Saints for All Occasions

9780307959577_p0_v6_s192x300  J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions features two Irish sisters immigrated from Ireland.  One joins a cloistered convent; the other marries and raises the nun’s out-of-wedlock son.  Although their lives seem predictable, Sullivan uses their strict upbringing and their personal struggles to create a family saga across generations.

The story begins with the death of Patrick, eldest son, but his place within the family is quickly absorbed into the estranged relationship of the two sisters. As the story moves between the present and the past, Sullivan follows the sisters as they travel by ship to their new world, and teases the reader with their future lives.  Despite the long descriptions and the choppy dialogue, I kept reading to find out how their lives developed.  How did Theresa become a nun?  How did she get to Vermont? How did Nora have so many children when she had not consummated her marriage after two years?  Sullivan posing possibilities by her glimpses into their future, constantly opening new doors for her characters.

The title refers to a collection of holy cards Nora has kept in a box.  I remember my grandmother’s – bespoke cards for specific requests with the saint’s picture on one side and the prayer of entreaty on the other.  Some have entered popular culture – pray to St. Jude for the impossible or St. Anthony for lost items, but St. Monica as the patron saint for mothers of difficult children was new to me. The cards also include commemorations of the dead, usually distributed at a funeral. I have a stack of those bequeathed to me – some of relatives I barely remember.

For those of us who grew up in the Catholic religion of old and watched as it morphed into modernity, then was crippled by the exposure of priests’ crimes, Sullivan’s references will make a connection.  As the book ended, I wanted more  and realized I had become immersed in the characters’ lives.

Related Review: Maine

A Piece of the World: Wyeth’s Christina’s World – Explained

9780870708312_p0_v1_s192x300Although Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of the woman crawling through the field to a house in the distance has long evoked a sense of mystery, Christina Baker Kline attempts to explain the life of Christina Olson in her novel – A Piece of the World.  The woman crawling through the grass in the famous painting “Christina’s World” was Andrew Wyeth’s neighbor in Maine.   In discussing this work, Wyeth explained, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless…she was limited physically but by no means spiritually.”  The image suggests a story, and Kline fills in the unknown details of Christina’s insular life, and her role as muse to a great artist.

Although Christina suffered from a progressive crippling disease, she refused treatment or leg braces, crawling along the ground to get from place to place, amazingly without self-pity or the pity of most who knew her well.  Kline fills in the background of her childhood and creates an ill-fated romance doomed by her disability and her poverty before meeting Andrew Wyeth in her forties.   Living without electricity or indoor plumbing, and kept from school by her father to work the farm, Christina continued in the dilapidated house that eventually became Wyeth’s studio.

Although Christina Olson is the focus of the story, the painter, Andrew Wyeth comes to life just as convincingly.  Kline connects the painter to his subject by comparing their childhoods  and their outlook, and offers to fill in the blanks of their relationship. Wyeth sees beyond the rundown house and the austere restricted lives of its tenants, Christina and her brother, and produces a portrait of longing and determination not unlike his own.

At times the narrative can be as slow as the lives of the characters, perhaps reflecting the stillness of the Maine landscape, and I found myself skipping over some of the protracted dialogue.   Almost like staring at the painting, reading the novel requires a patient eye to reveal more than what is obvious.

Kline summarized her research in her “Author’s Notes” at the end of the novel, and it would be wise to read both her notes and her Acknowledgments first before the novel.  Her extensive reading on the lives of both the Wyeth family and Christina Olson provides a number of references worth noting, and her short summary adds meaning to how she embellished their lives in her fiction.  Her description of her own young life living with her parents in a thirteenth century Cambridge cottage without central heating and on an abandoned Tennessee farm, connects her to her subject.  But, the best part is the color print of Wyeth’s painting on the last page.   Start from the back of the book and then begin Kline’s story.

Literary Maine

Overwhelmed by the beauty of the foliage as I drive through Maine, I’ve decided Brunswick is my favorite place, maybe because it’s a college town. Although Longfellow wrote his first published poem at twelve years old, Bowdoin College was where he studied Latin and Greek, and became familiar with the rhyme scheme he later used in “Evangeline,” the sad tale of lovers torn apart when the British banished the French Acadians (now known as the Cajuns) from Nova Scotia. It seemed like a good idea to download the poem (free online) to reread it while here.

Brunswick also claims Harriet Beecher Stowe who lived in a house near campus with her professor husband for only two years before moving to Andover in Massachusetts. During his tenure at Bowdoin, Harriet wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to supplement his low salary. Their house has changed through the years and the college now uses it as a dorm. I’ve never read this famous book (I do remember the play rendition in the movie “The King and I”). Have you read it?

Of course I’ve been seeking and finding bookstores: the Bowdoin College Bookstore, The Gulf of Maine in Brunswick, and Sherman’s – Maine’s oldest bookstore – in Bar Harbor. And the weather is great for reading.

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Maine – Lobsters and Longfellow

As I conduct my personal survey of Maine lobster rolls, the colorful Fall leaves, lighthouses, and beautiful coastline offer a distraction. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s birthplace and childhood home, a brick house not far from the water in Portland,Maine, is now a museum. Although his bedroom window had a view of the sea, inspiration for many of his poems, modern buildings now block that vista.

Of course, I found the bookstore named for the famous poet.

Both Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne studied at Bowdoin College, my next stop.

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The Burgess Boys

9781400067688_p0_v1_s260x420From a tragic childhood incident and a headline grabbing prank turned into a hate crime, Elizabeth Strout slowly explores the subtle interactions of siblings in The Burgess Boys.

Bob, a legal-aid lawyer in New York, and Susie, a divorced optometrist who never left Maine, are twins, yet they have grown into strangers as adults who barely tolerate each other. Jim, the older brother and successful Manhattan lawyer, famous for helping to acquit an O. J. Simpson-like criminal, takes every opportunity to flaunt his success and belittle his brother and sister. Their small Maine hometown of Shirley Falls pulls them back together when Zach, Susie’s desolate teenager, is arrested for throwing a frozen pig’s head into the town’s Somali mosque during Ramadan.

When Jim and Bob return to Shirley Falls to offer legal and moral support to their sister, Zach’s dilemma becomes secondary to the intolerance of the locals who feel invaded by a growing population of Somali, and the Somali Muslims who live in displaced fear of the terrorism they escaped in Africa. The dialogue hints at the seething prejudice in the town mixed with the forced charity, absent of real understanding. To be sure you understand, Strout has an omniscent narrator chiming in to explain.

But the incident is only the catalyst to the issues facing the Burgess boys and their sister. The death of their father looms over the flawed personalities: four-year old Bob, left in the car with his brother and sister, accidentally released the car in the driveway to run over Dad, leaving them orphaned. Later in the book, the incident takes on new meaning, as the brothers verbally duel over Zach’s fate. The accident changed the family dynamics with their mother overcompensating for Bob’s guilt and Jim taking on new bravado, as the everlasting torturer of his brother. Susie is left out – disliked and ignored, to grow into a bitter divorced woman – with a strange son. The supporting cast of spouses and neighbors inject a mix of vitriol and sympathy; especially one character who provides a sudden jolt of karma to one brother when all seems to have been resolved with Zach.

The setting goes back and forth from Manhattan and Brooklyn to Shirley Falls, Maine; but with differing perspectives of both areas. When small town Susie finally visits New York City, she is overwhelmed; Bob finds some comfort in his memories of small town living; Jim only wants to return to demonstrate his acquired big city prowess.

The book sputters in starts and stops, with the constant bickering, anxieties, jealousies, and any other emotion possible with adult siblings. At times, you will want to send them all into the corner for a time out. Nevertheless, they are there for each other – as families usually are – and in the end, they all finally grow up and into adults with tolerance and more understanding of each other. Strout’s characters are not likeable, but they are unforgettable.