Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book Club last night

We discussed the book I chose last year. So many characters and so many themes all in one lifetime. Text below.

Strangers and Sojourners:
A Conversation with Author Michael D. O'Brien

by Ana Braga-Henebry, M.A.

I read Strangers and Sojourners year ago when my kids were still underfoot, and women’s book club night was an absolute treat. Between diapers and nighttime nursing sessions, reading happened in interrupted spurts of time. I picked up the book this time around only to find out that what had stayed with me from the book was but a misty, piecemeal collection of the story. It was exhilarating to lift the fog and rediscover Anne!

As the story revealed itself to me, in many ways completely anew, questions began rising in my mind. I have dear friends in the author’s circle of friends, so I adventured myself in approaching Michael O’Brien for the writing of this reflection through my friends. Mr. O’Brien was gracious and generous, and what follows is our exchange about Strangers and Sojourners.

I feel privileged to have this personal take from the author of this month’s selection, as I hope WRM readers will!

Ana: I have been curious to know why Anne, educated and resourceful, did not read more: Church history and Catholic authors for example. Instead, she spent decades and decades wondering about Faith and waiting for... what exactly? She seemed to think the issue of faith dwells only in the realm of emotions or psychology, until almost beyond her deathbed.  

O'Brien: In the modern age this would have been so. But recall that the events of her life story take place in a very remote region of British Columbia, during its "pioneer" stage, which was just after World War I and still undeveloped into the late 1960s, at least in that part of the province (I lived in that valley for a few years in the early 1970s) . The Delaney family were financially poor throughout, and ordering books, or even knowing where to find them would have been a challenge. What books she had or was able to obtain were largely literary/cultural, since she valued these as the cornerstones of civilization. She consistently regards religion, especially Catholicism, as primitive and bordering on the superstitious. Her life was a dialogue between self-reliance and the call to depend absolutely on God (which she did not understand for many years). In addition, her strengths of character, her intellectual gifts, and her English cultural background included anti-Catholic prejudices, all contributing to a sense of autonomy, and hence dislocation and isolation. In essence her conversion was a spiritual one that occurred over decades as she gradually learned to abandon her fierce grip on her own will—an admirable will, but building walls around her nonetheless. It is her long discipleship in learning to love through the total outpouring of self that prepares her for the moment of conversion.

Ana: The death scene was very moving, but short compared to so many other issues that were dealt with more eloquently, sometimes for many pages. A reader might almost miss it. It is very different from the deathbed conversion in Father Elijah, for instance. I loved both--while the first was "epic", this one has the intimacy of a good and loving marriage, that understanding that comes from decades of loving spousal friendship. Would you speak a little of the creating process of such an understated--and yet luminous--climax?

O'Brien: With Anne's death, I wanted to emphasize that the turning of the soul to God can happen in a moment, undramatic, gentle, with dignity…. saying "Yes" in the heart of the soul, as the final fruit of a life poured out for others. This is in contrast to the dramatic conversion of a great sinner such as Count Smokrev in Father Elijah.

Ana: Some elements in the book remind me of the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marques, although Marquez is directed to the opposite direction you are in your writing. Would you say a few words about those? The hermit old priest who seems to be summoned from beyond this life and appears and disappears throughout the book... Nathaniel's face-to-face with the devil in the cave. Are there references you are bringing to the readers' mind, references I may have not noticed?

O'Brien: The occasional appearance of Fr. Andrei in some of my novels is a reminder that there are saints among us, and even more importantly, that God is always at work, even in desolate places and in devastated lives. The "mystical" bear appears in the cave as a visual manifestation of the evil shadow presence that has haunted Anne since her childhood. Both are reminders that we are in a spiritual battle with unseen forces (Ephesians 6: 10-20), in a war that will last until the end of time. One scholar and literary biographer, Dr. Clemens Cavallin, has written that my work is
Catholic "transcendental realism", that is, it seeks to reintroduce authentic elements of the supernatural dimension into contemporary literature, which in our times has become either purely materialist or fantastical.

Ana: Which, if any, of the characters or passages in Strangers and Sojourners are autobiographical? The story seems to tell stories you may have experienced closely.

O'Brien: Some of Nathaniel Delaney's agnosticism/atheism parallels my experiences during a few years of my adolescence. The rest of the novel draws from real events and aspects of several people's lives who lived in the valley of Swiftcreek. I lived there for some years in my twenties and thirties, and got to know a variety of people, including "Jan Tarnowski" who was a friend and pretty much as described in the story. I also knew others who were homesteaders who opened up that country when it was just limitless forest. My wife and I remain close friends with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My wife was born and raised in a village about 60 miles from Swiftcreek (now renamed Valemount), a place not unlike Swiftcreek, and so we maintain many connections, though we now live in eastern Canada.

Ana: Is there anything else
you would like to share about the book to the women in Well Read Mom?

O'Brien: Strangers and Sojourners is the fictional story of a soul, but I think representative of internal conditions and dynamics of a majority of people in the Western world—autonomous man, man without faith in God, relying only on the Self and afflicted with conscious and subconscious fears of many kinds. Yet the actions of Divine Providence do not cease, and can become more effective in the lives of unbelievers if we are praying and fasting for them.

Ana Braga-Henebry grew up in Brazil and has a Master’s Degree in Aesthetic Studies. She is very happy to stay home while her scientist husband travels the globe to places she neither has heard of, nor can spell. She and her husband have seven children and speak to engaged couples about NFP and family life. Ana has been writing articles about Catholic family life for twenty years; she gives cooking classes and sings in church choir. With the last child at home being partially homeschooled, her new passion is for teaching religious education. This fall, Ana is starting to write a book of memoirs.

Discussion questions:

1. Discuss Anne’s personality. How is she like you? Did you identify with her? If her personality is very different from yours, could you still empathize with her?

2. Discuss Anne’s husband, Stephen Delaney. How does their relationship differ from yours with your husband? How is it similar? How does their marriage develop and grow, culminating in profound spiritual unity? Cite passages or read scenes aloud.

3. The scene in the cave at the end of book had the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was late night and my husband was gone, I was in bed alone and was very frightened. Did you have a similar experience, or can you recall another part of the book that you felt was masterfully written?

4. Did this book make you want to read the rest of the series of seven books entitled Children of the Last Days, which includes the bestseller Father Elijah?

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