Looking for a way to delve deeper into the Bible? Stacy Mitch’s Courageous Women is a wonderful Bible study for personal or group use. While focusing on the great women in the Bible, the author does not miss the greater vision of Salvation History. Courageous Women is an insightful exposition both of Biblical Heroines and the golden thread of God’s plan to bring salvation to mankind through the chosen people.
Perfect for Individual or Group Bible Study
Doing this on your own? If you’re a busy mom with only a few minutes a day for a Bible Study, this book will be a great fit! Each chapter is divided up into short sections so you can read a relevant Bible passage, commentary, and discussion questions in those few brief minutes you have for spiritual reading.
Have a Church group or book club that wants to do a Bible study? Do a chapter a meeting and enjoy the ease of having discussion questions prepared for you. There’s even a handy “leader guide” in the back of the book with suggestions for discussing each question.
For Adults or Guided Older Teens
Courageous Women is clearly intended for adult readers, though I think mature older teen girls could also enjoy this study. Parental caution advised with younger/innocent teens due to open discussion of some of the more scandalous events of the Old Testament, such as what “uncovering nakedness” means, prostitution, incest, sodomy, etc. Nothing graphic.
As you read Courageous Women, you’ll be sure to find a Biblical heroine you identify with. Whether it’s Sarah, Mary, or a more unusual woman like Bathsheeba or Leah, you’ll find a woman with whom you can relate. Although these women lived many centuries ago, Stacy Mitch shows her readers that they were women like us with many of the same struggles, conflicting loyalties, temptations, and triumphs.
I’m always inspired by conversion stories. The thirst for truth, the sacrifices, the joy of Catholic converts, is so heartening to experience vicariously through these first-person accounts of modern day converts like Jennifer Fulwiler, Edith Stein, Peter Kreeft, Abby Johnson and more.
In the days of the early, persecuted Church, the occasional brave Christian would write an apologia: an explanation and defense of his Christian beliefs. Even in later years, this tradition continued, as in John Henry Newmans Apologia Pro Vita Sua .The apologia tradition has been revived in recent years. Since Catholicism is such a maligned religion, high-profile converts are once again called to make a defense of their beliefs. Enjoy each modern day apologia on this list, and be uplifted and confirmed in your Catholic faith.
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Of all the conversion stories I’ve read, one of the most moving is Jennifer Fulwiler’s Something Other Than God. A passionately rational atheist, Jennifer is cruising through a Hollywood-perfect life complete with wealth, friends, and a handsome husband. But she keeps wondering, “Why does anything matter?” This book is funny and insightful and rationally argued all at once.
Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s story of conversion starts in a Presbyterian Seminary and ends in Rome Sweet Home. The Hahn’s journey is convicting in its Theological integrity, yet maintains an easy-to-follow conversational style throughout.
Yes, Left to Tell isn’t strictly a conversion story in the sense that Immaculee was raised Catholic. But, when she was confronted with the Rwandan genocide, her faith is tested by fire. This is her story of choosing to embrace her Catholic faith, forgiveness, and love as she experienced intense persecution.
Not God’s Type is English professor and fencer Holly Ordway’s journey from Atheism to Catholicism. I loved that Ordway’s lifetime of exposure to great literature plays a roll in her conversion. Also, you learn quite a bit about fencing.
When pressed, I usually admit Chesterton is my favorite author. Orthodoxy is his exuberant, joyous reflections on some of the formative ideas that led him to Catholicism. His wit and wisdom never disappoint.
Edith Stein is the dramatic story of the talented German philosopher who became a Catholic, a Carmelite Nun, and eventually died in Auschwitz.
For more Jewish conversion stories, check out Honey from the Rock. Here are the moving stories of 16 Jews who found the fulfillment of their faith in Catholicism.
Surprised By Truth, Surprised by Truth 2, and Surprised by Truth 3 are a trilogy of thoughtful essays from a variety of (mostly) Protestant converts explaining their journey to Catholicism. Inspiring and give you a great basis in Apologetics. These books were a great source of faith growth for me as a teenager.
Chosen is a chunky book, containing 23 conversion stories. There’s a pleasing diversity in this collection, which features Wiccans, atheists, agnostics, and Protestant converts.
Some times it seems like life issues like abortion, contraception, and sterilization drive people away from Catholicism. This refreshing collection of 10 conversion stories features the opposite: how the Catholic Church’s strong teachings on the sanctity of life led to conversions.
This collection focuses on atheists ( and agnostics) who found their way to Catholicism. Includes Joseph Pearce’s conversion.
Joseph Fadelle knew full well that to become a Christian in his country was to face death. This is a dramatic story of a young Islamic man’s determination to find truth and the true faith no matter what the cost.
Derya Little’s journey from Islam to Protestantism to Catholicism is unlikely, to say the least! _ offers a fascinating story of God changing a young woman’s heart.
Abby Johnson’s conversion to Catholicism came right after her conversion to the pro-life cause, described in Unplanned. Both of Abby’s conversion were partially precipitated by her exposure to the faithful Catholics of 40 Days for Life. A very readable and fast-paced book.
Faith and Reason is a collection of 10 philosophers’ conversion stories. Each philosopher shares his or her meticulously considered reasons for choosing Catholicism. The theme in these essays is that wisdom and reason can lead people to God. Includes Peter Kreeft’s conversion story.
For more inspiring books for Catholic adults, check out my other lists!
When the days are dark- whether from winter dreariness or a period of suffering in life- some light, comforting fiction can do wonders to lift the spirits. Or at least push back the darkness for a little while!
“Where there is darkness let me bring your light.”
St. Francis of Assisi
Here are a dozen or so of my favorite “cozy” fiction books for the days when your spirit feels weighed down!
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James Herriot takes the blue ribbon for cozy in my opinion. The lovely Yorkshire Dales, the friendly country people, the memorable animals, and the never-ending cups of English tea create a comforting picture of a calm, peaceful world to escape into.
For sheer comedic genius, it’s hard to beat P. G. Wodehouse. The Most Of P.G. Wodehouse is a great introductory volume to this master writer. You get a little Jeeves and Wooster, a little of the Blandings crew, and some other short stories. Wodehouse’s eccentric characters are guaranteed to lift the spirits with their hilarious escapades.
D. E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book is another cozy English country novel. In the lethargic village of Wandlebury, Miss Buncle writes a book about a girl who writes a book about a girl who writes a book. Yes, really. It sounds confusing, but is quite humorous in quiet, soft-spoken English fashion. This is one English village novel which doesn’t involve a murder!
However, if an engaging, light mystery is your cup of poison, I mean tea, then you can’t beat the Golden Age of Mystery writers! Dorthy Sayers’ charming Lord Peter Wimsey series begins with Whose Body? Agatha Christie has some lighter mysteries, particularly her Miss Marple Short Stories. Marjory Allighham’s Albert Campion stories and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries are also great choices in this genre.
To leave England for a moment, the international bestseller from Spain, The Awakening of Miss Prim is a Catholic book lover’s delight, full of references to great literature. Read my full review here!
L. M. Montgomery excels at drawing amusing, poignant, and memorable characters. Nearly everyone has read the Anne books, but her other books are charming too. Try The Blue Castle, The Complete Chronicles of Avonlea, and The Story Girl. Or just re-read the Anne books because, what can beat Anne of Windy Poplars for a cozy book to curl up with?
Jane Austen is another great choice to revisit for a comfortable reading experience. If you haven’t read some of her lesser works, Northranger Abbey is hilarious satire, while Mansfield Park has a likable quieter heroine. You can rest assured everyone lives happily ever after in Jane Austen. Well, the likable characters do anyway.
The vibrant blues and greens of this Mediterranean paradise leap straight from the pages of the Corfu Trilogy into your imagination. Gerald Durrell’s awe-inspiring descriptions of the antics of the abundant wildlife on the island is punctuated by laugh out loud memories of his eccentric family’s life.
The Club of Queer Trades, like most of Chesterton’s fiction, is rife with flights of fantasy, paradoxes, and an exuberant affirmation of the sheer interestingness of life. My other Chesterton favorites for comfort fiction and general hilarity include Manalive and The Flying Inn.
Georgette Heyer is known as the Queen of Regency Romance for a reason. The Grand Sophy is one of her best loved and hilarious novels, filled with characters both charming and devilish, romantic entanglements, and misunderstandings.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is such a sweet, calming read about a famous Catholic family. Maria Augusta Trapp’s story of meeting her husband and children is only the beginning of this family’s adventures. She recounts their escape from the Nazis, immigration to America, and determination to create a home in the New World in the most charming prose imaginable.
I don’t love many of Gene Stratton Porter’s books, but Laddie: A True Blue Story is simply too sweet and appealing a story to miss. This semi-autobiographical novel is told by Little Sister, the youngest in a large family. Little Sister’s fierce family loyalty, delight in God’s creation, and inspiring faith will charm you.
At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon is a slow-paced, engaging small-town story about an Episcopalian minister and his “ordinary” congregation. But is any person really ordinary?
Warning: given the Protestant author and protagonist, there are some obvious clashes with Catholic beliefs (i.e. married priests).
As a Theology major, I had the joy of taking classes focused on reading and studying John Paul II’s Theology of the Body at Christendom College. Approaching sexual education as a Catholic parent can be a daunting task. Here are some of my favorite resources to help you introduce sexual morality and education to your children in light of Theology of the Body.
From introducing basic concepts about human dignity, the body as a gift, and the value of life to tricky questions about contraceptive mentality and transgenderism, these books have answers! Feel educated and empowered to prepare your child to face questions of sexual morality in this fallen world!
Books for Parents to Read with Kids
Angel in the Waters is a lovely story about an unborn baby’s experience in the womb and experiencing the world for the first time. A great introduction to fetal development and sanctity of life for very little ones.
God Made All of Me is a well-done and age-appropriate approach to teaching children basic body safety. It focuses on the inherent goodness of the body, appropriate and inappropriate ways of touching the body, and how to ask for help if someone makes you uncomfortable. We read this with our children starting around age 3.
***Warning: the first two pages, before the story proper begins, are a list of sexual assault statistics that could disturb young readers. Cutting or gluing together these pages easily solves this problem.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr. sets up your sons (and daughters) to understand and avoid the dangers of pornography. Without becoming inappropriately graphic in the least, this phenomenal picture book introduces the concept that some pictures and videos are bad. It helps your children learn an action plan involving telling a parent if they are ever exposed to pornography. We use this beginning at age 5.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures is a more advanced porn-proofing book aimed at 8-12 year olds. This book is intended for parent and child to use and discuss together. It includes a story, discussion questions, and strategies to deal with potential porn exposure.
Wonderfully Made! Babies is an absolutely awesome Theology of the Body based approach to teaching exactly where babies come from and why. The why is so important! This book uses medically correct language to explain biological differences and sex, but also dives into why God designed sex to be so good, why marriage is a necessity, and why babies are amazing!
Books for Parents about Talking with Kids about Sex
Beyond the Birds and the Bees is a Catholic psychologist’s advice on what to say to your kids and when! The book is handily divided into chapters by age so it can easily be referenced over the years for age-appropriate discussion topics and information.
Made This Way is probably my favorite book on this list. Leila Miller and Trent Horn take a brilliant natural-law-heavy approach in this book. As a mom and grandma, Leila recognizes that teens in our culture need more than simple do’s and don’t’s when it comes to sexual ethics. So in this book, she provides:
1. The Church’s teaching on a moral issue such as homosexuality, transgenderism, pornography, contraception, divorce, etc.
2. Discussion points from the natural law to use in forming younger children on the topic.
3. Natural law, common sense, and research-based explanations for teens on the why of each issue.
Books about Sexual Morality and Theology of the Body for Adults
Three to Get Married by Fulton Sheen is my favorite book to give to newly engaged or married couples. With his typical clarity, Sheen explains God’s irreplaceable role in marriage. A thought-provoking book on the meaning and beauty of marriage, children, and human love.
Man, Woman, and the Meaning of Love and other titles by Dietrich Von Hildebrand are a great option if you are looking for a more succinct yet still highly insightful and philosophical look at God’s plan for marriage and love.
Alice Von Hildebrand, like her husband, wrote brilliant and eloquent books about marriage, sexuality, and human nature. In Man & Woman: A Divine Invention, Von Hildebrand explores the intrinsic complimentary of men and women, God’s design for them, and how sin destroyed this perfect harmony.
Not quite ready to take on the nearly 800 pages of Man and Woman He Created Them? Try Love and Responsibility, St. John Paul II’s precursor which contains many of the same themes about understanding the human person as a whole in a more manageable length book.
William May is a respected moral theologian with a plethora of interesting works on marriage and life ethics. Marriage The Rock On Which The Family Is Built is his explanation of the importance of marriage and family in the context of society. He draws on the writings of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.
With his customary brilliance, Fr. Michael Schmitz takes on the tricky question of navigating same-sex attraction in yourself or someone close to you. Made for Love is a concise, thorough guide to the correct Catholic response to homosexuality.
Edith Stein’s life is the stuff of a fascinating drama. Her journey from being Jewish to atheist to Catholic is captivating enough, but this great saint had a formidable intellect and was a respected writer. And she also became a nun. And also died in a Nazi death camp. Her writings are a great resource if you want to explore the nature and vocation of women in depth with your daughters.
Programs to Teach Theology of the Body to Kids and Teens
Ruah Woods Press offers a comprehensive K-12 Theology of the Body program. I appreciate the literature-based approach in the lower levels.
TOBET provides a great assortment of books geared for K-12 that reinforce the basic concepts of Theology of the Body such as: the goodness of the body, the purpose of the body, male and female differences, etc.
Ascension Press has a DVD/parental discussion guide/student workbook combination package to introduce Theology of the Body to teens. They have a special edition just for middle schoolers also.
Looking for a daily Lenten Meditation? A way to grow closer to Mary and Jesus this Lent? Check out Lenten Journey with Mother Mary by Fr. Edward Looney, a brand new book from Sophia Institute Press. Whether you’re new to Marian devotion or already pray the rosary every day, this book will help enrich your relationship with Mary and Jesus.
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A Meditation a Day
Lenten Journey with Mother Mary has a meditation for every single day of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday! As an additional bonus, Fr. Looney continues the devotions through the Easter Octave to Divine Mercy Sunday! Each day’s devotion begins on a very personal note with a direct quote from Our Lady, such as: “Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.” These quotes are drawn from a variety of approved Marian apparitions and set the theme for the day. The devotion then continues with a 2-3 page meditation, a sentence-long prayer, and a suggestion for a Lenten action.
Theme of the Week
Each week has a broad theme under which the individual days fall. Themes include intentional prayer, praying for others, healing, and examination of conscience. I particularly enjoyed the meditations during the Easter Octave, which focus on faith and trust in Divine Providence.
A Lenten Journey
The title about journeying is very appropriate for this book, which certainly leads you on a journey to deepen your relationship with Mary. By increasing your Marian knowledge and deepening your prayer life, this book leads you closer to Jesus through Mary. The heart-warming takeaway message in this Lenten devotional is: Mary prays for you. Mary loves you.
Introverted Mom: Your Guide to More Calm, Less Guilt, and Quiet Joy by Jamie Martin is a lovely literary feast that reassures introverted moms that their quiet natures are actually a gift to their families. At the same time, Jamie does not hold back on pointing out just how devastating daily life as a mom can be for women with an introverted nature. Jamie is a deeply introverted mother who has navigated being a full time stay at home mom, homeschooler, and adoptive mom. Introverted Mom is a pleasing blend of personal stories and wisdom from beloved introverted authors such as L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott. However, as enjoyable a book as Introverted Mom is, I ponder how much better this book could be with a Catholic flavor, drawing on the wisdom of introverted Saints along with authors.
Are you an introvert?
Jamie begins with a self-assessment of your introversion level. Moms who are already familiar with personality testing can skim this part. But some moms who generally consider themselves extroverts may be surprised to learn that they actually fall on the introversion spectrum. As Jamie explains, motherhood is particularly difficult for introverts due to the sheer number of introvert stressors inherent to being a mom. So someone who may have always considered themselves an extrovert may find themselves overwhelmed by motherhood until they recognize and accept their true introversion.
The funnest parts of Introverted Mom are all the quotes and reflections on some favorite introverted authors: Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Their thoughts on finding peace and happiness in daily life will resonate deeply with introverts. Jamie also draws on modern day introverted author Susan Cain and her fascinating bookQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Quiet happens to be one of my personal favorite books, so I loved that Jamie drew on some of Cain’s psychological insights and scientific studies.
The basic premise in Quiet and Introverted Mom is that western culture, especially in America, values extroverted strengths while ignoring or disparaging the natural strengths of introverts. (For example: ever been called too quiet?) Quiet uses reams of research, science, studies, and anthropology to challenge the notion that there is something inherently better or preferable about extroverted characters. It’s thought-provoking and evidence-based. Introverted Mom is much less scientific and more personal in its scope, drawing on anecdotes, famous quotes, and common sense to encourage introverted women to accept and appreciate their strengths- and weaknesses. Depending on your taste in literature, you may enjoy one or both books. As Jamie might point out, if you’re a Meyers-Briggs Personality Test F, you’ll enjoy her book more; if you’re a T like me you’ll probably prefer Quiet!
I think Jamie made a solid effort to give this book as broad a Christian appeal as possible. There is nothing anti-Catholic, and even a nice reflection on Mary as an introverted mother. On the other hand, her humorous reflections on being an introvert in a charismatic church are clearly aimed at evangelical Protestants. Although Jamie finds a way to laugh at how out of place introversion is in a charismatic church, she also seems to feel a certain longing for a more natural way of worship. She prefaces her chapter on religion with a popular L. M. Montgomery passage about needing silence and solitude to connect with God:
“If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the woods and I’d look up into the sky…”
Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery (emphasis added)
I think Jamie, and other Protestant introverts, have a rougher time of it than Catholic introverts when it comes to prayer and worship. This is one reason I think a similar book for introverted moms written from a Catholic perspective could have so much more depth.
For those with an introverted spirit, Catholicism has some fantastic offerings: Eucharistic Adoration, contemplative prayer such as the Rosary, an entire vocation and lifestyle in the Contemplative life, hundreds of introverted Saints with extensive writings to meditate on… The list goes on and on. To take just one example of the wisdom and practical suggestions to be found in the lives of the saints, look at Saint Teresa of Calcutta, a well-known introvert. This saint insisted on a time of quiet Eucharistic adoration and a rest time during the afternoon for her nuns. As an introvert, she knew that she herself and her fellow nuns needed to carve out quiet and solitude in order to recharge so they could serve others.
So by all means read and enjoy what Introverted Mom has to offer in terms of self-help suggestions, but remember that there are more riches of wisdom to help in the journey of motherhood than Protestantism offers!
So who wants to write a Catholic version of Introverted Mom?
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.