Tag Archives: Faith

Book Review: News From Heaven, By Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh’s first short story collection, News From Heaven, traces the slow decay of the fictional Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Bakerston, through 10 linked stories. Introduced to readers in her fine 2005 novel, Baker Towers, Bakerston was a typical mining town. In its heyday in the middle of the 20th Century, the Baker Brothers mines employed virtually every able-bodied male in the town and even built the workers’ cookie-cutter homes. The workers made good wages and the town grew into a tight-knit community where everybody knew everybody else’s business. Or so they thought.

When an explosion toppled one of the mines and killed a number of the miners, the dramatic climax of Baker Towers, it rocked the town forever. By the time the 21st Century dawned the company had extracted every bit of coal it could and it closed the mines. Workers went on unemployment or moved South for new jobs, while some suffered worse fates, their lungs scarred by decades in the mines.

While on one level the stories present a microcosm of the nation’s economic woes, their true power lies in the exploration of the inner lives of the families–bound by their daily struggles and the yearning for a better life. Haigh’s characters are a diverse lot, from the disturbed heir to the Baker fortune, living in squalor, to the restless son of the Novak clan, who leaves Bakerston far behind but can never quite escape its grip.

Haigh brings these characters alive with a perceptiveness and eloquence. While the characters know intimate details about their fellow townspeople, there are long-held secrets, hidden mostly out of love. In “Beast and Bird,” the opening story, a Bakerston family sends its young Polish teen-ager to work as a live-in maid for a wealthy Jewish family in New York City, where everything is unfamiliar and nothing makes sense to her. “A Place in the Sun” and its twin story, “To the Stars,” focus on Sandy, the youngest of the Novak clan, who struggles to find a new life on the West Coast, but cannot outrun his demons.

There are tender moments as well. In “Thrift,” 50-year-old Agnes Lubicki, destined to be an aging spinster, unexpectedly finds love with a much younger man. In “The Bottom of Things,” Ray Wojick returns home from Houston as a successful businessman to attend his parents’ 50th anniversary, triggering memories of his troubled brother’s death and his guilt over whether he could have prevented it.

Haigh is the author of four critically-acclaimed novels. In addition to Baker Towers, her works include Mrs. Kimble, The Condition,and Faith.

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My Favorite 2011 Book: “Faith,” by Jennifer Haigh

There were a lot of great books published in 2011. I enjoyed The Adults, by Alison Espach, The Red Thread, by Ann Hood, The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson, In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard, and The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. My favorite book published in 2011 was Faith, by Jennifer Haigh.

Faith tackles big issues. The plot centers on the sexual molestation scandals in the Boston Archdiocese, but the story explores family secrets, the role of religion in family life, loyalty, compassion, and those opposing twins, faith and doubt. The main character is Sheila McCann, a lapsed Catholic whose half-brother, Father Arthur Breen, is accused of molesting a young boy. The main character conducts her own investigation, which is described in a dispassionate manner. While Sheila has doubts about the church, her faith in her brother is also shaken.

The story centers on the events of the Spring of 2002, the height of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston. Father Breen was abruptly summoned to the Cardinal of Boston’s Residence on Good Friday. He was shown a letter from a law firm that told of charges against him and the Archdiocese placed him on administrative leave. His mother, whose life revolved around the church and her oldest son, refused to believe the charges, but was nonetheless crushed. Her brother, Mike McCann, launched his own ill-fated investigation and became convinced his brother was guilty.

Haigh skillfully peels off the layers behind the events leading up to the charges against Father Breen and the aftermath, while at the same time probing the family’s difficult and complex history. Sheila related a story about how she found out about the charges from Mike, who thought their mother had already told her. Sheila reflected on her family in this brilliant passage by Haigh, “Evasion comes naturally in my tribe, this loose jumble of McGann, Devine and Breen. The reasons for this are not so mysterious. My father is a man of shameful habits. My mother is lace-curtain Irish. She will settle for correctness, or the appearance of it; but in her heart she wants only to be good. The space between them is crisscrossed with silent bridges, built of half-truths and suppressions. The chasm beneath is deep and wide.”

Sheila then offered further insights into her family’s history of deception. “Those same bridges exist across the generations: my mother and her parents, my father and his. On both sides, we are a family of open secrets. When I was a child they enclosed my innocence like a tourniquet. Without knowing quite how I knew it, I understood what might be said, and what must be kept quiet. If from the outside the rules appeared arbitrary, from the inside they were perfectly clear.”

Later, when Mike pressed his sister for proof behind her opinion that Arthur was innocent of the charges, she said, “‘Sorry, Mike, but sooner or later you have to decide what you believe.’ It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form it is a choice.”

Haigh’s novel looks at the child molestation scandal from all dimensions: its effects not only on the victims, but on the accused. It would be easy to write a preachy novel about the subject, but Haigh manages to create a story that is poignant, sad, tragic and at the same time illuminating. Haigh raises legitimate questions regarding the impact of the priest’s life of celibacy on the outbreak of sexual abuse cases. Toward the end of the novel, Sheila reflected, “Like many people, I have wondered: is celibacy to blame? That renunciation of human closeness, of our deepest instincts: is it, in the end, simply too much to ask? Good men–sound, healthy men–can’t make the sacrifice, or don’t want to; has Holy Mother settled for the unsound and unhealthy? Has the Church, ever pragmatic, made do with what was left?”

Father Breen’s tragic story could be interpreted as the story of the church or the story of any family that refused to face its darkest secrets. As Sheila reflects, “Art’s story is, to me, the story of my family, with all its darts and dodges and mysterious omissions.”

Haigh, who lives in the Boston area, is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Condition, as well as Baker Towers, winner of the 2006 PEN/L.L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author. She also wrote Mrs. Kimble, which won the PEN/ Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Haigh’s short stories have appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, the Saturday Evening Post, and many other publications.

My favorite non-fiction book of 2011 was Keith Richards’ Life. You don’t have to be a fan of rock music or the Rolling Stones (I am a fan of both) to appreciate this spirited autobiography, which offers keen insights into the life of one of rock and roll’s most colorful and enduring figures.

What was your favorite book of 2011 and why?

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