Ruby in the Water by Catholic Indie author J.P. Sterling was as unexpected as a rainstorm in the middle of a sunny afternoon. As a pluviophile, I love rain, so this is actually a compliment! This book explores so many great themes about disabilities, family, adoption, and coming of age. And equally importantly, Ruby in the Water tells a fascinating, relatable story about family secrets, forgiveness, and the power of love.
Coming of Age with Disabilities
Peter Arnold is without question a twice exceptional child. Because he was born prematurely, he has cerebral palsy, an undeveloped urinary tract, and a host of neurological issues. But he also has an incredible gift: a unique musical ability which brings him fame as a pianist from a young age. Navigating young adulthood isn’t going to be easily for medically complex, talented Peter.
A Special Family
Fortunately, Peter has the support of his devoted parents and five brothers and sisters to help him through the coming storm. The Arnold family is by no means portrayed as perfect, but parents Thomas and Anne’s dedication to and love for their children are truly inspiring. Ruby in the Water is peppered with flashbacks from both Peter and his parents’ perspectives, giving the reader a window into Peter’s challenging childhood and his parents’ graceful acceptance.
All is Grace
Without question, Ruby in the Water is a deeply Catholic book, but Sterling takes the higher road and lets her story speak for itself as regards its message. There is no pontificating or preaching here; just a gripping story that happened to happen to Catholics. The reader is left to decide on his own whether Anne and Thomas handle their challenges with greater grace because of their faith.
An Unabashedly Pro-life Story
Ruby in the Water does have an amazingly strong pro-life message since Peter is a late-term abortion survivor. This is only revealed at the end of the book, but clearly had huge impacts on the lives of Peter, his adopted family, and his birth mother. The brave souls who chose to save Peter’s life after a botched abortion are an inspiring example of truly embracing the pro-life view that every human life is precious.
A Short, Inspiring Book Mothers Will Enjoy
The magic of this book is the bond between Peter and his adopted mother Anne, whose love and patience shines through the tragedies. I think most moms will find themselves smiling and commiserating with Anne’s struggles to raise her brood of young children, especially with Peter’s special needs. Her graceful yes to God’s plan is an inspiration.
The only negative things I found to criticize in this book are a few editing errors that do give it a slightly self-published feel. Otherwise I am happy to recommend it for adults, young adults, and older teenagers. There is no objectionable content that would preclude younger teens from reading it, but this book will resonate more with parents and older teens.
I received a copy of Ruby in the Water in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.
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.
What is the real magic in fairy tales? Why are they timeless and what do they teach us? Literature professor Mitchell Kalpakgian sets out to answer these questions by analyzing some of the themes repeated throughout classics children’s literature with a particular focus on fairy tales. The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature is a wonderful book for parents to read. This book clarifies so many of the enigmatic themes in children’s stories, empowering you as the parent to point out these themes to your children in stories from Cinderella to Pandora’s Box. It also helps Catholic parents understand the importance of exposing our children to these classic stories as a type of faith formation in shaping their hearts and imaginations.
What is a children’s classic?
Kalpakgian believes that a classic explicates one of the mysteries of life for children (and adults). A great story illuminates the connection between the spiritual and physical. Kalpakgian writes: “Dreams and fairy tales are as useful and necessary as windows which join the outside realm to the inside world, which bring heaven to earth and draw the human world to the divine world.”
The themes in children’s literature can sometimes seem mysterious and contradictory.
For example, what’s the deal with wishes in fairy tales? Why do they sometimes come true, and sometimes don’t? Why are the consequences of wishing in fairy tales sometimes positive, like Cinderella receiving fairy help and a happily ever after, and sometimes negative, like Midas’ daughter turning to metal?
Kalpakgian classifies wishes in stories in four distinct categories: whims, fantasies, temptations, and true wishes. Whims are random, thoughtless wishes. Fantasies are “excessive, uncontrollable desires for gold or power that reflect the sin of pride, the worship of money, and self-delusion.” Temptations in children’s classics are false promises of excitement which entice innocent children to disobey. But true wishes begin in the deepest longings of the heart and reflect desires associated with genuine human happiness such as true love or the blessing of children.
Children’s classics help form an appreciation and desire for the transcendentals.
Kalpagian devotes three chapters to the Mystery of the Good, the Mystery of Truth, and the Mystery of Beauty. The transcendentals- the good, the true, the beautiful, and the one- are attributes of God. Each transcendental is intimately connnected to the others and points us to the others. For example, true beauty draws are heart and mind to truth and goodness. Kalpagian writes, “The mystery of beauty in children’s literature evokes a love and desire for knowledge.” Beauty drawing the beholder to truth and goodness can be seen in many fairy taeles such as Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White.
Looking at the connection between the transcendentals from another angle, inability to appreciate beauty correlates with blindness to truth and goodness, as in Anderson’s Swineherd. These chapters on each transcendental and also the inextricable bond between them were the best in the book in my opinion.
To quibble a bit, I found Kalpagian’s chapter on The Mystery of Luck slightly lacking.
Of course, I didn’t agree with every part of this book. To nitpick, I wish Kalpakgian’s treatment of “luck” had a more overtly Christian tone. He treats luck or fortune as a mysterious force that brings gifts to some and ruins others. I found this treatment not so much incorrect as incomplete; as Catholics we believe that all events are part of God’s plan. What agnostics call luck, Catholics call Divine Providence or blessings from God. In The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, Arthur Ransome uses this Christian understanding of luck: “This is a story that shows that God loves simple folk and turns things to their advantage in the end.”
Kalpakgian actually does have a wonderful chapter on Divine Providence in children’s stories. He points out the mysterious yet very real motif of Divine Providence seen in the form of fairy godmothers, guardian angels, and mysterious elves in books. His explanation of Irene’s grandmother in The Princess and the Goblin is really exceptional as an example of Divine Providence as that invisible thread also seen in Chesterton’s Father Brown. But for some reason, Kalpagian doesn’t also see Divine Providence as represented by “luck” in children’s literature.
Classic stories help children develop a strong moral compass.
By reading or listening to classic stories at a tender age, children’s imaginations and hearts are formed to accept simple truths about virtue and life. Goodness, when done out of a generous heart and without desire for reward, is exalted and repaid twofold. The simple folk with no deviousness in their hearts are blessed. True wishes for genuine human goods are granted. Beauty leads to truth, which leads to goodness. Divine providence is a mysterious, but real and powerful force.
Not only are the pure of heart rewarded, the wicked or selfish are punished. Fairy tales and fables teach that ultimately good does triumph over evil. Often good triumphs in this life, but sometimes not until the next. For example, in the original Little Mermaid tale by Hans Christian Anderson, the Little Mermaid doesn’t get to marry the prince and dies, but she is lifted up by the sky fairies at death and given the opportunity for immortality, which is the real desire in her heart.
The great writer G. K. Chesterton explains in Orthodoxy that the lesson he retained from fairy tales and stories from his childhood had a profound effect on his eventual conversion. I conclude that as Catholic parents we can not do better than to nourish our children’s minds, hearts, and imaginations with truly worthwhile stories that impart the lessons Kalpagian writes about in The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature.
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.
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AT THE END OF A LONG DAY…
The kids have been up since o-dark-thirty. You’ve cooked and cleaned and worked and changed a dozen diapers and played referee to a hundred fights and gone over the silent e rule for the thousandth time and cooked again and cleaned again and read that story the kids want to hear for the zillionth time and finally, they’re asleep. You’re too tired to clean any more, and really what sounds best is dropping on the couch and binge watching a TV show until you can’t keep your eyes open anymore.
I know, I’m there too most nights. And I’ll confess there was a period where I did exactly that nearly every night: watched TV because it seemed like my brain was too foggy for anything else. But eventually, I broke the cycle and got back to my first love: reading books. Not because it’s easier, because it’s not. And not only because it’s better for me, though it is. I read because it makes me a better mom, wife, and person.
There are at least 9 great reasons to spend some time reading at the end of the day, even as a brain-fogged, busy mom.
2. Read to grow spiritually. Here’s an obvious one, but spiritual reading is a easy and accessible source of spiritual growth. What better way to form a more personal relationship with Christ than by studying His life and learning from His friends? Maybe you like to sit down with your Bible and a journal. Or perhaps you prefer to read a spiritual classic like St. Francis de Sales’ An Introduction to the Devout Life or St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle.
3. Read to give a better perspective on your life. We all get mired down in the difficulties of our particular here and now. Like little kids, we feel miserable because we’ve got a cold, or our favorite mug shattered, or the air conditioning broke, in July, in Florida, at 36 weeks pregnant. Reading other people’s stories can help us both gain perspective on our minor everyday woes and learn to embrace true suffering when it comes with grace. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a major wake-up call to me recently to be grateful for how blessed my life really is. A Severe Mercy had a similar effect, but also is an inspiring account of suffering leading to growth and hope.
4. Read to set an example for your kids. We all know the old “do what I say, not what I do” advice doesn’t work with kids. Telling your kids they should be reading instead of glued to electronics doesn’t carry much weight unless you’re following your own wisdom. I intentionally read in front of my kids sometimes so they see that I enjoy it. In fact, at breakfast time in our house I encourage everyone to read at the table!
5. Read to improve your vocabulary. Of course, I don’t think we all need to speak in words with a minimum of 12 letters at all times. But since what you read impacts your writing and speech, you will find reading well-written books helps your vocabulary and diction. Our family favorite for this purpose is P. G. Wodehouse. His mastery of the English language is truly unparalleled. His books are the perfect blend of easy to read, yet studded with wonderful words like ephemeral, insoluble, dearth, peremptory, and poltroonery. Really, though, any literary classic cannot but help improve your diction. Try some Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, L. M. Montgomery, or George Orwell.
6. Read to lower stress and improve sleep quality. Did you know that less than ten minutes of reading drastically lowers your stress levels? Studies show that your stress levels drop by 68% by the time you’ve read a book for ten minutes! If you struggle with falling asleep or insomnia, try curling up with a good book for a half hour before turning off the lights.
8. Read to escape to a better place. We all have difficult seasons. Maybe we struggle with depression, loss of a loved one, or financial trouble. A good book can be a refuge for a time from the stress of the moment. Our minds can be soothed and our hearts lifted for a time, at least by an engaging adventure, romance, or comedy. You can find some of my favorite “light” reads like Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy on this list.
9. Read so you can answer your kids’ questions. My kids are like sponge-shaped question marks. They ask questions like “Why can’t the devil be forgiven?” and “How do we know there isn’t life on the moon?” and “Why is that flower yellow?” Now, I know there’s no way I will ever be able to answer all their questions offhand, but I hope that if I continue to learn, I’ll be able to answer some of them anyway. Particularly that one about the devil.
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!
Suffering. We all experience little sufferings on a daily basis. And sometimes, we experience great sufferings: when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, when a baby is lost, when a marriage crumbles, when a hurricane destroys one’s home, when a child falls away from the faith.
In moments of intense pain, we find ourselves confronted with the age old question: how can a loving God allow His children to suffer such pain? We ask, “Why, God? Why me? Why my child?” Or we meet friends who have fallen away from the Catholic faith because, “God let bad things happen to me.”
Fortunately, as Catholics, we have thousands of years of the human race’s most brilliant minds to look to for answers. Here are some of the books which have helped me come to terms with “The Problem of Pain,” as C. S. Lewis calls it.
To begin with a little philosophy, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius is a particularly powerful tool in dialoguing with agnostics and atheists. Boethius relies solely on natural reason and Hellenic philosophy as he explains why bad things happen to good people.
Historically juxtaposed to Boethius is the Book of Job, the Hebrew look at the problem of evil and suffering. Although much of the Old Testament seems to imply that God inflicts suffering as a punishment for sins committed by individuals, the story of Job offers a completely different perspective. Job is the innocent, good man who still loses everything he loves and undergoes intense suffering. Look it up in your Bible if you’ve never read it. Also, if you enjoy fiction, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday explores many of the same themes found in Job.
In a personal favorite of mine, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis contemplates suffering and human pain with his usual lucidity and conciseness. I find his way for harmonizing a good God and the problem of suffering particularly helpful. He also has a fascinating chapter towards the end of the book in which he speculates about animals and heaven.
Another favorite author of mine, Peter Kreeft, takes on suffering in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering. Kreeft’s book is an apologia for the Catholic understanding of suffering as meaningful.
Sheldon Vanauken lost the love of his life to a terminal illness after a far too short marrigae. A Severe Mercy is both heartbreakingly tragic and breathtakingly beautiful. This is a powerful true story of how the death of a loved one can lead to a greater good.
Another powerful personal testimony, in Man’s Search for Meaning Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl describes his soul-crushing experience of spending three years in concentration camps during World War II. During his imprisonment, Frankl had to watch his pregnant wife and family all die from hardship and starvation. Yet Frankl’s book is full of hope and a message about finding meaning in suffering.
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.