The second installment in Antony Barone Kolenc’s The Hardwood Mysteries, The Haunted Cathedral picks up right where we left Xan at the end of The Shadow in the Dark. This fast-paced historical fiction trilogy set in Middle Age England follows the adventures and misadventures of young Xan, an orphaned boy trying to find his family- and God’s will. In Shadows in the Dark, Xan tries to recover his memory after a group of bandits leaves him wounded and burns his home. In this second book, The Haunted Cathedral, Xan struggles to learn how to forgive and move on. A little mystery might be just what he needs to help distract him from his hatred.
Meticulous Historical Fiction
I really appreciate the care Kolenc takes to accurately represent Middle Age England. From monasteries to towns to castles to cathedrals, Kolenc takes the reader on a tour of what life was like for an orphaned serf boy in the Middle Ages. Speaking of serfs, these books subtly explore the relationships between serfs and lords, monasteries and patrons, merchants and monks. The intricate castes of the Middle Ages get attention in this book as Xan realizes that as a serf he doesn’t have the freedom to choose a vocation or even where to live.
In keeping with the setting, there are some fundamental lifestyle differences. For example, 12 and 14 year old children are already considering courtship, which is of course strange to our modern sensibilities. Xan’s interest in the girls is handled very gently and discreetly though. Kolenc includes a section at the back of the book which outlines many of the unique traditions of the Middle Ages for readers.
An Intriguing Mystery
What are ghosts? Xan and his friends Lucy, Simon, and Christina are fascinated by tales of a ghost in the Cathedral. A wise monk and priest give the different Catholic perspectives on ghosts. In the end, Xan realizes that trying to reconnect with his parents through a ghost isn’t the wisest idea. Instead, he and his friends help solve the Cathedral mystery and restore another orphan to his parents.
A Fresh Catholic Series
It’s fun to see new Catholic historical fiction getting published. Parents will appreciate the discussion questions in the beginning and historical enrichment at the end. Best of all, this series takes on a slippery topic- the Church in the Middle Ages- with an honest and unapologetic tone. There are very good monks, and troubled monks. There are pros and cons to the power the Church and its ministers held in that time period. These are good reflections for the intended tween and teen audience to begin to consider.
You can buy The Hardwood Mysteries: The Haunted Cathedral through my Amazon affiliate link: The Haunted Cathedral
If they haven’t yet, believe me, they will! Why does a loving God allow us to suffer? This is a question that has been repeated and pondered throughout the ages. In The Seed Who Was Afraid to be Planted Anthony DeStefano takes on the question of suffering with a simple story that even young children will be able to understand. DeStefano seamlessly weaves together several Bible verses into a parable about a fearful seed whom a wise gardener insists on planting. Planted in a dark hole, the terrified seed feels abandoned and alone. But then the tiny seed begins to grow into a magnificent tree which helps others and experiences a beauty and freedom it had never dreamed possible.
This book is so helpful in explaining suffering to children.
Like the seed, we feel forsaken and afraid when God allows us to experience suffering, death, loss, and pain. Like the seed, we don’t want to go down to that dark place and feel abandoned. In this parable of a tale, we are reminded that God only allows us to suffer to bring us to a more beautiful, wonderful place than we could imagine. Whether we see the fruit of walking through darkness in this life, or don’t know the why until heaven, this story reminds us we can trust that God has a perfect plan to bring us to true freedom and peace.
The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted can also be helpful in explaining death.
This world is all we know, so leaving it can be a scary thought. Like the seed, we like our drawer, our little box of known experience. Like the seed, some kids find the idea of being buried a terrifying thought. This story helps ease those fears with the reminder that dying is just the beginning of a new, better life, beyond our wildest dreams of beauty and freedom.
What is freedom?
The seed tells the gardener not to plant him: “I’m scared to be planted, I want to be free.” For the seed, freedom is being allowed to do what he wants: stay in his drawer. But by the end of the book, the seed realizes true freedom is found by following God’s (the gardener’s) plan and allowing himself to die so he may live. In the end of the story, the seed, now a tree, has found peace, freedom, and a life without fear.
The whole family will enjoy The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted.
Although this story is written for younger children, the high quality illustrations and timeless parable-like story will make it a favorite with all ages. Our entire family enjoyed this book with its reminder that God always has a perfect plan for us. Although many other great books on suffering have been written targeting adults, this simple story is perfect for explaining to children why God allows suffering.
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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.
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.