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Archive for the ‘Religious’ Category

In The Chosen, Chaim Potok explored how two brilliant teenage boys struggled to find a way to reconcile their orthodox Jewish faith with their academic interests.

NYC sidewalk scene on cover of The Promise

Cover for Potok’s 1969 bestseller about two young Orthodox Jewish scholars.

The Promise again brings Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders, now both graduate students, together around a problem to which they respond differently.

Reuven meets a famous Jewish scholar who, though unable to believe in the Jew’s God or their theology, believes in Judiasm’s ethics and culture.

Prof. Gordon’s son has mental problems.

Through Reuven, the Gordons learn of Danny, who is doing brilliant work in psychotherapy. They agree to letting Danny isolate Michael until he opens up to Danny.

The very idea appalls Reuven.

He has his own problems.

The man who will determine whether he passes the smicha exam and becomes a rabbi is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who has violently attacked Reuven’s father for heretical views.

Potok weaves these and many more threads together into a exploration of friendship, father-son relationships, faith and orthodoxy, and the potentially lethal consequences of the zeal of the persecuted becoming a club by which they can persecute others.

The Promise is as good on second—or seventh—reading as on the first.

The Promise by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. 368 pp. 1969 bestseller #8. My grade A.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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After hearing the founder of the American Inland Mission tell about needs of impoverished people within a day’s train ride of her Asheville, N.C., home, against her parents’ wishes, Christy Huddleston goes off to teach in a one-room school in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains.

section of map of Cutter Gap, TN, 1912

Small section of map on inside cover of Christy.

From the moment she steps off the train in a snow storm and finds no one to meet her, Christy’s romantic ideas of Christian service begin crumble.


Christy by Catherine Marshall
McGraw-Hill, 1967 496 pp. 1967 bestseller #5. My grade: B.

Christy has over 60 students of all ages in a single room.

There are no books.

Students walk to school barefoot year round, heedless of mud and snow.

The smell of unbathed bodies is overpowering.

Cutters Gap has some assets. Handsome preacher David Grantland is one of them.

Another is Alice Henderson, a quiet and sensible Quaker woman who wants the highlanders to know that God loves them.

Prickly, anti-religious Dr. Neil McNeil is a third.

Catherine Marshall based her novel on her parents’ experience in Appalachia in 1912-13, telling the story through her mother’s perspective. That perspective seriously weakens the story: Marshall is too close to her real life characters to make their fictional counterparts feel real.

Like a sermon in a movie theater, the story just feels out of place.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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collage of photos of Hasidic Jews, a baseball glove, broken glasses.

The Chosen begins with Hasidic Jews, baseball, and broken glasses.

Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen opens with a baseball game between two Jewish parochial schools.

The Hasidic school’s best player is Danny Saunders. Reuven Malter leads the orthodox school’s team, which the Hasidim consider as bad as Christians.


The Chosen by Chaim Potok
© 1967. Book Club Edition, 284 pp. 1967 bestseller #3. My grade: A.

Danny slams back one of Reuven’s pitches, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize.

Reuven is smart, Danny, with his photographic memory, is brilliant. A friendship springs up between the boys who have no intellectual peers in their schools.

Through the boys’ friendship, Potok takes readers deep into the orthodox scene.

Reuven is very close to his scholarly father. He finds Rabbi Saunders’s refusal to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud appalling.

Danny is hurt by the silent treatment, but loves and respects his father.

As the boys begin college, the question arises: What will happen if they want different careers than their fathers have chosen for them?

In Potok’s deceptively straightforward narrative, it’s easy to miss details that reveal motives deeply rooted in the two faith communities. Some readers will need to read the novel twice to grasp the faith context.

Others may read The Chosen twice because it’s worth reading more than once.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downes is a good woman.

Deserted by her husband, she started a business, supported herself, raised their son, now a missionary in Africa, and became a force to be reckoned with in her church.


A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. 432 pp. 1927 bestseller #10. My grade: A.

When natives attack Phillip’s African mission, Phillip escapes, dragging his virgin wife back to the states with him.

Missionaries board steam locomotive in Congo about 1900.

Phillip and Naomi left Africa after their mission was attacked.

Naomi would have preferred martyrdom, but Phillip has lost faith in his mother’s God and in his missionary calling.

Back home, Phillip takes a laborer’s job in the mills while his mother tries to put a good face on things — tough work, especially when her husband shows up after a 26 year absence.

Louis Bromfield builds his complex plot from the story’s setting and the personalities of his characters.

Bromfield draws Emma with deft strokes. She has guts, stamina, business acumen, determination, but she’s also manipulative, controlling, and self-deluded.

Emma’s religion is “ a practical, businesslike instrument of success,” her God conveniently pocket-sized, but Emma doesn’t know that.

Some of the incidents are shocking, but not unbelievable. The superficial way Bromfield relates horrific events powerfully suggests they are too awful to be spoken of.

Emma hasn’t a clue what Christianity is all about. Her cluelessness makes this book important — and vastly entertaining—90 years after its initial publication.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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dark landscape of forbidding  rocky hills

The wilderness is a frightening place.

In the Wilderness is an antidote to salacious later twentieth century bestsellers.

But Robert Hichens’ novel is strong stuff that many readers may find hard to swallow.


In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens
1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #4603] My grade: A-

Dion Leith is passionately in love with Rosamund Everard, who finds him a nice, clean-living young man. Though trained as a singer, Rosamund feels her vocation is in a religious order, not marriage.

A sermon convinces her to accept Dion’s proposal. They marry, have a son.

Rosamund’s love is all for their son. She scarcely notices when the woman in a notorious divorce case pays attention to Dion.

When the Boer War breaks out, Dion volunteers. In his absence, Rosamund moves to an English cathedral village where her music and religious interests are welcome.

When he returns from South Africa, Dion accidentally shoots his son while the two shooting together at Rosamund’s suggestion.

Rosamund screams, “Murderer,” and locks the cottage door against Dion.

Repudiating the values that locked the door on him, Dion leaves England for non-Western, non-Christian places, for drugs, debauchery, and the Other Woman.

Hichens doesn’t deliver a tidy, happily-ever-after ending.

It’s more of a “we’re going to grow up together” ending, a glimmer of hope that two very dissimilar people can create more happiness than unhappiness for each other.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Alice Cholmondeley’s author’s note to Christine prefaces what Cholmondeley says are letters written to her by her daughter, Christine, who was studying in Germany the summer World War I began.

A note saying the publisher chose to alter names of some individuals reinforces the idea that the letters are true.


Christine by Alice Cholmondeley¹
©1917. 1917 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg eBook #12683. My grade: C .

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to frontlines

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to the front, 1 August 1914.

In fact, Christine is a work not merely of fiction, but fabricated propaganda.

The letters’ details provide the proof.

Christine tells her mother a host of “facts” that a parent would have known without telling: the family is poor, Christine is to be away only one year, that no one else in the family has a talent for violin.

Cholmondeley is very good at detail, which gives the story a sense of “this happened.”

The text is strewn with German terms that monolingual American readers will need to look up.

Cholmondeley goes to great lengths to show the Germans as a nation are cruel, brutal, greedy, power-hungry, that they wanted war because war fit in with their philosophy and ambitions.

The value of Christine for today’s readers is less about its story — which is slender — than about its rhetorical strategy. As a study in persuasion, it’s well worth careful examination.

Techniques that Cholmondeley uses against the Germans might be used today against Muslims or Methodists.


¹Alice Cholmondeley is a pen name of Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, an Australian-born British novelist. By her first marriage she became Gräfin von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and by a second marriage, Countess Russell.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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ruggest mountains with light dusting of snow
The Doctor is the story of a love quadrangle that ends in a religious tract.

The Boyle family can afford college for only one son. Mrs. Boyle determines Dick will go to become a minister.


The Doctor : A Tale of the Rockies by Ralph Connor¹
1907 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg ebook 3242. My Grade: C+.

Dick loves Margaret Robertson who loves his older brother, Barney.

Barney sets his heart on becoming a surgeon. He also sets his heart on marrying Iona Lane, who loves him but doesn’t want marriage until after she’s had a successful singing career.

Barney falls out with Dick in the mistaken impression that Dick and and Iona are lovers. Dick tries repeatedly for reconciliation, but Barney refuses.

Dick ends up working as a missionary in the Canadian Rockies where Margaret, now a nurse, is working.

Barney ends up as medical superintendent on the a railroad line being built in the Canadian Rockies.

Ralph Connor plays on readers’ emotions.

A few isolated bits of the story have the verisimilitude of reportage, but the plot is generally absurd.

Under Connor’s pen, all four principal characters get religion and either live happily or die happily.

A week after reading The Doctor, happily, you won’t be able to remember what it was about.


¹Ralph Connor is the pen name of the Rev. Dr. Charles William Gordon, who served first in the Presbyterian and later in the United churches in Canada.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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