Where Angels Fear to Tread, E.M. Forster (1905)

My Edition:angelstread
Title: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Author: E.M. Forster
Publisher: Dover
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 117
Full plot summary


“Remember, that it is only by going off the track that you get to know the country. See the little towns—Gubbio, Pienza, Cortona, San Gimignano, Monteriano. And don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art. Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land.”

 

What a soap opera and angst-ridden tale this is and packed into only 117 pages! The above quotation turns out to be the death knell for the Herriton family. If ever a family had a bad day…or span of years, it would be them. The ruptures and tragedies that plague them, however, are surprising and come out of the blue, making the novel read like a great international mystery/adventure story.

Lilia Herriton was widowed young and left with a daughter. From the beginning of her marriage, according to her in-laws, Lilia was wild and ill-mannered. After her husband’s death, she is forced to move near her mother-in-law for the sake of young Irma. But Lilia is still full of life and finds it difficult to play the conventional role of widow. When Caroline Abbot asks Lilia to be her companion on a trip to Italy the Herritons hope the responsibility will help to quell her untamed ways.

A cable is received from Lilia that she has settled down in the town of Monteriano and is going to marry Gino, the son of a dentist. Phillip, the brother of Lilia’s husband is sent to stop it and bring her back to England. But he arrives too late as she and Gino are already married. He tells her he has come to rescue her and will break up the marriage, but Lilia is defiant and with the past injustices from his family overcoming her and she defends her actions:

For once in my life I’ll thank you to leave me alone…For twelve years you’ve trained  me and tortured me, and I’ll stand it no more. Do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I never felt?..When I came to your house a poor young bride, how you all looked me over—never a kind word—and discussed me,…and your mother corrected me, and your sister snubbed me…And when Charles died I was still to run in strings for the honour of your beastly family, and I was to be cooped up at Sawston and learn to keep house, and all my chances spoilt of marrying again.

With such passion, the reader pulls so hard for Lilia and this new life she has created far from the criticism of her family. Alas, she dies in childbirth. And while that is shocking enough, the real shocker is how badly the Herritons now feel about the way they treated her and this guilt leads them to plot to get the child away from Gino and raised as their own. Once more, Philip is dispatched to Monteriano with his sister Harriet to make a bargain with Gino. When Gino turns down the offer, Harriet steals the baby as she rushes to catch the carriage taking them to the ship to go home. But when the carriage turns over on a wet road, the baby is killed.

No one is really happy in this novel. The Herritons and Caroline Abbott are all trying to live a life that is socially acceptable as members of the middle class, no individuality allowed. Lilia, who hoped her marriage would free her from English conventional norms found herself caught in similar conventions as an Italian wife.

Where Angels Fear to Tread is Forster’s first novel. His later works are more well-known, including A Room with a View, Howard’s End and A Passage to India. What drives his novels, in my opinion, is his gift for finding the vulnerable places of his characters as motives for their life choices and in the case of this novel one character’s choice from that place drives the vulnerabilities of the entire cast.

_______________________
Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

Presidents’ Day and Religious Freedom in the United States

“…a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship: – deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue or language equal parts of the great Governmental Machine…” Moses Seixas to President George Washington

In 1790, George Washington responded to a letter written to him by a Jewish resident of Newport Rhode Island that has become, for many, the foundational statement on religious freedom in the United States. I believe it is particularly important at this time in our history to remember our heritage, which President Washington stated so well.

You can read the exchange between Moses Seixas and George Washington here.  And the full letter from Washington here.

If you are unfamiliar with this episode and perhaps somewhat rattled by recent events from the new administration, becoming familiar with Washington’s words may give you some optimism, because religious freedom has always been a hallmark of this country, even when we have struggled over it. And on a personal note, both sides of my family sought refuge here during terrible times in their home countries and Washington’s words have always given me trust in the process. Some excerpts:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”



“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Apparitions and Invisible Friends

“…Russia will spread its errors throughout the world, raising up wars and persecutions against the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will suffer much and various nations will be annihilated.” Our Lady of Fatima to the children at the Cova

fatima

Lucia, Francisco, Jacinta

I watched a film on the Fatima apparitions recently called, the 13th Day. The story is about three young sheep herders in Portugal Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta, who experience a series of visions on a hillside of a beautiful woman they call, The Lady from Heaven, but who later reveals herself to be the Virgin Mary.

fatima3

Watching the miracle of the sun.

At the last appearance and with the crowd topping over 70,000 on the hillside the children ask The Lady for a visible sign so all might believe. The Lady gives a miracle: the sun spins and falls to earth, before pulling back at the last minute. You can read eyewitness accounts here.

Visitations of religious figures are part of many religions. Mary, Jesus, Hindu gurus, saints of all religions, angels and ‘higher beings’ have been appearing to people for millennia. In the rationally technological 21st century, we tend to question manifestations like this. Most are the Scully type and want to find a “logical explanation” for what they see, rather than the Mulder kind, who just “want to believe.” *

I admit I am a Mulder type. While I have not experienced a direct visitation by a well-known religious figure or any other figure for that matter, I have had enough puzzling and not quite normal experiences to make me wonder. I usually feel things rather than see them, but they make enough of an impression on me to acknowledge I am not always alone.

I personally think many of us have these experiences, but we’re not comfortable enough to speak of them in public. Even with the rise of psychic stars such as John Edward, James Van Praagh and Sylvia Browne and the proliferation of paranormal investigative cable tv shows, most of us raise our eyebrows at such visitations and would rather laugh it off to manipulation of emotions than admit to our own belief. Getting back to Fatima, critics and skeptics have given various explanations of the unusual event of the sun, including retinal distortion from sun gazing, psychological manipulation, a dust storm from the Sahara desert and a natural phenomenon called a sun dog.

It is interesting to think that most of us had imaginary friends as children, yet as adults, we expect them to be long gone. Visitations from “the other side” are as old as we are. You’d think humankind would have accepted this as normal or at least plausible by now. What holds us back from believing in our own experiences? Why do some of us try and talk ourselves out of them or come up with excuses as to why our meetings with dead people must be something else? Why can’t we just believe?

* The X-Files. Two F.B.I. agents investigate unexplained incidents. Dana Scully, medical doctor, scientist, logical. Fox Mulder, acts on emotions, wants to believe.

The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

My Edition:bronzebow
Title: The Bronze Bow
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1961
Pages: 254
Plot summary

 

“—He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.”

 

When I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond last year, Elizabeth George Speare drew me into 17th century colonial Connecticut by her attention to historical detail and engaging writing style. I would say Speare surpassed herself in The Bronze Bow set during the time of Jesus in 1st century Palestine. This is the story of tormented Daniel bar Jamin, a young renegade blacksmith whose hatred for the Roman occupation of his ancestral land fuels his every waking moment. Sold to an abusive blacksmith at age 13 when there wasn’t enough food for the family, he fled to the mountains above his town 5 years later and joined a group of like-minded warriors. He is now 18 and he and the other young men are restless to fight, but the leader of the group, Rosh, keeps putting them off sending them out only to raid the fields of their Jewish neighbors telling the young fighters they need to gather more men before they can take action against the Romans.

When word comes to Daniel that his grandmother is dying leaving his sister alone, he puts his warrior plans on hold and moves back into the city to take care of Leah. It has been five years since Daniel saw his sister and grandmother. When he knocks on the door Leah is cowering in a corner and he realizes at 15, she is still traumatized over the unbearable experience of watching their father die by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Daniel’s mother stayed with him on the hill and later died of exposure. Five-year old Leah escaped from a neighbor’s house and was found at the crosses for an undetermined length of time. But it was long enough to give her nightmares and a fear of all people.

The town’s blacksmith Simon, called the Zealot, tells Daniel he wants to leave his business and follow a new preacher named Jesus. He is not sure how long he will be gone, but tells Daniel he can use his shop, the tools and materials as his own and move into the house connected to it. After much persuasion and the kindness of neighbors who build her a litter, Leah is carried like a queen to her new home. Daniel attracts a wide clientele with the skills he perfected on the mountain and is able to provide good food and clothing for Leah for the first time in her life. He also begins recruiting a band of youth who are itching to fight the Romans who he hopes will strengthen Rosh’s group.

Meanwhile, Daniel has renewed a friendship with a boy he knew from school. When Joel and his sister Malthace hear about the warrior group they, too, want to fight. Boy, girl it doesn’t matter, they all want the Romans out! However, their family is moving to Capernaum and Joel is supposed to go away for rabbinical studies.

It is against this backdrop of violence and hatred that Daniel first hears Jesus speak. He is confused when Jesus addresses the crowd and talks about building the Kingdom of God, which is what he wants, but Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t seem to come with a war, so how would it get built? And Joel is confused because Jesus says things that don’t sound like a rabbi, “He practically said it was alright to eat without washing our hands. Perhaps it’s dangerous to even listen to him. And yet—.”

And yet, against everything Daniel and Joel have lived for, the righteous actions against the oppressor and the righteousness of the Law, they are at once drawn then repelled over and over by what Jesus says. The first crack in Daniel’s emotional armor comes when his friend Simon the Zealot, the former fighter for Israel has decided to give up his shop and everything else about his past life and follow Jesus. He tries to explain to Daniel what has changed, but Daniel is incensed.

“Supposed they put chains on all of you and drag you off to prison.”

“He [Jesus] says that the only chains that matter are fear and hate, because they chain our souls. If we do not hate anyone and do not fear anyone, then we are free.”

In the end, Daniel’s hate could not be sustained…

This novel is so rich in the details of 1st century daily life and Jewish ritual during the time of the Temple. Food, clothing, commerce and the different ways in which people react to the Roman occupation make this novel very realistic. Speare treats the complexity of feelings that Jesus’ words bring to the various characters with depth and honesty as they struggle to make sense of their long-held beliefs.

Speare won the 1962 Newbery Medal for The Bronze Bow, a young adult novel suitable for adults 🙂

_____________
Classic Club, Back to the Classics, Mount TBR

 

The Wonder, Emma Donoghue (2016)

My Edition:wonder
Title: The Wonder
Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 293
Plot summary

Anna O’Donnell claims—or rather her parents claim—that she hasn’t taken food since her eleventh birthday…She simply doesn’t eat.

You mean no solids?

No sustenance of any kind…but clear water.

When I first heard about Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, it reminded me of a book I read in college called, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, by Caroline Walker Bynum. In the Middle Ages there occurred a phenomenon among young girls whereby they took their devotion to the Eucharist to the extreme, refusing all food except for the Holy Host as their only sustenance. Most were discovered to be frauds, receiving food by some form and means, however there were instances of the miraculous, the inexplicable.

The wonder of this particular story set in 1859 Ireland, is Anna O’Donnell. She has been refusing food for four months, since her 11th birthday, taking nothing but a few teaspoons of water each day. She has attracted attention from people all over the world, who come to her poor home to commune and be blessed. But there are detractors as well calling the family cheats, only in it for the money left by the visitors or the notoriety. The matter has put the honor of both village and the whole of Ireland up for debate. In order to get to the truth several townsmen form a committee to investigate Anna and the claims of her family. They decide to mount a two week, 24-hour per day watch to see if food is coming to her in any covert way.

Lib Wright is an English nurse who trained under Florence Nightengale in the Crimea, having settled at a London hospital after the war. She is sent by her Matron to Ireland for a two week assignment as a private nurse, all expenses paid, but she is not told the nature of the work. We meet her as she travels to the assignment and as she passes rundown and derelict cottages, the poor people on the road who stare at her, it brings up all she thinks is wrong with this country, that the Irish are dirty, inhospitable and superstitious. When she meets Dr, McBrearty the doctor of the town to which she will staying and he describes what she will be doing, which is essentially “just watching” and not nursing she is incensed that her training will be wasted “on a child’s whim.”

Lib is sharing the watch with Sister Michael, a nun at the local convent. Anna O’Donnell is never to be left alone, for fear some family member might stash food somewhere where a quick grab into a pocket or hidden hole in the wall or floor might harbor a bit or two of food. What Lib cannot understand upon meeting the girl for the first time is how healthy and vibrant she is. Her training does not allow for what she is seeing: that after four months of fasting the girl is animated and clear minded and except for a few physical issues, healthy. Anna engages not only with her family and neighbors, but with all the world-wide visitors. To Lib, a lapsed Anglican with a scientific mind, though Anna seems very pious and prayerful and full the fairy superstition of the Irish, she is still of this world.

However, it only takes a few days of the watch before Anna begins to deteriorate rapidly. And this then becomes the mystery Lib tries to solve: not that Anna had been fasting all these months because she was obviously not, but how she was getting food and by whom. Lib comes to understand that the watch is preventing Anna from whatever method she had been able to eat and her rapid decline is frightening. She is torn between her duty of the assignment to “just watch” and her role as a nurse. Against the rules of her placement she begins to talk to Anna about eating trying to get her to see she will die, but it is of no use. Lib takes her concerns to Anna’s parents, Dr. McBrearty and the town priest, but all are enthralled at the sanctity of the situation and believe nature, that is God, should take its course.

William Byrne, a reporter from the Irish Times who has come to the town to do a story on Anna O’Donnell, has finally gotten a glimpse of the girl and is shocked at what he sees. He is furious that Lib is allowing this to happen, but he also understands the nature of the Church’s power and the family’s commitment to it. There is only one recourse to save Anna and that is…..a spoiler.

There is so much to this story and to the people who populate it. Of course, is the utter amazement that a mother and father would allow their child to starve to death and a doctor and priest that would do nothing to prevent it. Lib becomes devoted to Anna, but crosses the nurse/patient relationship when it is revealed she is estranged from her younger sister and the secret she hides about her husband. And then there is Anna herself whose refusal to eat is as much religious as it is product of an innocent heart when Lib discovers the horrible family secret that caused Anna to abstain from food in the first place.

This book reads like a detective novel as Lib investigates, observes and processes the evidence. And the writing style has both odd and beautiful turns of phrase that fascinate me. Although I thought the ending weak, because running away is a feeble way to end a story, I was utterly caught up in the totality of the narrative. So much so that I read The Wonder in one sitting, I could not put it down!

___________
Challenges: Library Love, Reading All Around the World