph Pearce about the time of his second imprisonment. Solitary confinement, like the hours spent riding in the “Tube,” afforded Joseph time for spiritual reading, including two of Newman’s conversion stories, the works of Tolkien, Chesterton and others. Joseph emerged from the chrysalis of prison with his wings not quite ready for full flight. Nourished by the liturgy and a devotion to Our Lady, he still waged many a battle before his acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church and subsequent participation in the Catholic Literary Revival.

Like Bilbo, the dragon slain, Joseph had returned home with treasured faith, but the journey’s not quite done. It may be Joseph’s task to train a Frodo or a host of Frodos to meet and best even greater evils and rescue and share far more glorious treasures. I eagerly anticipate the sequel to Race with the Devil which may well flow from the pen of one of those fortunate few who now studies with this Catholic Literary Giant, Joseph Pearce.

*Modified from “The Old Orange Flute.”

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)

Emusoi: Maasai Girls Tell Their Stories by Kasia Parham

Front Cover

Kasia Parham relates the story of the struggle the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania as they face extinction as a people. The Maasai have lost much of their traditional cattle raising lands through drought, encroachment from large-scale farms and the expansion of national parks that cater to lucrative tourist safaris. In response, many displaced, young Maasai men have migrated to cities in search of employment as security guards and other trades while the uneducated young women have remained at home, ill-prepared for the changes that swirl around them. Emusoi means: discovery or awareness, so The Emusoi Centre proposed an innovative alternative to pending extinction: the education of girls.

Gareth Thomas, a Minister in the UK Department for International Development wrote in the forward to this book, “educating girls is one of the most important investments any country can make in its own future.” For some, this is a radical concept. Too much of the world regards girls and women as property. That portion of the world asks, “Why would a father educate his daughter when he plans to trade her to her future husband, perhaps a much older man, already with many wives?” Maasai fathers have exchanged their girls, as young as twelve, for cattle or even cases of beer.

The author presents stories by six Tanzanian Maasai girls, a perspective from one of their teachers along with addenda and testimony by Maryknoll Missionary, Sister Mary Vertucci: Director of The Emusoi Centre. The author enumerates the benefits of and obstacles to the Emusoi project as she unravels the complex interactions within the ecological, political, social, economic and cultural forces arrayed against the survival of the Maasai.

At first appearance, this richly illustrated, 56 page book seems destined for a young audience. Actually, young adults may find its contents challenging, but will, perhaps learn why the Maasai girls and their mothers have placed such a high premium on education. Both generations have risked emotional and physical suffering, including running away from home and beatings by husbands and fathers. All of this happened so that educated girls could begin to save the Maasai from assimilation and cultural extinction.

The author’s startling description of the role of women in this ancient society will evoke an immediate response in all readers. The good news is that The Emusoi Centre and its mission to educate girls have endured. In its first ten years, the enrollment at Emusoi sponsored programs, rose from six to more than 600 girls in primary, secondary, university and graduate schools. Some early graduates of the Emusoi program have joined the Centre’s staff. These and future alumnae will insure the longevity of the Emusoi dream for generations of Maasai girls. Through the efforts of The Emusoi Centre, the Maasai may also endure as a unique people.

Unlike many developmental efforts that separate native peoples from their land, heritage and language, the program of The Emusoi Centre arms the Maasai with the means to resist the destructive influences of disease, poverty, ignorance, and bureaucracy, with women trained in medicine, business, education and law. The Emusoi Centre offers the prospect of a Maasai people surviving indefinitely on their own land, with the best of their culture intact.

This publication, certainly appropriate for school-wide teen reading programs, fits many a niche. Every school child in the developed world needs the perspective provided herein, not only as a lesson in cultural diversity, but as a means of appreciating their own educational and economic advantages. The book could serve as a prologue to that famous “coming of age” conversation between parents and children. It can assist citizens of developed nations as they refocus their world view to embrace and revere a broader vision of cultural diversity. It also details contact information and specific directions for channeling funds to The Emusoi Centre.