When I began writing this monthly column in January 2023, I named it “Redeeming the Time.” I use the space to revisit some past literary, theological, philosophical, or historical text, or a milestone anniversary of some notable event or person. My intention is to reaffirm and celebrate the timeless importance of that text, event, or person: to “redeem the time” that has passed by encouraging you to read, see, or otherwise freshly experience the subject of each column. And, of course, my purpose is to suggest how the subject can be integrated into a flourishing Catholic moral and spiritual life.
As the calendar turns and many of us think in terms of itineraries for the new year, I thought it would be appropriate in this January column to suggest a reading program of a couple series of novels. It is daunting to begin a sequence of related books. But what better time to set aside our reservations and set out a plan than the beginning of a new year, when we are already thinking in terms of resolutions and agendas?
Described by some as the greatest historical novels ever written, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels have provided me with hours and hours of pleasure. Comprising 19 complete novels, they convey the tales of Jack Aubrey, early 19th century British Navy captain, and his particular friend, ship’s physician, Stephen Maturin. Covering the period of the Napoleonic wars (and including the War of 1812 with the United States), the books are rich in colorful characters, historical detail, and intriguing plot lines.
O’Brian’s meticulous technical knowledge about sailing (and fighting with) a seafaring Man o’ War is simply astounding. As you navigate to every corner of the globe, you will learn a new nautical term or detail on every page. But mostly you will be entertained by the perfectly paced narrative of these fine novels. Along the way, you will be challenged to consider such things as the nature of patriotism, courage, religious faith in a time of war, the challenges of repentance and forgiveness, and the richness of authentic friendship.
Marilynne Robinson established her reputation as one of America’s great living writers with her wonderful 1980 novel, “Housekeeping.” She took another 24 years to publish her second novel, Pulitzer Prize winning, “Gilead,” the first in a four-book sequence followed by “Home” (2008), “Lila” (2014), and “Jack” (2020), about the Ames and Boughton families in the small fictional town of Gilead, Iowa.
“Gilead” is an epistolary novel, written by aged Protestant pastor John Ames to his young son — to be read after Pastor Ames’s impending death from chronic heart disease. It is a heartwarming/heartbreaking letter, exploring themes of human frailty, religious faith, and the problem of authentic Christian witness in the face of evil. Pastor Ames is one of the most sympathetic characters in American fiction, eliciting admiration in the reader for his spiritual candor and moral struggles.
“Home” and “Lila” are worthy successors to “Gilead.” The unique feature of the four novels is that they account for the same time periods and events, from the perspective of four different characters. “Home” is narrated by Glory Boughton, the daughter and caretaker of John Ames’s best friend, fellow Protestant pastor Robert Boughton, who is largely confined to his home and requires full-time care. Glory gives up her job as a schoolteacher in St. Louis to accompany her father to a gentle death. Reading Glory’s descriptions of some of the same events described in “Gilead” is part of the pleasure of this second book. And the relationships between Glory, her brother Jack, and her other siblings who are “too busy” to help will hit home with many readers.
“Lila,” the third novel, is narrated by Rev. Ames’s much younger wife Lila Ames, and fills in the back story of their eccentric courtship, unlikely marriage, and unconventional domestic relationship. Lila has little learning, but much wisdom. She sees beyond the posturing of her more cultivated friends, demonstrating practical wisdom that transcends her lack of formal education. “Lila” is the perfect third look at the Boughton and Ames families.
As excellent as the series is, it seems that Robinson began to lose interest with the fourth, “Jack.” Like its main character, the son of Rev. Boughton and namesake of Rev. Ames, the novel seems to wander aimlessly and randomly, never really finding its place in the otherwise excellent “Gilead” series. It is worthwhile, nonetheless, for tying loose ends left dangling in its three predecessors.
Settling into either or both these series of outstanding novels will not be spending time, but rather redeeming it, giving back to you much more than the time you put into them.
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Kenneth Craycraft is an associate professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati.