Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Not My Book

I was checking out a pile of books at the library a few days ago, and something on the counter by the librarian's elbow made me catch my breath:

I was utterly flabbergasted. No! My title! How could anyone take my title?

So I checked it out, and I read it. It's a historical, set in the titular Minnesota town, ca. Civil War era. It has twins separated shortly after birth, and escaping slaves, and a whorehouse, and a bad mother, and a priest and a nun and an orphanage. The author reaches for lyricism, and sometimes achieves it, but the style can give a reader whiplash: the POV jerks back and forth too quickly, especially in the early dialogue scenes. Also, less is more with characterization: I felt like so much information was poured out at once that it made the characters too slippery to grasp.

The author depends a bit much on a certain vulgarity to set the historical tone. Everyone stinks, or has bad breath, or scratches lice or whatnot. I started blocking it out about the time that the author signaled how bad a corrupt judge was by having him scratch a hair from his armpit to study. The structure is episodic, and the characters are all mysteriously bound up to one another, whether they ever intersect or not. Connections are made or missed, but there's a frustrating lack of development that made me wonder why some of the stories were even being told. One character dies so arbitrarily that I wondered if the author was drawing from a historical source, because it made so little dramatic sense.

But what really made me raise my eyebrows was the portrayal of historical Catholicism. I did a bit of searching around and discovered that the author had been raised Catholic, and there's some of that flavor to it: a more contemporary Catholicism just moved back in time, with some oddly unconvincing details thrown in for color. A priest visiting a brothel weekly to hear the prostitutes' confessions, and then lining them up to distribute Communion, in the 1840s? The priest shouting up general absolution to the prostitutes on the balcony because the streets are too muddy for him to come in? The priest hearing the nun's confession face to face in a closet (a closet? in the 1840s?), with absolutely no reference to the historical form of confession? Indeed, confession seems to be the main sacrament of the Church, though there's little enough feel for what confession actually is. The nun, a sympathetic character, gives cliched advice about how Catholic women should make lots of good Catholic babies. The priest and the nun doubt in strangely modern language. The Rosary makes a historical-color appearance. The priest has mildly lascivious thoughts and takes the discipline with a horsewhip. Come on. There's simply no sense that Catholicism is actually an institution with its own history, with practices that have had different forms at different times. For all I know, every incident that rang false was meticulously researched, but in that case it helps to signal why something was being done differently than the norm. Otherwise it really does read as if the author really doesn't know what she's talking about and is making a lot of unforced errors.


Itinérante said...

I will probably just wait for your book =)

Jenny said...

I have a mild defense of the author. Your criticism stands, but I was raised Catholic in an ahistorical way which is probably similar to the author. I was always given the impression that there had only been one major change in the history of the Church and that was when the liturgy went from Latin to English. That's really all we were ever told so I filled in the blanks myself and assumed that the Mass itself had not changed at all except for the language. I was a !sophomore! in college in music history when, in the first week of classes, we were given a pop quiz about music in the Mass. Since we were a small, Southern, public college, the likelihood of Catholics being in the class was quite small--I may have been the only one--so the quiz was something of a joke played on the class by the professor to demonstrate our ignorance. Since I was a Catholic and in my youthful arrogance, I confidently answered the questions according to my vast knowledge of weekly Mass attendance. Oh. Basically everything I knew about the church was historically wrong and that quiz was my first clue.

So, yes, she should have researched, but I understand why she thought she already knew what she needed to know.

Enbrethiliel said...


Historical inaccuracies were a big deal in one online community of Romance readers I used to be a part of. I remember one discussion that got a little ugly before the author stepped in to explain her side.

The controversy was over the appearance of champagne flutes in a story set before that particular example of stemware had been designed. The user who started the thread said that she was so turned off by the sloppy historical research that she would never read that author's books again. And at least one other who joined the conversation was unhappy that the author "insisted" on the anachronism. Anyway, the author showed up to apologise for giving them such a bad reading experience and to explain that it wasn't intentional. There are just some things we don't know that we don't know. How can you get around a blind spot if you don't know it's there?

In more personal news, a friend recently recommended me to someone he knows, who is writing a story with a character who fusses over her hair. (LOL!) The latter had just realised that he had no idea what "fussing" actually involved. I was happy to help, but was thrown a little when he said that the character was a natural redhead. For all my fussing, what do I know about gingers? =P

Anyway, I told him about clarifying shampoos, DIY hair masks, occasional trims to deal with split ends . . . and suggested that, since red hair is coarser than all other kinds of Caucasian hair, his character might also read blogs by black women with "natural" hair. In hindsight, I should have added that he ought to make these the starting points for his own research. For it's highly possible that I got something wrong and that an actual redhead who fusses with her hair might read his story and be appalled at how much he got wrong! =P

And now that I've typed all that, I want to say that contemporary Catholic details in historical novels are my biggest pet peeve! I'd have the same reaction as you to this book, Mrs. Darwin!

JD Cowan said...

It's not a completely uncommon title. Actually, one of my own stories had the title for a long time... until I searched for stories with the same title and was taken aback at how many there were.

Needless to say, I changed it.

Lauren said...

I realize I have no idea about historic Catholic practices. At least I have the excuse of being an adult convert. What did confession look like in 1840?

Son Mom said...

I've never commented before, but have been reading your blog for about a year now and really enjoying it.

I really enjoy reading historical fiction, and when I find an author who "gets" historical religion, it's always exciting. There are three authors who have really stood out to me. Sharon Kay Penman, who has written historical fiction based on the life of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, along with their family. Candace Robb, in her "Owen Archer" mystery series set in York during the reign of Edward III -- she and Penman particularly stand out since their books deal with the much-maligned medieval church. They do a great job of showing the way the church had both abuses and yet was a sanctifying influence on the society in which it played such a central part.

The third is Barbara Hambly in her Benjamin January mystery series, set in 1830's New Orleans. In her case, I can tell that the author herself is not Catholic, as a few things "feel" wrong, but Benjamin's Catholicism is a real and important part of his character. It also shed light on the world of Venerable Henriette DeLille - I actually learned about the books from a Catholic blog post about her life (it wasn't here, was it?)

I had a fascinating insight into historical Catholicism when my great-aunt gave me a Catholic prayer book that had belonged to my great-great-great grandfather, copyright 1850 or so. One of the most interesting parts was an examination of conscience, that included the question, "If you are a slaveowner, do you treat your slaves with kindness and dignity, and attend to their moral instruction?" There was a whole section with moral advice for different situations, also very interesting.

mrsdarwin said...

It's not that I was looking for an in-depth discussion of historical practices of Catholicism, since that's not what the novel was about. It's simply that in reading, I didn't get the impression that the author even realized that there were historical differences to be had. And in checking the acknowledgments, I can see that she consulted with members of various fields of study related to the story, but no one associated with the church in the town -- and even a brief google search reveals that both local parishes have historical information for the asking. Some of these really are unforced errors.

I see I forgot to mention the Marian apparition that a character fabricates at the end of the book.

mrsdarwin said...

Enbretheliel, red hair isn't necessarily coarser than other caucasian hair. I know many redheads with fine straight hair. Curly hair is coarser than straight, and a number of redheads do have curls, but it's the curls that determine texture more than the color.

Darwin said...

Being a year plus in to researching a historical novel, I'll admit to being perhaps a bit overly wound up about the topic of historical accuracy in novels. Moreover, even prior to this, my attitude towards accuracy can at times be capricious. I suspect that most readers are this way, in that what sort of things destroy the illusion of reality will vary a great deal from person to person.

For instance, when reading A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin, there was a bit at the beginning when the main character is built up as this huge expert on climbing and outdoor activities. To show that he's an expert, he tells a friend that he's hiking at night with that they should lie down and sleep for a few hours and then get up and resume their walk, because the moon will be rising late tonight but it will be full. They do this, and the other character is duly impressed at the main character's astronomical knowledge. The problem with this is: The full moon always rises at the same time the sun sets. This is an astronomic necessity in that what makes the moon "full" is that we are between it and the sun and thus see only the daylight side. For me, this broke down suspension of disbelief and caused me to look with a jaded eye at the whole rest of the novel. If this was a passing detail, it might not have bothered me. But in the case, the author built it up as a sign of the characters expertise, but then didn't bother to look up the first thing about phases of the moon versus moonrise times.

Another thing that can bother me a lot in a historical novel is if it seems like character's attitudes are anachronistic. This seems much more bothersome than simply getting details wrong.

So, for instance, in the novel that MrsDarwin is talking about, the basic mis-understanding that a priest would be providing absolution in the absence of any intention of change, and then giving communion both outside of the context of the mass and also to people not intending to cease a publicly sinful lifestyle presents a basic misunderstanding of what it is that people thought Catholicism told them about the world and its purpose.

"What did confession look like in 1840?"

I ended up doing a bis of research on this and it turns out that confession is the sacrament which arguably has changed least in form and wording since Vatican II. It was always done mostly in the vernacular since it was essential that the penitent know what he was saying and being told. The main differences were that if at all possible, confession was done in a confessional with a screen between the priest and the penitent. The point here is that the penitent is confessing to God, not to the priest. So if the priest didn't have a confessional available, he would probably have used some configuration which provided that slight impersonality. The point of the confessional was not to give the priest and penitent privacy together, but to separate the priest and the penitent a bit. (Old fashioned confessions consisted of a box that the priest sat in and a kneeler the outside with a screen where the penitent could kneel down and speak to the priest though the screen -- so the penitent actually wasn't necessarily enclosed at all.) Moreover, the priest would absolutely not have embraced the nun to comfort her, as he does in the story.

But I think the more basic thing missing is not so much the details as the spirit. Confession existed for people to confess sins and receive absolution. And then far more than now, if a priest thought someone didn't have a sincere intent to amend, he might refuse absolution entirely. So the idea of him making house calls on the brothel is just utterly odd.

Christy from fountains of home said...

I can't speak technically to the historic side, but I do feel that so much of what regular people view as "Catholicism" isn't really Catholicism at all but very misconstrued, ill-informed, personally prejudiced ex-Catholicism. I find it in so many novels, an mistaken underlying axiom of what Catholic dogma is, always something inspiring guilt to the characters. I find it so frustrating and sad. Another cost to be Catechism of the past, but it really impacts so many people today who have never had any experience with the Faith.

Son Mom said...

I was fascinated by the old cathedrals in Europe in which the confessionals had a wooden screen separating priest and penitent, of course, but were open (set against the wall) - so anyone waiting saw both of them. I guess you would whisper during confession.

I agree, it's anachronistic attitudes that really throw me out of immersion in a book placed in the past. One of my favorite aspects of Penman's books is her depiction of religious attitudes that make sense for the time - for example, the way in which her characters take seriously the knowledge that they will face final judgement. So when Henry and Eleanor are giving vast sums of money to convents or monasteries so that there will be many Masses and prayers said for their souls after their deaths, it's not a hypocritical action, but rather a very real acknowledgement on their part of the ways they've sinned and their need for God's mercy after death.

Enbrethiliel said...


And of course, the character in the story I was a "consultant" on has straight red hair. #facepalm #fail

I wonder if there's also something about Catholicism that gives Catholics (including the lapsed ones) the idea that there's not much more research to be done. Since it is something we live as much as something we believe, many of us do already "get it"--even if it slips our mind that there would be differences among individual Catholic outposts in space and time. While I was writing some stories set in Canada, I badgered Canadian friends for details about weather conditions, local restaurants, and the like . . . but if I had decided to make one of the characters Catholic, I probably wouldn't have asked any questions. Perhaps even non-Catholics who just know other Catholics have a similar assumption. And we can't really blame them because the Mystical Body kind of does "work" that way.

Living writers also have the special handicap of having heard over and over again that the Church post-Vatican II is "the same" Church pre-Vatican II, that we still celebrate "the same" Mass, etc. LOL!

I think Darwin captures my thoughts on historical inaccuracies best when he says that the real problem is anachronistic attitudes. I really hate it when a modern person shows up in period clothing. =( Indeed, I gave up on an otherwise delightful Historical writer because she had three Catholic characters in a row convert to the Church of England in order to get married. The last straw was the character who had been raised in an Italian convent feeling satisfied that the Anglican church service and the Catholic Mass had the same prayers. Um, no . . .