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Is there a way to teach the Catholic way of life through fiction, without making it soft and shallow?
These last several weeks, eastern Pennsylvania has been suffering from an unusual amount of rain. Although the tomatoes in the garden aren't liking it one bit, and they have yet to ripen, I've found an easy and enjoyable way to get through the dreary days.
Catholic fiction has found its way onto my Kindle, but it's been a journey to begin the download.
Last year, when I attended the Catholic Writers' Conference, I met Catholic novelist Michelle Buckman. After a brief chat, she offered me a copy of her latest book. I didn't know what to say, so I just nodded and blurted out a quick, "Thanks!"
You see, up until then I had been sorely disappointed by contemporary fiction. After earning my degree in English Literature (not American) and well-steeped in classical fiction, I went off to work for a major publisher in New York City, where we published literature-quality non-fiction. I spent many years engulfed in how-to's, history, business and success stories...not romance and who-dunnits. And each time I picked a contemporary novel, it was either a harsh view of the world or just plain smut. I was turned off. And when I tried to read Christian novels, I found stories that had little depth and weren't very fulfilling. They didn't seem to present a real-life scenario to me.
And time? Who had time? I had two little rambunctious boys running about, hardly providing the setting for quiet reading. I will still engulfed in Bionicles and Rescue Heroes. I knew in the back of my mind that my time would come. And it did.
But I didn't know what to think of Catholic fiction. I heard Michelle speak and then decided to give her book a read, although I admit the paperback sat on my reading pile for a few months while I embarked on yet another and typical deep-read about a saint, this time St. Bernadette of Lourdes in Bernadette Speaks by Rene Laurentin.
But once I picked up Michelle's novel and began reading it, I couldn't put it down. Not only did I find a compelling story that drew me back to its pages time and time again, but I was also amazed by the edifying quality of the work.
Is there a way to teach the Catholic way of life through fiction, without making it soft and shallow? Obviously, the answer is Yes. These authors have found the way.
So, without further ado, I'm presenting here a very short list of the books I would consider must-reads. Some of them are modern and gritty, some are Victorian and almost like poetry, while others are easy-reads like romance novels. Some take more effort to read, while others are a breeze and perfect for the busy mom. All of them are worthwhile, in my opinion, and wonderful entertainment that help fill the reader's heart and soul. All of them are available in both book form and on Kindle, and I've noted which ones are free on Kindle.
I'll top the list with Michelle Buckman's award-winning title. Happy reading!
Rachel's Contrition by Michelle Buckman, winner of the Catholic Arts and Letters Award (CALA): Michelle weaves a modern story of loss, renewal, and compassion. By the end of the book, I was crying like a baby. The story is well-woven and leads you through Rachel's agony from her unique and often tumbled (but very real) perspective. In the end, the cloud is lifted, and the reader is taken through Rachel's healing process. Throughout the story, she is guided through her days by a new friend, St. Therese of Lisieux. She is also guided by her husband, who Rachel viewed as "the enemy". The story is gripping, a little gritty, and feels very real. It does not suffer from soft, gentle Christian writing but instead illuminates how true healing can take place with God's grace.
Death Panels: A Novel of Life, Liberty and Faith by Michelle Buckman: Here is a futuristic story that is timely and thought-provoking, set in 2042. This one is truly gritty and will make you think about where our nation is going in our beliefs and attitude about the value of human life. In Death Panels, David saves a newborn from certain death when it is not born perfect. The story quickly unfolds as faithful believers, who had been forced to go underground, are pulled into a holy scheme of saving this child and changing the world forever, if but only a bit.
The White Ladies of Worcester by Florence Barclay: (Free on Kindle) Written in 1917, this novel is as pertinent today as it was then. Both its language and story line feel remarkable contemporary; despite its age, it is still an easy and delightful read that has a great deal to offer. However, when I first read a description of the book, I wondered if it was worth reading. The main character, Mora, is a prioress of a cloister. When her love from long ago shows up, it's her bishop who helps her leave the convent and marry the knight. Doesn't sound very obedient, does it? I began reading it wanting to find it filled with flaws. To my surprise, I found that Mrs. Barclay had written a beautiful and holy story.
The main character, Mora, had been tricked into believing that her love had returned from the Crusades and married another, and so she felt that her only other option was to give her heart (and all her agony over her loss) to Christ in service to the Church. When the truth is revealed by her prior, the bishop, she is faced with a difficult decision, and she again takes her heart to Christ to find the answer. Her decision, alas, was not based on her feelings but on what was right in the eyes of the Church. And it was there in the laws of the Church that she found her heart. It's a moving story I couldn't put down. I was amazed by the depth of the characters--all the characters, even the little old nun who watched the convent's entrance and talked a the robin to pass the time. Mrs. Barclay had carefully written into the story a fabric of Catholic doctrine and way of life.
The Rosary by Florence Barclay: (Free on Kindle) Another story written by Mrs. Barclay, here is a Victorian love story that stands the test of time. Just like The White Ladies of Worcester, it is easy to read and compelling. Barclay relates falling in love with the Rosary, how each moment can be like praying the beads, holding the beads of joy in your hands and giving away your heart. The story also invokes patience and deep abiding love. It depicts two characters of opposite demeanor learning to carefully consider the needs of the other--something we rarely read in romance novels. Garth declares to Jane, "You have lifted the veil, and I am entering in!" However, Jane is overwhelmed by this surprise declaration from her lifelong friend, and she makes a decision she later struggles to undo, praying that she will not have to live with the regret for the rest of her life. Garth's condition, both physical and spiritual, will chip away at your heart, as Jane secretively brings him back to life with her selfless and thoughtful actions. This story reduced me to tears, and I couldn't stop thinking about it for days.
Daughter of Joy (Brides of Culdee Creek, Book 1) by Kathleen Morgan: (Free on Kindle) I'm not sure what possessed me to download this onto my Kindle, but I'm glad I did. Here is a contemporary novel that's a light read but very compelling and thought-provoking. It is the first of four titles in the Brides of Culdee Creek Series. I especially like how the main character brings to life the beauty of what John Paul II called "the feminine genius." The story also depicts clearly the Catholic belief that sorrow and pain is useful and edifying by how it brings us closer to Christ, at the foot of His cross, bringing us deeper into our faith.
The author is a well-published romance novelist, but her life changed suddenly in 1996 when her youngest son died unexpectedly of cancer. In A Word from the Author, she explains to her readers that her Christian faith had turned lukewarm over the years, and her son's death brought her back to God. There was something she wrote that led me to believe she is Catholic (although she writes nothing to confirm it). It was about her suffering; her words ring of Catholic beliefs. She wrote: "My son's death brought me back to God. There are still times, even now, when all I can do is hang on to Him with all my might and be grateful for that. At other times, I cannot help but marvel at how far I've come and how blessed I am. Grieving, I think, is a lot like that--a wild, agonizing, bewildering, yet sometimes glorious ride into the deeper, more essential aspects of self and humanity."
Her novel, Daughter of Joy, is set on the Culdee Creek ranch on the plains east of Colorado Springs in 1895. It's a story of how Abby, who lost both her husband and son, brought life back to Conor MacKay, who had lost himself to quiet anger. Throughout the story, the author depicts circumstances we can all relate to. But what I enjoyed most was Abby's determination to show the teachings of her faith through her everyday actions. And it wasn't easy! Conor made sure of that. Throughout the story, you will meet characters of all stripes, and you just might recognize more than one (that is, people in your life, too). Edifying, compelling, and satisfying, this easy-read is perfect entertainment for busy moms.
Woman of Grace (Brides of Culdee Creek, Book 2) by Kathleen Morgan: The Culdee Creek story continues with Hannah, whom Abby rescued from forced labor at the local brothel. She is brought home to the ranch, much to everyone's dismay. Hannah comes face-to-face with an old client, the husband of Abby's best friend, who is also Conor MacKay's cousin and ranch foreman. In this twist, hearts that are hurt turn to forgiveness with Abby's help, and Hannah begins a new life, grasping her second chance with thanksgiving. Her old client, the foreman, must face painful realizations of how he failed his wife, but not before losing her to influenza. His grief is deep and his sins he feels are unforgivable. He creates a private hell for himself, believing that he is not worthy of God's love. Abby and Hannah help him to find forgiveness, peace, and God's grace. Like Book 1, Woman of Grace shows the feminine genius at work. It's not an easy task, but Abby and Hannah cling to God's grace and find strength to do His will.
I hope you enjoyed this short list and consider how you can add a little Catholic fiction to your reading list, too.
Click on the links in each book description, or click here to visit Kathleen's Catholic Book Shop for almost 50 Catholic titles that are excellent reading.
Happy Catholic reading!