Dear Mr. Knightley is certainly not a classic, but at the same time it isn’t simply fluff literature. The majority of the book is a series of letters written by Samantha Moore, journalism grad student, to the mysterious benefactor who is paying for her education. The multitude of references to Jane Austen books, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Daddy Long Legs, and other classics are enjoyable for book lovers. But this is certainly not a period-era book; in fact, there is quite an intentional dichotomy between the civilized classical world Samantha, commonly known as Sam, wishes she belonged to and the raw, rough life she has actually lived.
Sam has unquestionably had a tough life.
Her earliest memories are of abuse from her parents. In and out of the foster-care system for years, never connecting with a foster family, she ends up on the streets at the age of 15. After months on the street, she ends up in a Christian group home, where she finds a precarious sense of safety. Yet after years of danger and tumult, she finds herself unable to connect with those around her, instead
The question becomes, how can Sam heal from her traumatic life?
There are two answers offered in the novel: first, that Sam needs to “find herself,” and second, that she needs to learn to trust God. I was pleasantly surprised by the second theme, which is subtle and not fully developed, but undeniably present.
With the first theme about healing by “finding yourself,” I was concerned initially about Gnostic influences, but ended up deciding that the author’s intent was simply to show that Samantha needed to stop hiding behind her impersonations of literary characters. Samantha had perfected the art of copying the speech and mannerisms of whichever character she thinks appropriate for the situation: an amicable Jane Bennet, a ruthless Edmond Dante, a spirited Lizzie Bennet. Of course, this is a dangerous habit since it distances others and keeps them from meeting Sam herself. Sam learns that in order to make real friends, she has to let go of pretending to be her literary companions. The theme here is about stopping hiding your past, personality, or vulnerability, but rather embracing the unique experiences that molded you.
The second theme about healing as learning to trust in God is not as fully drawn out, but the Christian influences in Sam’s life are undeniable. Most of the people who help her are Christians: the priest at the group home, the professor and his wife who “adopt” her, the mysterious benefactor. Sam notices these people have a peace and certainty that she admits to wanting for herself. She finds when she chooses forgiveness, she finds peace and joy. There is no radical conversion in Dear Mr. Knightley, but the reader can certainly assume that with the continued influence of her good friends, Sam eventually will find her way home to Christ.
Who would enjoy Dear Mr. Knightley?
Refreshingly clean, this book is perfect for older teens and adults. I would not recommend it for younger teens due to some descriptions of domestic abuse and a plot line about Sam’s first boyfriend, Josh, pressuring her to “sleep over” with him. Although Sam refuses and eventually breaks up with him over his unfaithfulness, her reasons for refusing are rather nebulous. The teenage reader would already need to be able to make the correct moral judgments about the situation since Sam does not have the benefit of a strong moral compass.
This book is perfect for a light, quick read on vacation, when the kids are falling asleep, or at the end of a long day. The literary allusions are delightful, the romance between Sam and Alex is sweet, and there are some worthwhile themes about friendship, trust, and healing.
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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a truly compelling historical fiction novel: inspiring, humbling, thought-provoking, and devastating in turn. The story follows two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, from the time the first rumbles of World War II begin to affect France to immediately after the end of the war. By focusing on these two sisters’ very different but equally difficult paths through the war, The Nightingale succeeds in powerfully conveying the reality of the horror, the magnitude of the losses, the utter wrecking of lives in World War II. This book does not spare the reader from the awful depths that man can sink to. Yet the depravities man conducts are but a foil to the heights of heroism to which everyday people can rise. The Nightingale offers inspiration and hope with its themes about unbreakable love, heroic sacrifice, and the miracle of children.
The Nightingale is an affirmation of the power of all the forms of love to survive and thrive in the worst conditions imaginable.
The bonds of friendship are a potent force. In her small French hometown, Vianne and her best friend Rachel encourage and help one another to keep supporting their families, whether that is with words or by sharing the last morsels of food. When Jewish Rachel is taken away to a concentration camp, Vianne risks her own life to save Rachel’s son.
The love between sisters also survives the horror of war. Vianne and Isabelle had a tumultuous relationship growing up, but during the war each strives to protect the other as best they can. Vianne attacks a German soldier to save Isabelle. Isabelle distances herself from her sister’s family to protect them from the repercussions of her underground work. At the end of the war, Vianne searches tirelessly for her lost sister and brings her home.
The Nightingale depicts the love between parents and children as particularly beautiful and powerful. Vianne and Isabelle’s father Julien eventually gives his life to save Isabelle’s. Vianne repeatedly reflects that the only reason she continues struggling to survive is out of love for her children. Vianne’s husband Antoine writes to her from POW camp that she must remain strong for their children.
Love between man and woman also gets its due, mostly through Vianne’s clinging to Antoine’s memory through the years of war, and determination to rebuild their relationship afterwards. Isabelle’s relationship with Gaetan also illustrates the power of love to endure torture, sickness, and imprisonment.
The Nightingale is a paean to sacrifice, a tribute to the countless simple folk who made unimaginable sacrifices to help save lives during World War II.
At first, parents sacrifice for their children, townsfolk for their neighbors. But soon, the war make each person question what they truly believe about the sanctity of human life and how much they will risk to preserve it. First, Vianne saves and hides her Jewish friend’s son Ariel. Later, she helps save the lives of 18 other Jewish children, hiding them in an orphanage and forging identity papers for them. Her actions are all a heroic sacrifice, since they seriously endanger her life and her children’s lives. When asked how she could risk so much, Vianne tellingly says she does it for her daughter Sophie: what would she be teaching her daughter if she did not help save lives?
Her sister takes an even more risky path to help save lives. Isabelle envisions a way to help the English and American airmen escape from occupied France into neutral Spain. Although she realizes that she will almost certainly be captured eventually, tortured, and killed, she begins the “Nightingale Route.” She leads over 27 groups of airmen across the Pyrenees Mountains to safety before her capture.
One of the most beautiful sacrifices in the novel is after Isabelle is captured, when her father chooses to enter SS headquarters and confess to begin the ringleader of the “Nightingale Route” so that her life will be spared.
The Nightingale offers a strongly pro-life message about the blessing of children.
Returned POW Antoine says it most plainly: “This child… is a miracle.” All the main characters believe and live this truth throughout the novel: children are a miracle. They are the reason to keep going during the darkest years of the war. They are the cause for hope in a shattered world at the end of the war. Their existence is the healing as rebuilding begins.
The Nightingale is surprisingly clean with few exceptions.
As with any novel that attempts to accurately capture the atmosphere of occupied France, The Nightingale has its share of brutal violence. Vianne sees pregnant women shot, and experiences beatings and rapes herself. Isabelle is tortured and endures concentration camp life. The focus is not on the violence, though, but on the will to endure and survive the sisters exhibit.
There is little to no language. The only instances are the rare curse in French or German.
As far as sexual content, there is only one rape scene described, and it is short and easily skimmed over by sensitive readers. There are references to a husband and wife making love, but no descriptions. The most problematic content from a Catholic perspective is that Isabelle and Gaetan do sleep together despite being unmarried. Again, there is nothing graphic described, but parents should be aware if considering letting their teens read this book. I personally think it is too intense for any but very mature older teens.
The Nightingale is a sobering yet gripping novel which I highly recommend for Catholic adults.
This book leaves you reeling, yet inspired. It’s an important book because World War II needs to be remembered. The unspeakable evils committed and the heroic virtue shown both need to be kept in memory. Laugh, cry, enjoy this fantastic novel.
The Awakening of Miss Prim is one of those rare, delectable books that you find yourself savoring, trying to spin out each chapter to the utmost. This novel by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera was first published in Spain in 2011 and translated to English a few years later. The English translation is professionally done, and I could almost believe the novel was set in England, except for the Spanish character names. Spain or England, The Awakening of Miss Prim has a cozy, old world charm about it that makes it the perfect book to curl with of an evening, beverage of choice in hand.
What is beauty?
What is marriage? What is peace? What is the purpose of education? What is friendship? What is truth? What is love? What is beauty? These are the questions pondered in The Awakening of Miss Prim. Miss Prim, a young woman with a string of impressive scholarly qualifications, comes to the tiny village of San Ireneo in search of “refuge.” Refuge from what? She can’t quite say.
San Ireneo is a village some might call backwards in its way of life. It ascribes to a distributism of Chesterton, the courtesy of old England, and the educational principles of the Greeks. People from around the world with a shared vision of creating a utopia, a The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, have created a unique society and culture in San Ireneo. Miss Prim is at once charmed, bewildered, and offended by San Ireneo and its people, but soon finds herself forming unexpected friendships.
In The Awakening of Miss Prim, friendship is the key to changing hearts.
Naturally a deep thinker who prides herself on her acumen, Miss Prim feels consternation when both her employer and new friends habitually challenge her every presupposition about life, religion, and literature. For example, at first she is mortally offended when her friends in the San Ireneo feminist society speak of finding her a husband. Over time, through her friendships with some of the members, Miss Prim realizes their intentions were loving, and even becomes open to listening to their views on how marriage is liberating.
The most important relationship Miss Prim forms is her unlikely friendship with her employer, enigmatically referred to as the Man in the Wing Chair. A dead language expert with a formidable intellect, he seems to delight in poking holes in Miss Prim’s pet theories about education, religion, and literature. Yet even as he exasperates her, his courtesy and genuineness lead her to contemplate his arguments with an open mind.
Rather than providing all the answers to the “what” questions, this novel offers food for thought.
Is the redemption a fairy tale? Or is it The Only Real Fairy Tale? Is marriage a harmony? A drawing together of opposites? Or both? Is beauty a painting, a field of flowers, a feeling? Does absolute truth exist?
The Awakening of Miss Prim provides trails of breadcrumbs leading the reader to what truth, goodness, and beauty is. Or rather, as the wise old monk advises, “Don’t be surprised if, in the end, you find beauty to be not Something but Someone.”
Perhaps in keeping with the theme of raising questions that aren’t quite answered, the book ends quite abruptly, leaving the reader to imagine the ending. This precipitous farewell to Miss Prim and San Ireneo is, in my opinion, the only real flaw in this imminently enjoyable novel.
This book is refreshingly clean of all objectionable content, and can be safely read by teens, though I think adults will appreciate it more thoroughly. On the other hand, the abundance of references to master writers like Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Virgil, and more may inspire teens to read some of these other great works.
James Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, wrote a wonderful series of books for adults, in addition to several collections for children. Drawing on his years of experience as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, Herriot wrote his memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. These memoirs take the form of a series of loosely connected stories, mostly anecdotes about the animals and owners he encountered. Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, Herriot’s uncanny gift for storytelling makes these books classics I love to recommend to animal lovers young and old.
“All things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small”
The poem The Creation by Cecil Frances Alexander inspired the titles of Herriot’s books. This poem really captures the spirit with which Herriot approached creation, always marveling at its wonders and seeing the hand of the Creator. In a spirit very similar to St. Francis of Assisi, Herriot cares for each animal, great and small, he encounters. He embodies a great example of stewardship of creation, often helping animals whose owners have no way to pay for his services. His great love for nature surpasses the boundaries of Kingdom Animalia. He also loves natural beauty, often describing the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire dales with the affection of a lover.
Community and good old-fashioned virtues praised.
Herriot writes of a different generation and lifestyle. He describes a now old fashioned way of life based on hard work and simple pleasures. Both Herriot himself and the farmers he encounters endure back-breaking work, whether birthing cows or forking hay. They enjoy good food, family time, and the occasional treat of an outing to a concert. The lack of technology and slow pace of life is a shock, perhaps a necessary one, to the twenty-first century reader. Was Herriot’s generation more peaceful in their hard labor? Happier in their simple pleasures?
Community is of great importance to Herriot. Neighborliness is an important quality in an isolated, low-tech community- even if the nearest neighbor is a mile away! The farmers are almost always hospitable and kind, taking care of the vet with a cup of tea and a seat by the fire after a call. In return, Herriot and his partner Siegfried often extend credit to cash-strapped customers.
Any questionable content?
Herriot’s memoirs are somewhat autobiographical. He recounts his charming, clean story of falling in love with Helen, his future wife. This is no more graphic than the description of a few kisses. On the other hand, the young veterinary student, Tristan, is a wild college student who is described as having several lady friends. Nothing graphic again, but the insinuation is that he knows them rather too well.
Tristan is also described as being frequently drunk. Herriot’s partner in the firm, Siegfried Farnon, is also occasionally described as drunk, and even rarely Herriot himself. Usually the consequences of drunkenness are portrayed as unpleasant: embarrassment at the least, or even a lost client. But occasionally Herriot does recount a drunken episode with a humorous twist.
The only other caveat I have about these books is the occasional foul language. The farmers are earthy men who swear when angry. Their language ranges from taking the Lord’s name in vain to the occasional f-word. The language is infrequent enough that is easy to take a permanent marker and cross out any words you don’t want your teens reading.
Who will enjoy the James Herriot books?
Anyone who appreciates a masterfully told anecdote with a lilting rhythm punctuated by impeccably timed punch lines. Anyone who loves animals and nature. Anyone who likes autobiographies, comedy, or a sweet love story. Really, I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying these books. I wholeheartedly recommend them for teens and adults who are looking for a light-hearted series.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows came highly recommended from no no less than three reliable sources, so I had to read it as soon as possible. As soon as possible turned out to be after 16 other library card holders saw fit to read and return it. But better late than never, I come to add my approval to that of the many fans of this charming historical fiction novel.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is written as a collection of letters, mostly to and from Juliet Ashton, a young woman finding her path in life immediately after World War II. Juliet is a writer, a successful newspaper columnist and authoress, and altogether a sweet and spunky heroine. She learns of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands which was occupied during the war from Dawsey. Dawsey is a shy, intelligent islander who reaches out to Juliet by letter after finding her address in his favorite used book. A correspondence leads to friendship between Juliet and Dawsey, and a book idea for Juliet. Juliet visits Guernsey and ends up falling in love with the island, its inhabits, and most of all Dawsey.
Literature Lovers Delight
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is rife with references to classic literature. Juliet shares fascinating details about Charles Lamb’s life with Dawsey as the basis for their early correspondence. Various members of the Society share in their letters to Juliet how the works of famous authors from Seneca to Emily Bronte impacted their lives and brought them hope and respite during the war. A drunk, a lady, a pig farmer, a carpenter, a rag man, an aristocratic impostor are all saved on a soul-deep level by great literature. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is at root a celebration of books’ magical ability to bridge gaps in class, education, race, language.
Enjoyable Historical Fiction
Through reading Juliet’s correspondence, the reader learns a great deal about how World War II affected the Channel Islands, and particularly Guernsey. By focusing on one small island, the authors paint a painful, even heart-breaking picture of life for inhabitants of an occupied country, albeit a tiny one. The islanders spend five years cut off from all news of the outside world, separated from most of their children (who were evacuated), facing severe food, clothing, and firewood shortages. Their pain is captured in glittering shards of memory scattered throughout their letters. But well interspersed with the pain is the balm of friendship and loyalty and hope for a better future. I found The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be historical fiction at its best: a captivating story which also managed to impart a great deal of information about its historical setting.
Friendship and Love
Although undeniably having a love interest as a subplot, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is more focused on friendship. Of course one reads of Juliet’s many friendships, both old ones from girlhood and new ones with the Islanders. However, I found the most fascinating themes about friendship to center around the friendships between the Islanders. People who might otherwise have barely nodded in acquaintance became co-conspirators due to the war. Even some of the German soldier become friends with the Islanders as occupied and occupiers both face starvation. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society shows the truth of hard times leading to friendship.
I also appreciated the slow, gradual evolution of Juliet and Dawsey’s romance. This is no “love at first sight” affair. Their relationship begins with months of letters which forge a friendship. After they meet, the friendship slowly blossoms into love. This is an unusual portrayal of an unfolding relationship in a historical fiction novel, but one I found utterly refreshing and applaud.
A Few Notes for Parents
I think many older teens would enjoy The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It was exceptionally clean, so I have just a few caveats for Catholic parents. One, there is a a neutral to somewhat positive reference of an affair between an unmarried German soldier and an Islander, both deceased. Their illegitimate child is a major character and I found the Islanders’ attitude of support and material help quite pro-life.
The only other quibble I have is that Syndey, one of Juliet’s best friends, and her most frequent correspondent, is a secret homosexual. This is again presented as basically a simple fact without much slant positive or negative. It is really a minor detail and there is no mention of his having homosexual relationships. I honestly think the authors made him a homosexual so Juliet wouldn’t be in a love triangle.
To be enjoyed by…
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a joy to read for women, will be lapped up high school girls, and probably leave most men bored senseless. So don’t try to make this your next couples read! But do read it and savor the simple goodness of a sweet story of friendship and love and hope. Then pass it on to your teenage daughters, since this would be a fine book for a high schooler to write any of a variety of essays on: a character analysis of Juliet or Dawsey; an exploration of how friendships are forged through letters; a contrast of post-war life in London versus Guernsey. I think the title is creative enough that teenagers will want to read it just to find out what The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is. I know I did!
If you enjoyed my last list of Good Books for Catholic Kids that are also Good Movies, here is a companion list for older teens, young adults, and parents too! How much fun would it be to have a book club that read one of these books, discussed it, and then watched the movie together?
To begin with the obvious, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is such a masterpiece of fantasy and literature that if your teenager has not read it yet, they most certainly should! And the Lord of the Rings movies are a splendid adaptation, mostly because they tried to stick to the book as closely as possible even if that resulted in a 10 hour plus movie.
Another amazingly successful adaptation is Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s TV series Jeeves & Wooster. I am a die-hard fan of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster books, which are each comedic masterpieces. But I happily admit that Fry and Laurie so capture the dynamics of Wodehouse’s hilarious duo that it is difficult to choose whether to read or watch in this case!
Yet another brilliant adaptation: the BBC version of Jane Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice. The book is a classic of wit and wisdom, humor and human nature. And it is hard to imagine a better adaptation than the Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
While talking about Jane Austen, another enjoyable adaptation is the Sense and Sensibility movie starring Emma Thompson. The book Sense and Sensibility is a less mature Austen work stylistically than Pride and Prejudice, but still a worthwhile novel about two impoverished sisters with very different personalities.
For animal lovers, James Herriot’s humorous and touching memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small will be a true joy to read. These were my very favorite books as a teenager, and I still enjoy re-reading them as an adult. These books were made into six seasons of an enjoyable TV series: All Creatures Great & Small. Parental advisory: books and shows contain some colorful Yorkshire cursing at times.
North to Freedom is a powerful book by Ann Holmes about a boy who grows up in a Nazi concentration camp and finally escapes. His wide-eyed wonder at the world outside the camp, and journey to find his family, is sure to bring tears and smiles. The awesome movie adaptation is as least as good as the book and is called I Am David. This is a fun one to watch with both mature tweens and teens.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is the classic story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, who grow up during the Civil War. There are many movie adaptations, but I like the old Little Women with Katherine Hepburn as Jo best. Another fun one for all teenagers.
Gone with the Wind is a unusual book movie duo in that the movie is actually appropriate for a younger audience than the book. The book Gone with the Wind is a magnificent, sweeping account of the Civil War and its impact on Southerners, seen through the lens of the memorable and irrepressible Scarlett O’Hara. Although a must-read for adults, parents should be advised that the book contains content dealing with subjects like adultery, fornication, and prostitution. I would recommend it for older teens, who will also love the movie Gone with the Wind. Starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, the movie is great in its own right, though there is no way to really adequately condense the 800+ pages of the book to a two hour film.
Who doesn’t love The Sound of Music? This beloved film was inspired by the real life Trapp Family. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the real Maria Augusta Trapp’s version of the family’s story, is charming and inspiring and even better than the movie! (Appropriate for fourteen and up.)
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a Catholic classic. Best understood and enjoyed by older teens, this is a story of great sin and redemption, a war torn world, a family destroyed, and an unexpected conversion. An acclaimed TV series was produced based on the book: Brideshead Revisited . The movie is best for college aged and older, mostly due to one unfortunate scene involving adultery.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most popular and easily read of Charles Dicken’s numerous works. Historical fiction about the French Revolution, it is a touching story of love and sacrifice juxtaposed with the horror of the guillotine. The 1935 movie A Tale of Two Cities is a good adaptation if you enjoy older movies.
I’ve done a review for you on why I think The Hunger Games is acceptable reading for older Catholic teens. If you agree, your older teens will be thrilled to also watch The Hunger Games movie. Yes, it is violent, and I would recommend this book and movie for high schoolers and older, not younger teens.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is a wonderful novel about revenge and redemption. The movie The Count Of Monte Cristo is entertaining, but does fail to capture one of the major themes of the book: that revenge is not the right answer. I would recommend watching it for discussion purposes to see how differently Dumas and the movie producers viewed happiness and revenge. There is one scene of implied fornication (easily skipped) that makes this more appropriate for older teens.
Recently, Christie’s book Crooked House was adapted into a creepy, captivating movie: Crooked House. Her book Ordeal by Innocence was also adapted into a multi-episode Amazon Prime series of the same name. These two films deal with more chilling evil and some adult content which make them more appropriate for viewers over 18.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Ocrzy has always been one of my favorite novels. This fascinating historical fiction novel captures the terror of the French Revolution and also has one of the most memorable love stories in literature. The old black and white adaptation, Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon has wonderful acting and is my favorite, despite the the blurry film quality common in early black and whites. The Scarlet Pimpernel made more recently in 1982 with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour is also excellent, though parents need to beware of one scene, fairly easily skipped.
I recently had the delectation of inhaling Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden. I really could not put this book down after the first chapter. Although Godden’s style is discursive, almost rambling, this book gripped me from the start. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy switches back and forth between a peaceful, pastoral description of convent life and the dramatic, vicious ambiance of a Paris brothel. I hazard a guess that Godden intentionally chose these incongruous settings, for Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is in essence a book of contrasts: the depths of evil versus the height of heroic virtue, the healing power of love versus the destructive force of hate, freedom versus bondage.
This is the story of Lise, known by many names: Elizabeth Fanshawe, a middle-class English orphan; Lise Ambard, the prostitute; La Balafree, the youngest brothel manager in Paris; and Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire. This is Lise’s story of conversion and redemption, but also the story of the many people whose lives she touches in her journey, their lives intertwined to form a chain, not unlike a rosary. Lise, a recipient of God’s mercy, becomes an instrument of God’s mercy to so many others.
There are so many wonderful themes woven into Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy . Forgiveness, for one. Lise is a modern Magdalen figure, one who sinned so greatly yet grasped at the promise of God’s mercy with childlike trust. As I read, a line from the Our Father echoed over and over in my memory: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Lise, although a sinner, has been sinned against even more grievously. Yet she is a perfect exemplification of the Our Father forgiveness, not only pardoning but loving those who have most deeply wronged her.
Another theme is freedom. Modern wisdom might maintain Lise was most free as a young girl in Paris, choosing to flaunt tradition and move in with her lover. Yet following her own desires brings her no lasting happiness or satisfaction. Then she begins to find true freedom in a prison, where she meets the Sisters of Bethaine and hears a call to true freedom. And in the convent, where her life is regulated and regimented, and she voluntarily gives her life to God, she finds the greatest freedom: contemplation of God.
Rumer Godden tastefully handled the adult content which is an unavoidable part of the plot of this story, but Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is still not for the naive or easily scandalized. If you are considering letting your teenager read this, be aware that there are descriptions of brothel life, implied fornication and adultery, characters who are prostitutes or former prostitutes, incest, child molestation, and more. This book reveals the darkness and evil in mankind, which makes the light of God’s mercy shine brighter. Lise’s redemption would not be as convicting if she had not been so great a sinner. This is a truly inspiring book well worth taking the time to procure and peruse.
Anthony Hope penned the The Prisoner of Zenda nearly 125 years ago. Hope’s book was so popular it sparked an entire genre known as “Ruritarian Romance,” which are adventure novels set in fictional countries in Eastern Europe. The Prisoner of Zenda was received with eclat by Hope’s generation, who were delighted with the adventure and romance, political intrigue and sword fights, humor and tragedy. I confess to thoroughly enjoying this fast-paced, clever adventure myself, with a few reservations. This is a story for adults or older, mature teens.
Rudolf Rassendyll, both the hero and the narrator, is a dashing young Englishman who decides on a whim to journey to Ruritania for the coronation of the new king, also named Rudolf. Without giving away too much of the plot, a scandal is Rassendyll’s family’s past resulted in his bearing a close resemblance to the king or Ruritania, a fortunate coincidence when King Rudolf’s treacherous half brother makes a play for the throne. Rudolf Rassendyll acts decisively and honorably to save the King’s throne and life, but at the cost of a broken heart.
HONOR OR LOVE
This is simply an adventure story at heart, but what I found fascinating were the themes about honor and love, which were handled so differently a century and a half ago. Anthony Hope creates a story where Rudolf chooses honor over romantic love and passion. One overwhelming message about love in our culture is, “If it feels good, do it.” Heaven forbid in the twenty first century that anyone deny the impulses of passion. The Prisoner of Zenda offers a strikingly different approach to a conflict between honor and the dictates of our heart. Throughout the book, Rudolf wrestles with his love for the Princess Flavia, but mostly restrains himself from acting on it. Even when, in the final chapters, Rudolf falters in his determination to act honorably and leave the Princess to marry the King as she should for the good of her country, Flavia stands firm. She delivers a heroic refusal to compromise honor for love.
“Is love the only thing? … If love were the only thing, I would follow you—in rags, if need be—to the world’s end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand! But is love the only thing? … I know people write and talk as if it were. Perhaps, for some, Fate lets it be. Ah, if I were one of them! But if love had been the only thing, you would have let the King die in his cell. … Honour binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honour lies in being true to my country and my House. I don’t know why God has let me love you; but I know that I must stay.”
A LITTLE PHILOSOPHY
Rudolf struggles throughout The Prisoner of Zenda with his desire for the Princess and temptations to allow the King to die so he could seize the throne and princess for his own. I appreciated his distinctions between thinking and doing. He recognizes the crucial moral distinction between feeling a temptation and acting on it. In fact, his approach to confronting temptation is very close to St. Alphonsus di Liguori’s: do not focus unduly on temptation, but rather be grateful for grace to resist it. Rudolf explains:
“A man cannot be held to write down in cold blood the wild and black thoughts that storm his brain when an uncontrolled passion has battered a breach for them. Yet, unless he sets up as a saint, he need not hate himself for them He is better employed, as it humbly seems to me, in giving thanks that power to resist was vouchsafed to him, than in fretting over wicked impulses which come unsought and extort an unwilling hospitality from the weakness of our nature.”
What an awesome little explanation of human nature, grace, and temptation to find in an adventure story!
Although I appreciated the overall refreshing themes about honor and chivalry in The Prisoner of Zenda, this book is not without flaw morally speaking. There is a decent amount of violence, some of it committed by the hero himself. One of the most disturbing moments of violence is when Rudolf stabs a sleeping guard to death, an action that does not seem necessary in the context of the story. However, at least Rudolf later feels compunction about this decision to cold bloodedly kill the guard: “Of all the deeds of my life, I love the least to think of this.” The other motif I did not appreciate was a slight tendency towards misogyny in the hero. He comments at one point that “Women are careless, forgetful creatures.” However, to balance that comment, as I noted above, Princess Flavia is ultimately portrayed as the most honorable and principled person in the book.
If you or your older teens enjoy a good adventure, I find The Prisoner of Zenda to be an overall worthwhile read which provides a thought-provoking snapshot of a very different moral culture. I suggest it only for older teens and adults due to some moral dilemmas involving the proper use of violence, and some mentions of illegitimate situations and rape (in a negative light). I personally much prefer reading physical copies of books, but if you don’t mind Ebooks, this book is available for download free of charge on Project Gutenberg.
I picked up My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell on a whim, hoping for a mildly interesting Ebook to pass the time while waiting for my youngest to fall asleep one evening. By the end of the first page, I was intrigued. By the end of the first chapter, I was captivated. By the end of the book, my ribs were sore from laughing and I had stayed up too late finishing it. My Family and Other Animals is quite difficult to classify, being one part travel, one part autobiography, one part natural history, and one part comedy, with a thread of descriptive language running throughout that sometimes raises it nearly to poetry. All in all, a real delight of a novel to read for any adult or older teenager.
Unconventional Childhood My Family and Other Animals begins with the Durrell family deciding on a whim to escape a miserable British summer and take a vacation to the Greek island of Corfu. The Durrells enjoy Corfu so much they end up spending five years on the island, which suits young Gerry perfectly. His book is a memoir of a childhood full of sunlight and wonder, memorable animals, colorful Greek natives, and, of course, his ever-entertaining family. There is his oldest brother Larry, who “was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with catlike unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.” Next comes Leslie, whose sole interests in life were shooting and firearms. Gerry’s older sister is Margo, who fights acne and flirts with peasants. Last but not least, there is Mother, who herds her eccentric children around the globe lovingly, encouraging and placating in a most satisfactorily motherly way.
A Unique Education
Durrell offers an interesting critique of traditional education, though subtly rather than overtly. He describes how he was enthralled with anything related to the natural sciences, but otherwise uninterested in traditional education. If he had been confined to a traditional school setting in England, he very well may never have become the great naturalist he grew up to be. His mother’s decision to move the family to Corfu during some of his most formative years provided an atypical educational experience that allowed young Gerry to develop his passion for flora and fauna into a career as a naturalist. In his book, Durrell explains how all attempts at teaching him French or geography or arithmetic were quite useless until a creative tutor found ways to relate them to biology and zoology. He learned best by exploring the island, gathering specimens, and reading about them in his considerable collection of nature books. His mother wisely allowed him to spend most of his time exploring his passion for all things animal, and Gerry thrived on Corfu in a way that would not have been possible in a typical school. In many ways, I found My Family and Other Animals a strong case for homeschooling.
Durrell the grown up uses the most delightful diction in describing his childhood as Gerry. I will pay him the tremendous compliment of comparing his word choice to P. G. Wodehouse, the master of the English language. In fact, I recommend reading with a nature encyclopedia and a dictionary at hand if you wish to receive the full benefit of Durrell’s descriptions. Unless of course you know offhand exactly what diaphanous means or what a boungainvillaea looks like. The impressive diction used in My Family and Other Animals is one of the reasons I recommend this book for readers sixteen and older.
Local Color and Hilarity
Throughout his book Durrell scatters colorful characterizations, and sometimes caricatures, of local inhabitants, flora, and fauna of Corfu. He has a keen eye for foibles and humor both human and animal. You will laugh till you cry at his description of the misadventures of his mother’s sea-slug of a dog Dodo with the leg that pops out of joint. His account of a battle between a mantid and a gecko is an epic in miniature. And the time his older brother opened a matchbox containing a snugly ensconced mother scorpion at the dining room table leads to a situational comedy of legendary proportions. These and other adventures of the Durrell family created a genuine problem as I read because it made me laugh so hard it woke my nursing baby repeatedly. Taken as a whole,My Family and Other Animals is a happy mix of P. G. Wodehouse’s humorous writing and James Herriot’s appreciation for All Creatures Great and Small which I wholeheartedly recommend as a worthwhile book.
Here is the second part of my list of worthwhile fiction for Catholic High Schoolers. (Check out Part 1 here). I recommend these books for young adults sixteen and older either because of a more challenging theme or more mature content such as graphic violence, situations involving fornication or adultery, or language. I will specify why each book requires a more mature reader to better assist you as the parent in determining what is appropriate for your teenager.
The three Bronte sisters each wrote a classic. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is the fascinating story of a young woman’s moral and spiritual growth to adulthood through the tumultuous love affair she engages in with her pupil’s guardian. Mature content includes an adulterous affair, sensuality, and mature themes.
Emily Bronte’s single published book is Wuthering Heights, a book showing both a deep moral sensibility in its author and a shocking immorality in its characters. Themes about the havoc sin wreaks on the perpetrators and even an entire community are twined with a story about forbidden love and vengeance.
Ann Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is yet another book that is attempting to uphold morality by showing the consequences of sin in sharp, ugly detail. Alcohol use, illicit affairs, and adultery make this appropriate for a more mature reader.
I recommend most of G. K. Chesterton’s fiction for an older reader simply because his soaring imaginative genius can be better grasped and appreciated the older one gets. Manalive , was my favorite Chesterton book as a teenager, inspiring me to live each day with passion and purpose, rejoicing in being alive. On a more basic level, this is also one of Chesterton’s funniest works. The Flying Inn: A Novel is another simply hilarious work about a band of madcap rebels resisting prohibition and arrest in a merry journey across England.
Chesterton takes on atheism in The Ball and the Cross. A passionate Christian and equally passionate atheist desire to duel over their differences, but find themselves unlikely allies when the government refuses to allow them to fight over their difference in belief. The Paradoxes Of Mr Pond is a series of loosely connected mystery stories, thought-provoking and entertainingly recounted. The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale is another collection of mystery stories, this time exploring the idea that a half mad poet may be the person best suited to understand and solve crimes committed by lunatics. The Man Who Was Thursday is the book subtitled “A Nightmare” by Chesterton, and it is indeed a topsy-turvy, mind-bending adventure-mystery novel. Somehow Chesterton manages to combine allegorical and philosophical with fast-paced and exciting.
Wilkie Collins wrote two fascinating mystery stories, particularly notable for their use of first person narratives from a variety of characters to tell the story. The Woman in White is a romance, a mystery, and an examination of the vulnerability of English women in the nineteenth century. Mature content includes an abusive forced marriage.
Collins’ most famous book, The Moonstone, is both a captivating mystery and important from a literary perspective as one of the first modern crime novels.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is a very lengthy, but worthwhile, novel treating an important theme about whether revenge brings real happiness or healing. Mature but not explicit content about an out of wedlock relationship resulting in a child, murders, and the main character having a mistress.
George Eliot’s most famous work is probably Middlemarch, but I personally enjoyed Daniel Deronda very much. Although long, this book explores many worthy themes about the importance of family, the Jewish people’s place in history, friendship, and true love being willing the best for the other person. Mature content includes illegitimate children, adultery, and domestic abuse.
C. S. Forester’s Hornblower Saga is a long series of books chronicling the adventures of a British naval officer beginning with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, set in 1793 during the Napoleonic wars, and following him to promotions, wars, and self-growth.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and North and South are two enjoyable and thought-provoking books, each in their own way. Wives and Daughters centers around the family, exploring personal relationships and human nature through a comedic lens. North and South, though also revolving around a romantic plot, takes on larger themes about capitalism and humanism.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic work The Scarlet Letter is a compelling study of sin and its consequences. For a mature reader due to a plot revolving around adultery and an illegitimate child.
A familiarity with Homer is necessary in a well-read individual, so certainly have your teenager read The Iliad and The Odyssey.
I have two more C. S. Lewis titles to add to my recommended list. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is the story of Cupid and Psyche retold by Psyche’s plain sister. This is a masterful explanation of human emotions and motivations, and Lewis called it his best book. The Great Divorce is an amazing allegory about heaven and hell, perfect scope for Lewis’ trademark clear distinctions and concise philosophical explanations. He raises questions such as are the gates of hell locked from the outside or inside?
The Betrothed: I Promessi Sposi , by Allesandro Manzoni, is a powerful story about the power of love and loyalty, as shown by a young couple who though separated for much of the lengthy book never swerve from their devotion to one another. A mature reader due to length.
Taylor Marshall has created a unique book that combines ancient legends about early saints with history and fantasy in Sword and Serpent. I found this book a very enjoyable look at the early church and how famous legends about Saints Blaise, Christopher, Nicholas, and George may have begun. A mature reader due to some sexual references and a truly disturbing look at evil.
Margaret O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka series is one of those books far too often considered a children’s book, when in fact it is more appropriate for older teenagers or adults. The classic story of daydreamer Ken’s coming of age through his love of a horse is beautifully written and utterly memorable. The sequel, Thunderhead, is also excellent. I recommend these books for an older reader due to the sexual content between the parents.
George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most famous books of the modern age, a real modern classic. This dystopian novel is both prophetic and disturbing in its vision of an increasingly totalitarian government which attempts to control every facet of life and brooks no individuality. 1984 is a powerful message not to hand all authority over to and place all trust in a centralized government. Sexual content and violence make me recommend for older readers.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is a look at life for the natives of South Africa under white rule. Beautiful prose, almost poetic in nature, combines with an ugly story of desperation and desolation in an unlikely harmony of that makes this book a classic. Older readers due to violence and despair.
Quo Vadis by H. Sienkiewicz is an enduringly timely story set against the backdrop of Nero’s persecution of the early Church. A young patrician, Marcus, follows a circuitous path to converting to Christianity. Sienkiewicz provides not only a moving portrayal of early Christianity, but also an enlightening look at Nero’s court and ancient Rome. More appropriate for older readers due to sensuality and violence.
Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels leaves the reader familiar with the main characters and action of the Battle of Gettysburg. An entire novel set during the four days of the battle, this book delves deeply into the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the players in this decisive battle. For more mature readers due to violence.