The Shoes of the Fisherman has lots of wear left

When Morris L. West published The Shoes of the Fisherman in 1963, the idea of a pope who could be both spiritual leader and international activist created a sensation. Since the book was first published, fiction has become fact.

As the novel opens, a pope has just died. The cardinals choose Kiril Lakota, a Slav who spent 17 years in Siberian prisons and labor camps after World War II. He owes his release to the Communist leader of Russia.

As Pope Kiril settles into his new role, Catholics in Rome go on with their lives. Jewish convert Ruth Lewin is working among pro-communist Sephardic Jews to compensate for having survived the holocaust. Newspaper correspondent George Fisher is waiting for the church to annul his mistress’ marriage to a homosexual government official. Vatican newspaper editor Campeggio is stewing over his son’s relationship with that same official. Eventually all these people’s paths cross that of Pope Kiril. whose elevation to the Triple Tiara hasn’t changed his essential values.

Although The Shoes of the Fisherman may sound more like historical fiction today than it does like invention, it remains a fine novel. The plot moves surely, characters are well-drawn, descriptions are precise and lively, and West’s theme transcends historical boundaries.

If a man is centered upon himself, the smallest risk is too great for him, because both success and failure can destroy him. If he is centered upon God, then no risk is too great, because success is already guaranteed—the successful union of Creator and creature, besides which everything else is meaningless.

The Shoes of the Fisherman
by Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1963
374 pages
1963 bestseller # 1
My grade: B+
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Robe’s still good fit for Biblically literate

Easter Cross

The Robe is Lloyd C. Douglas’s most famous novel and perhaps his best.

For insulting the emperor’s stepson, the young tribune Marcellus Gallio is sent to Minoa (Gaza). In Jerusalem on security detail, Marcellus’ unit crucifies Jesus. Marcellus wins the robe Jesus wore.

Bother Marcellus and his slave, Demetrius, are convinced Jesus was innocent. Both men become converts.

Demetrius rescues the woman Marcellus loves from the clutches of the new Emperor, Caligula, and all three head back to Rome. Diana is skeptical of Christianity, but stands by her man.

The story is far more complex and exciting than my summary suggests. Douglas weaves ancient history and Bible stories into his narrative skillfully. The ogres of Roman history appear, as do the martyrs of the early church:  Peter, John, and Stephen.

Few writers can pull off a historical novel without bogging down in history. Douglas does it superbly.

However, I’m afraid even regular church-goers nowadays lack the Biblical knowledge to understand big chunks of The Robe. Without that knowledge, it’s impossible to appreciate Douglas as a storyteller.

As a rule, I don’t like religious novels and off-the-shelf characters bore me, but I enjoyed The Robe anyway. Maybe you will, too.

The Robe
Lloyd C. Douglas
Houghton Mifflin, 1942
508 pages
#7 in 1942, #1 in 1943

Photo credit: “Easter Cross” uploaded by Watford

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Wanderer Has Great Setting But Where’s the Story?

Michael Karvajalka  is a disillusioned Finn making a pilgrimage from Rome to the Holy Land in 1527.  Wimpy Michael and his muscle-bound half-brother, Andy, are born victims. Michael’s dog, Rael, is brighter than both of them together.

En route, Michael falls for Guila, a woman with one blue and one brown eye who tells fortunes. She says she’s an innocent virgin, and Michael believes everything he’s told.

When their ship is boarded by Turks,  Michael and Andy convert to Islam to save their necks.

Michael, Andy, and Guila end up as slaves in Algiers.

Michael, who is as honest as he is naive, becomes a yes-man the Grand Vizer Ibraheim of the Ottoman Empire. Andy capitalizes on his wrestling and artillery skills, while Guila, now Michael’s wife, schemes her way into the Seraglio.

All three are caught up in the European conflict that spilled over when the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope struggled for domination.

Mika Waltari muddles through which what could have been a Middle Eastern perspective on Renaissance history unaided by either a plausible plot or plausible characters. He seems to have just recycled his earlier bestseller The Egyptian by advancing the calendar a few centuries.

Don’t bother going after this wanderer.

The Wanderer
by Mika Waltari
Trans. Naomi Walford
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951
438 ages
My grade: C-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Cardinal Contrasts Religion and Spirituality

The Cardinal opens with  Father Stephen Fermoyle returning to Boston after study in Rome. Stephen’s first job as a curate is under “Dollar Bill” Monaghan, a gifted fundraiser who is suspicious of Stephen’s mystical and intellectual bent.

Stephen next serves an impoverished parish under a saintly priest with no financial abilities at all. Stephen steps into the breech, revealing an aptitude for management.

The Diocese next sends Stephen to the Vatican where his first job is sorting the diplomatic mail that arrives from all over the world. As he learns, he gets more and more responsibility.

In 1927 the Pope sends Stephen back to America as Bishop of Hartfield.

At 44, Stephen bcomes the youngest Archbishop in the US. When the next pope is elected, Stephen is one of the red hatted cardinals voting their choice.

Henry Morton Robinson writes as a lay Catholic, loyal to the Church but not blind to the faults of its leaders. Robinson makes Stephen human, subject to temptations but strong enough to walk away from them.

Unlike most religious novelists, Robinson focuses on the managerial and administrative work of the clergy. This perspective lets Robinson give nuanced portrait of a man who often finds his religious obligations require him to surpress his own spiritual longings.

The Cardinal
By Henry Morton Robinson
Simon and Schuster, 1950
579 pages
#1 bestselling novel in 1950
My grade: B+
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni