Strangers and Sojourners, Michael D. O'Brien (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997, ISBN: 0-89870-609-2) 571 pp., $24.95
Most of us do not need much encouragement to read a good novel. We do it for relaxation and for the sheer joy of a story. And even tho it is not our primary purpose, we do expect some insight into life. As Chesterton said, we experience our lives not as a philosophy, but as a story. A good story can help us understand our selves--and even grow in our faith. After all the themes of great literature are the basic ones of our faith: despair and hope, sin and recognition, fall and redemption.
We do not need a specifically "Catholic literature" to see those themes. Still it is encouraging that good Catholic literature is not just something of the past like Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory or Flannery O'Connor's short stories. There is in fact a current and popular Catholic literature. I am not referring just to Fr. Andrew Greeley's novels. I admit I have read a number of them and while they probably will not be "classics" they are "page turners." One in particular I enjoyed and thought had a pretty good message was Lord of the Dance. A few parts were unnecessarily shoddy, but the central character, a teenage girl, was beautifully drawn.
Better than the Greeley novels are those of Jon Hassler. His A Green Journey and Dear James are stunning, particularly so because they have such an unlikely heroine--an elderly lady in a Midwest town. And he gives one of the very few convincing portrayals of a priest that I have read in modern novel. Strangely enough that also includes Fr. Greeley. His priests often come across to me as two-dimensional caricatures, cardboard characters whom the author has little sympathy for.
Of course the presence of priests does not make a novel "Catholic." The one under discussion here Strangers and Sojourners does feature a couple of priests but they are minor characters, in fact they figure even less than the village Protestant minister. The story focuses rather on an English woman who immigrates to a remote area of British Columbia. In spite of the isolation the great events of this century impinge upon her. But more than those events, the novel is about the perennial struggle of faith, of hope, of love.
I was drawn to this novel by the Peter Kreeft's review. He says, "This is book that will break your heart and it will open your eyes to see why your heart needs to be broken." I was not disappointed. Even tho the novel perhaps bogs down in a few places, it will richly reward a persistent reader. O'Brien draws on a broad classical tradition and can introduce a quote at just the right moment, for instance this one from Dante's Divine Comedy:
He also enables his own characters to have their own pithy turns of phrase. At one point the heroine's husband says, "There is nothing quite as blind as the man who thinks he's got superior sight." And then he goes on to beautifully illuminate that paradox, one of the central ones of the novel.
The title itself is a biblical illusion. The Letter to the Hebrews (chapter 11) describes Abraham and other heroes of faith as "strangers and sojourners." That is the heart of the novel. A sojourner is a "person living in a mutually responsible association with a community or in a place, not inherently his own." (Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible) O'Brien's novel will help you understand that designation belongs not just to his heroine, but to each one of us.