Tag Archives: Jo Ann Beard

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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Book Review: “In Zanesville,” by Jo Ann Beard

Jo Ann Beard’s debut novel, In Zanesville, takes an overworked concept–the coming-of-age story–and gives it a fresh perspective with a story that crackles with dry wit supplied by a precocious narrator.

Set in the 1970s in a gritty Illinois suburb, In Zanesville centers on an unnamed narrator about to enter her freshman year in high school and her best friend Felicia, called “Flea.” The narrator is at that awkward age, between childhood and adolescence. The story begins over the summer when the narrator, who is identified only twice as “Jo” and then “Joan,” and Flea land a babysitting job that ends disastrously when one of the six unruly children in their care sets fire to the upstairs bathroom.

The two friends are inseparable. They are self-described late bloomers, a phrase the narrator hates. “It sounds old fashioned and vaguely rank, like something a prairie woman would wear under her sweaty calico dress,” she writes. Their exploits include sleepovers in a camper in Flea’s backyard, hilarious efforts to save three stray cats, and trips downtown to buy clothes on lay away.

The main character’s home life is grim. Her father is a drunk and her mother is moody and prone to lashing out at the children. In spite of this dysfunctional household, the main character maintains a quirky, lovable spirit and outlook toward life.

As the two girls begin high school, a rift develops. Caught between the worlds of the cheerleaders and the band nerds, the two girls hastily hatch a plan to quit the band. “In retrospect we probably should have quit band after the parade and not during it,” she recalled. Later, they wrangle an invitation to a sleepover at a cheerleader’s house. Felicia pairs off with one of the boys who sneak into the backyard from the woods, leaving the narrator alone and hurt. As she struggles with her feelings, she eventually makes her peace with Flea and finds solace from an unlikely source.

The strength of this novel is the sharply drawn main character, whom the author infuses with a wry and wise perspective. The humor leavens the main character’s bleak home life.

The author of a memoir entitled, The Boys of My Youth, Beard graduated from the University of Iowa with a BA and an MFA and she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She was a Guggenheim Fellow and her writing has been published in The New Yorker.

Beard is a talented writer and I hope to read much more from her.

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