When The Dreaded Diagnosis Hits Home

August 27, 2014

Feast of St. Monica

“The Lord is near, have no anxiety at all.”        Philippians 4:6

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Elise and Jason with their family

Three weeks ago I was stunned and grieving over news about our precious thirty-five-year old friend Elise, who was diagnosed with aggressive Stage 3 breast cancer.  The mother of five young children, she wrote in a letter to our church community that the thought of her children is “the one thing that makes me cry.”  I couldn’t stop thinking about Elise and her mother, Denny, who’s been a friend of our family for years.  I kept imagining how much Denny’s heart must hurt for her daughter, knowing all too well how a mother’s heart aches for her hurting children.

Never could I have predicted that within days, my own twenty-six-year old son-in-law Grayson, the husband of my daughter Gaby and father of their three young sons, would be diagnosed with Stage 1 testicular cancer.  He went to the doctor after finding a growth, spurred on by Gaby to make haste after Elise’s diagnosis.

 

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Gaby and Grayson with their boys

Following the doctor’s evaluation a week ago, Grayson underwent surgery to remove what had been preliminarily diagnosed as a cancerous tumor.  I flew up to South Carolina the day before his surgery to be with them and help with the kids.  The biopsy confirmed that the tumor was indeed cancerous, and we were told that Grayson would probably need invasive surgery in Indiana to remove the lymph nodes along his spine.  He will see the oncologist for the first time today to determine his treatment plan, which will likely include chemotherapy, in addition to surgery, to bring him to what is expected to be a full recovery.  Meanwhile we wait and we pray.  And pray and pray and pray.

Today is the Feast of St. Monica, the mother of the great St. Augustine, who also prayed and prayed and prayed.  Her intense suffering and years of tears were matched only by her determination to win her son’s conversion to Christianity, which she eventually did in spades.  It was St. Monica who famously said: “Nothing is far from God.”  Not wayward sons, nor cancer, nor any dreaded diagnosis.   It took me a few days, plus a wrestling match with God, to remember that truth last week.

I woke up in South Carolina the morning after Grayson’s surgery beset with grief and fear as I anticipated the yet-unknown outcome of his biopsy, as well as its ramifications for his young family.  Thankfully, their parish church has Eucharistic Adoration every Tuesday, and I was able to steal away for an hour to drag my heavy heart to the Lord.

“What in the heck is going on, Lord?” I began angrily. “You know how much trauma our family has been through!” I continued with frustration. “Enough is enough!  Didn’t you get the memo that our period of suffering is over?”  I complained to God for most of the hour while He listened patiently.  Then He politely reminded me of the meaning of faith.

“Faith is a participation in God’s own self-understanding,” I heard the words I’ve spoken in lectures many times coming right back at me.   “Trust that I am love, and that I will only work this situation for good,” God gently nudged.  In that very moment, I turned toward God in trust, asking for the faith to see the entire situation through His perspective, instead of through the lens of my own fear of suffering.   Immediately, peace came.  Not by magic, but by grace.  Not through some worldly formula for happiness, but by way of heartfelt surrender to a Father who loves me, and all of my children and grandchildren, infinitely more than I do.       

Nothing is far from God.  That’s a message bears repeating over and over again.  St. Monica, who spoke those words of profound faith and trust, pray for us.

 

*****

Judy Landrieu Klein is a wife, mother, grandmother, author, theologian, widow—and newlywed! She blogs at MemorareMinistries.com and can be reached at memorareministries@gmail.com.

Posted in Catholic Writing and Publishing | 1 Comment

Catholic Viewing from Karina Fabian

Review of The Identical

A movie by City of Peace Media & Films

Review by Karina Fabian

 Trailer link here vimeo.com/99067156

 I was invited to preview this movie online and was impressed by the trailer. The movie is every bit what the trailer promises: a moving story with believable acting, a terrific plot, characters you’ll care about and some great music. Be sure to have tissue handy.

Naturally, as a Christian movie, there is a message, but it’s really about following your dream: “If God is in your dream, nothing can stand in your way.” The drama is always there; no dream is easily achieved or easily kept, yet worth the effort. I loved the examples of marriages in this story; husbands loving their wives, and wives supporting their husbands. Ryan’s wife pushes him to pursue his dream of being a singer, even when it means months on the road, and their reunion, as she said, “was like falling in love again.”

I also enjoyed how they stayed true to the 50s/60s era without falling into cliché. As such, it kept you in the story, and you felt the writers and director really understood what it was like to grow up in that time, to be part of the push and pull of the generations while still having great love and respect for each other.

The only two critiques I have is that the opening scenes of Ryan’s adoption were a little choppy. They could have used a little more transition, but once it moved to Ryan’s childhood, things smoothed out. And Teen Ryan did not look like a teen. Every time his dad said he was underage, I did a double-take. Minor issues in an otherwise major success.

Overall, a terrific film. I’m excited for it to come out, and I think I have a Christmas gift for my mom!

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10 Steps to Indie Publishing

Printing pressThese are the best of times for authors—and possibly the worst of times! The changes in the publishing industry over the past five years are nearly as significant as the advent of the internet. In fact, the two developments are intertwined and build on each other.

We all know traditional publishing has undergone tremendous upheaval. It’s still difficult to find an agent. Same goes for a publishing home, doubly so when entire houses fold or get bought out by another entity. Authors are taking to the waters of Amazon and related ponds by the droves, flooding the markets with their manuscripts.

What are some advantages to independently publishing your work? Total control is the one most often mentioned. You work directly with a cover artist to produce the best one for your story. You can replace it if you decide it’s not working. You can set your pricing, then change it at a moment’s notice if needed.

Total control is also the disadvantage to indie publishing. Marketing is incumbent upon you, no one else. Make no mistake: this is a big responsibility.

Given this environment, if you are interested but have yet to dip a toe into the pool, how do you go about what has become known as indie publishing?

1. Know your goals. Do you want to get something in print form for family and friends? Skip down to items 4 through 7 and ignore the rest. Do you want to reach readers who don’t personally know you? Start here and slog through every step listed.

2. Hone your craft. Write the best book possible, run it by critique groups and/or beta readers and/or enter it in contests to get unbiased feedback. Then hire an editor and revise. Yes, this will cost money. Yes, you must do it. Do not fall prey to the delusion that your book is the best one on the planet or the only one not in need of professional editing. It’s not. You can always make it better. Believe me, if your critique partners/beta readers/editors say it needs work, it does. Fix it. If you don’t, the whole world will be privy to the lashing you will get from Amazon and Goodreads reviewers. So make it the best possible book before you put it out there. At least no one will be able to say “poorly written/edited!”

3. Buy books on the process. Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible  by David Gaughran are great resources, they are cheap, and they are fairly up to date. He is a proponent of the Amazon-only model. If you are comfortable with reading advice by savvy romance writers, The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing by The Indie Voice is another great resource.  This group is a proponent of getting your work out to every venue possible; why limit yourself to one vendor? These three books come to less than $15 and lay an excellent foundation for understanding the nuts and bolts of self-publishing.

4. Explore publishing options. Amazon’s self-pub arms are KDP for ebooks, Create Space  or print on demand, and ACX for audio books. Ingram Spark is another option. Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo have platforms for uploading books; I have not gotten that far and do not have information to share. I’m sure others can contribute to the conversation here!

5. Utilize the tutorials on each publishing site. They provide a wealth of information. My experience with customer service on each site has been exceptional. If your budget allows for additional services, pretty much anything you need is available .

6. Remember that nothing is set in stone. If you make a mistake, all you usually have to do is replace the file. For ebooks on KDP, the old one will still be available for sale until the new one goes live. With Create Space, the title will not be available during the changeover, typically twelve hours or so. That said, some mistakes require taking the book down and reissuing it. Call customer service if it looks like something you can’t address on your own.

7. Mistakes: You will make them. The earth will not stop rotating. You will fix them. A week later, you will probably have forgotten the details. Moral: Be nice to yourself when you demonstrate your humanity. Even better, laugh!

8. Connect with your writing community. Ask for help, share insights, cheer each other on, and promote each other’s work. There are enough readers out there for all books. Amazon gave a presentation at a conference I attended recently. Their statistics show a dramatic rise in books sold since the ebook became widely available. More titles, more sales. Readers are voracious. There is enough success to go around; it’s not a finite quantity.

9. Adapt. There is no right way or wrong way to do this. The only given is the quality of the product you put out. Beyond that, much of the process for individual books is trial and error. Try something and see if it works. If not, try something else. Be persistent. Realize that marketing is part of the authorial journey these days, whether you are traditionally or independently published.

10. Remember this is a business for the long haul. It may take years to build a following. Meanwhile, keep improving your craft and writing new content. That is the one action you can take to improve visibility of your books, and visibility translates to sales. Continue to interact with readers, either online or in person, so they remember you and look for your books as you write them.

Questions? Discussion? How about suggestions of books or other resources you’ve found? Please share!

Posted in Catholic Fiction, Catholic Writing and Publishing, Editing, Encouragement for Writers, Marketing Your Work, Networking, Self-Publishing, The Writing Life, Writing Tips and Tricks | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

Don’t Let Your Genre Pin You Down

The other week I sat down to write a quick bit of catechesis on a tricky Gospel reading.  I think of myself as a non-fiction writer, and explaining Bible verses is exactly the kind of non-fiction I write most, lately.  So I started composing a lengthy explication-of-the-text that would have put just about everyone to sleep.

Then I came to my senses:  Instead of explaining “the story could have gone like this, and here’s why,” I realized I could just tell the story.

So I tried it.  How’d my experiment work out? I’ve garnered more thank-you’s from real life friends for that one piece than anything else I’ve blogged in my first six months at Patheos.

Even better: When I followed-up with a post laying out my arguments for why I read the text the way I did, I was able to be much more concise.  Putting the work into building a story around the Gospel helped me clarify my thinking; having the story already-published meant I could focus my arguments strictly on scripture, and leave the might-have’s to speculative fiction, which is where might-have’s belong.

Triple bonus: Getting the fiction part of my brain focused on Scripture revived my own spiritual life more powerfully than I ever would have anticipated.

Be Brave. Write Something Different.

It was scary putting myself out there.  It would have been safer to quietly vet my short story with a few friends, or submit it for publication and let a magazine editor decide how good it was.  When you begin to be known for one genre, there’s uncomfortable humility in starting as a beginner in something completely different.  People will compare; they’ll notice where you’re stronger and where you’re weaker.  No writer minds being remembered for certain strengths. Being remembered for our not-so-great efforts isn’t so pleasant.

But it’s worth it.  It’s worth taking the risk.  It’s worth stretching yourself.  Dabbling outside your genre might or might not unveil talents you weren’t sure you had.  But even if you completely flop in your off-genre, the simple fact that you’ve worked that weak skill set will improve your writing in your “good” genre.

Need a venue?  Catholic Writers Guild blog accepts submissions from all CWG members.

Once you get brave, you still have to figure out where to publish your experiment.  CWG members, if you’re looking for a place to submit that essay, flash-fiction, or poem you recently cobbled together, consider submitting to the Catholic Writers Guild blog.  Don Mulcare has recently put together an expanded editorial board, headed by our new submissions editor, Kathryn Cunningham.  Check out the CWG’s contact info page for details on what to submit, when, where, and how.  I look forward to seeing what you have to say!

 

Posted in Blogging, Catholic Fiction, Catholic Writing and Publishing, Devotionals, Encouragement for Writers, Kathryn Cunningham | 3 Comments

Monday’s Writing Tips by Karen Kelly Boyce

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As I mentioned last week, today’s blog will be about metaphors and similes. Why? Because as a writer these little tools can either enhance your writing or disrupt it. The thing about metaphors and similes is I seldom use them. I feel a little unsure of myself when I include one in my work and being insecure I often end up deleting them. Every writer has their weak point. I have a few and this is one of them. So learn along with me because used well, metaphors and similes can help your readers envision your scenes, characters, and action with musical precision.

Simile - a word that is used to describe another word in a sentence with connector words “like” or “as.” Here are some simple examples. 1) He smelled like a goat. 2) Her hair was like cotton balls.  3) She was as thin as a rake.

Metaphor - a word that makes another word the same in a sentence without connecting words. Here are some simple examples. 1) He was a mountain.  2) She was a bending branch.  3) He was a bear.

There are some mistakes that writers should not make when using these tools.

Never use a cliché – a well-known and common phrase. What do I mean? Let’s think of a few.  “Sly as a fox.” “Quiet as a mouse.”  “He was a chicken”  It makes your work seem amateurish. You are cheating your reader. You are the master of words and your reader expects the unexpected. Take the time to create fresh new metaphors and similes for your work.

Too many comparisons- We’ve all watched those classic movies where the detective uses one too many snappy phrases to describe things. “She rolled in like a cloud, wearing a dress that cried to be peeled like a potato. Her  hair was the color of the dirt she was looking to dish. But she was as washed up as the rain soaked Manhattan  street below and as slick as a puddle of oil.”  It may seem funny and catchy in an old movie but your reader will get sick and tired of it quickly.

Make it appropriate to the scene- Don’t use a metaphor or simile that doesn’t fit the scene. For instance if you are writing a tense action scene, you can’t use a comical comparison in the middle. “He rolled like a bowling ball down the stairs to his death!” The image of someone rolling like a bowling ball is cartoonish and comical. It would fit a children’s book but just doesn’t feel right here. Another example is the opposite (And I have actually read this in a book I was asked to review!)  “His head felt heavy from all the facts he had to memorize for the test.  His headache pounded. Johnny wanted the weight off his shoulders, as if he had been decapitated.” I don’t know about you but I don’t think this is a good simile for a children’s book!

Don’t mix metaphors- Don’t mix up your metaphors and similes. If you start with one image stick to that image to the end. Yogi Berra is famous for doing this. Here are a few of his quotes.

1) “Even Napoleon had his Watergate.” 2) “Baseball is ninety percent physical and the other half is mental.”

Here are a few funny ones: “I wouldn’t eat that with a ten-foot pole.” or “Take a flying hike.” You get it – it’s funny, but not in your writing.

Here are some great metaphors and similes from the masters:

1) She sat like Patience on a Monument, smiling at Grief. — Twelfth Night William Shakespeare (Simile)

2) The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. — “The Highwayman,” Alfred Noyes (Metaphor)

It was my pleasure, while I was attending the 2014 Catholic Writer’s Guild live conference near Chicago, to take a class from talented novelist John Desjarlais, author of “Viper” and “Bleeder.” I highly recommend his work which can be purchased from Chesterton Press.  In the class, which I took because I needed it, he gave us some exercises for learning to use similes and metaphors. He suggested that we pick people, objects, and scenes and practice using metaphors or similes to describe them. It’s great fun. And it made me brave enough to try one in the novel I am currently writing. Let me know what you think of it!

“Patrick or as they called him at work – Puddin’ Pat – was given the moniker because his bulbous eyes, thick lips, and wide nostrils gave him an uncommonly flat face. The extra weight he carried caused folds in his face that shook when he talked, cavernous folds like a Chinese Shar-Pei.”

 

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Tricks for Bloggers – SEOs????

SEO Tricks for Bloggers 1: What are SEO Keywords and How to Use Them

By Karina Fabian

In November, after my husband retired from the military and was looking for work while contemplating being a stay-home dad, I took a writing job for http://toptenreviews.com. I review Small-Medium Business Services, mostly for features and performance, and write the reviews for our website. It’s one of the top review websites in the world for technical news. One of the reasons for our success is we write our reviews for the reader, but with SEO (search engine optimization) in mind.

Simply put, SEO is writing your article in a way that makes search engines like Google or Bing notice your work. The better your SEO, the more likely your article will be on the top listings of a search result, even if your blog does not have a huge following. As a blogger, I’d heard about the importance of SEO, but never gave it much attention. It seemed artificial, complex, and time consuming. At Top Ten Reviews, however, I had to get past my preconceptions to do my job. Fortunately, that wasn’t hard to do; not only was it easier than I’d originally thought, but the changing technology of search engines has resulted in natural writing winning out over the artificial keyword-loading of past SEO practices.

I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned. These tricks are easy to put into your blogs and once you get the hang of them, they are easy to write.

#1 Begin and End with Keywords: It’s important that your writing be conversational and natural in a blog, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead. Google updates like Panda have meant that content writing has more weight than keyword-laden writing, but you still need those important keywords. After all, if I am writing a blog about my dragon detective Vern and I never use the common words someone might use if searching for a good story about a dragon, then they’ll never see me.

Once you have your topic in mind, think of some words or phrases someone looking for such an article might use. Quickly scribble them down. Brainstorm as many as you like, but you don’t really need more than five. For example, in this article, keywords might be:

  • SEO
  • Search engine optimization
  • Google adwords
  • Blogging
  • Effective blogging
  • How to improve blogging
  • Blogging tricks
  • SEO tricks
  • Increase blog hits
  • Keywords
  • How to research keywords
  • How to use keywords

 

Next, go to Google Adwords, and put these into the keyword search. It will show you which are the most popular. Google Adwords is a free service that tells you the popularity of keywords, and it can suggest other related words. It shows you how often a word or phrase has been searched plus whether it’s popular for use in ads. While this last isn’t as important to blogging, it can give you an idea about whether your post will end up competing against commercial websites.

Using this information, pick the top three or five keywords or phrases that get the best SEO. They don’t have to command the top three spots, but something that has a score of 10 is not worth your time as much as one that scored 1000, unless it very specifically addresses your blog – Catholic blogging tips, for example. It’s a good idea to also toss in a long-tail keyword. This is usually a three-to-five-word phrase and is good because people often type in sentences or phrases rather than single words. So, if you are writing about Marian devotions for Advent, you might include that as a keyword. Other ideas might be “praising Mary during Advent” or “Advent prayers and devotions to Mary.” If you don’t see them in Google Analytics, just pick the ones that are most natural to write.

That’s a lot for today. Next time, we’ll talk about how to use these SEO keywords to improve your blog standing.

 

Editor’s Note:  Stay tuned the next two Monday’s for more “wisdom” from our seasoned and published author Karina Fabian.

 

 

Posted in Catholic Writing and Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CWG Prayer Chain Post: August 25, 2014

The CWG Prayer Chain Post is a weekly post for members to include their special intentions by adding a comment.

Romans 11:33-36

How rich and deep are the wisdom and the knowledge of God! We cannot reach to the root of his decisions or his ways. Who has ever known the mind of the Lord? Who has ever been his adviser? Who has given anything to him, so that his presents come only as a debt returned? Everything there is comes from him and is caused by him and exists for him. To him be glory for ever! Amen.

The power of prayer and the power of people praying.

AUGUST INTENTION PRAYER 

PRAYER FOR ALL NEEDS
We beg you, Lord,
to help and defend us.
Deliver the oppressed.
Pitty the insignificant.
Raise the fall.
Show yourself to the needy.
Heal the sick.
Bring back those of your people who have gone astray.
Feed the hungry.
Lift up the weak.
Take off the prisoners’ chains.
May every nation come to know
that you alone are God,
that Jesus is your Child,
that we are your people, the sheep that pasture.
Amen.
-Clement of Rome

Please leave a comment with your intention. If you have problems adding an intention, email it to Mike Hays at coachhays(at)gmail(dot)com and I will add it.  God bless.

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Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? – Guy Consolmagno, SJ, and Paul Mueller, SJ

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican ObservatoryWould You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory by Guy Consolmagno

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is structured around a half dozen particular questions we’ve been asked time and again—questions that are interesting in themselves but that tend also to presuppose a conflict of some sort between religion and science.

This intent leads to rich, interesting dialogues. I use the word dialogues intentionally because the book is structured as a conversation between the two authors who are astronomers for the Vatican. Each is a highly accredited scientist and a Jesuit. The broad topics they discuss:

  • Biblical Genesis or the Big Bang?
    (how science and religion can have different but complementary ways of viewing the same subject)
  • What Happened to Poor Pluto?
    (how scientific theories and ideas change over time)
  • What Really Happened to Galileo?
    (how religion can or should respond when science changes)
  • What Was the Star of Bethlehem?
    (how can God be active in a universe governed by scientific laws)
  • What’s Going to Happen When the World Ends?
    (How can humans be important to God in a universe that will come to an end)
  • Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?
    (what could the message of Christ mean in an endless universe with countless planets and possibly countless other intelligent races)

The list above doesn’t properly convey the riches contained within. Each chapter careens from science to faith to history and then back again. It is really like following an actual conversation where you can never tell exactly what sorts of ideas will flow from the give-and-take.

Also, each chapter asks you to image a different setting which helps to illustrate the points they are making. One is in the Chicago Art Institute, another at Antarctica, yet another at the Restaurant at the End of the World. If that last one makes you think of Douglas Adams books you are correct. These fellows have active senses of humor and a love of science fiction to boot.

As an example, the Star of Bethlehem chapter was set in the Papal Summer Palace with the Vatican Observatory telescopes. It went something like this:

  • Scientific possibilities for unusual events in the sky around the time Jesus was born, including conjunctions of planets
  • Possible interpretations of scripture (Matthew) about the event including how standards in interpretation have shifted over the ages
  • Who were the Magi, why did they come from the East and what part could astrology play
  • Ancient cosmology of the spheres
  • Comets
  • God’s actions in human history and the true nature of a miracle
  • Old versus new ways of thinking about the physical world
  • What is a mystery: scientific versus religious mysteries
  • How do men of science and faith see this event as opportunities for encounters with the divine

Every chapter was like a roller coaster ride of new ideas, melding of concepts, and considerations of different opinions … exactly like following a lively conversation with a couple of friends.

The authors are really good at talking about both science and faith in ways that are eminently reasonable and understandable. I was wary of the dialogue format but wound up enjoying it a lot because they could use it to show a variety of points of view, including the points where they disagreed with each other. I think this would be an excellent book to share with all sorts of folks, whether Catholic or not.

This seems like the perfect book for someone who is interested in both faith and science. And if you are interested in one and wary of the other, I think it could be very fruitful if for no other reason than to understand how the other side thinks. If you keep an open mind, you may be surprised at how well faith and science go together. Like a couple of folded hands, in fact.

Very highly recommended.

Posted in Catholic Writing and Publishing | 2 Comments

Sisters of the Last Straw, Book # 3: The Case of the Stolen Rosaries, by Karen Kelly Boyce

SOLS 3 front

 

The title suggests the work of the famous, pink cat-burglar, but Mr. Lemon cast a darker interpretation of the recent shenanigans on and about the convent property. With their usual aplomb, the sisters raise the level of hilarity as they investigate a crime with far-reaching, social consequences. Readers of books 1 & 2 will welcome the return their favorite fictional women religious as the Sisters of the Last Straw encourage all imperfect pilgrims with their own struggles against personal quirks, bad habits and shortcomings.

Karen Kelly Boyce appeals to readers of all ages with this humorous tale and spiritual parable. Her experiences with farm animals plays out in the many adventures of book 3 especially as Sister Krumbles tangles with a with a territorial rooster, rises to new heights in her detective work and advances her culinary skills as she cooks up a surprise for her Sisters and her fans.

Kids, parents and grandparents; religious and laity will laugh out loud at Boyce’s delightful characters, plot twists and examples of true humility. Do something nice for yourself or a friend by sharing a copy of The Case of the Stolen Rosaries.

 

Posted in Book Review, Catholic Fiction, Catholic Theme, Catholic Writing and Publishing, Christian education of youth, Humour, mystery, Novel, suspense | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Book Review: The Sin Eater

Book cover: The Sin Eater by Alice Thomas Ellis with black and white photo of a familyI picked up the novel The Sin Eater by Alice Thomas Ellis hoping it would be the same story of an old Welsh superstition dramatized on the Rod Serling’s Night Gallery television program. In the 1972 episode, Sins of the Father, a starving peasant boy is made to eat the funereal meal laid upon his father’s chest so that when the boy assumes the sins of the man, the man can enter heaven. In Ellis’ novel, there is a dying man and there are sins aplenty; but the man’s family is not concerned about his soul—or their own.  As the novel unfolds, however, Ellis takes sin, repentance, and judgment off the spiritual shelf and drops them in our lap.

The novel is enjoyable both for its understated humor and language as well as for the antics of the characters. It’s slow to start but rewards the reader with an ending that gives the beginning more significance than at first meets the eye.

The premise is a dysfunctional family gathered at a picturesque Welsh countryside estate. The patriarch, known as the Captain, is dying; thus the gathering of his two sons Henry and Michael,  their wives Rose and Angela, daughter Ermyn, and a journalist friend Edward. The Captain is lovingly cared for by the otherwise mean-spirited housekeeper Phyllis, who with her son Jack the Liar, and his son Gomer, spends much of her time at the estate.

The story opens with Rose Ellis (more on the surname later), the mum of lovely twin children who are planning a trip to their cousin’s house while the family meets at the estate. They will be driven by Jack the Liar, a notorious drunk who is presently enjoying a period of sobriety. Rose, who garners much of the reader’s attention, is an angry Irish woman and former Roman Catholic who left the Church because she could not tolerate the changes resulting from Vatican II. She verbalizes her anger about the Church,  but acts on her anger towards her in-laws and the help in deviously delightful ways such as decorating the guest room in a manner she knows her sister-in-law will hate, and overcooking an egg so it will be difficult for the guest to eat.  Her husband Henry is the Captain’s oldest son, making her the woman of the house, a fact which puts her in conflict with Phyllis. Nor does Rose tolerate Gomer who overeats, lies about working, and acts inappropriately upon his lustful feelings.

The story gains speed when the Captain’s younger son Michael and his wife Angela arrive. In their marriage, Michael and Angela are masters of passive aggression. They have a broken marriage though they pretend otherwise. Enter Ermyn, a a self-absorbed school girl just entering puberty and the most sympathetic of the characters. Her name is a creative spelling of ermine, a weasel—and how her mother, now deceased, named her is a sad surprise. Ermyn quietly observes the social classes around her in all their sins: lust, envy, greed, hatred, sloth, and gluttony. She is the only character who expresses a desire to make the family better—when she isn’t wishing to be dead. She turns to Catholicism as a last resort but finds no encouragement from Rose who tells her that the Church will leave her disappointed and unsatisfied.

With the family assembled the focus of the story becomes the annual cricket game with the commoners of the village. It is a tradition the Captain established but that nearly everyone else wishes to discontinue as unnecessary. Nor does the family continue the tradition of practicing religion, slipping, the narrator says, “effortlessly into atheism, which fitted them better than the best clothes of Anglicanism.”

The tale of the sin eater is mentioned twice in the novel but unlike the passive repentance found in the myth (salvation gained without the necessity of the sinner’s remorse), the Ellis family does not see a need for salvation, passive or otherwise. They are full of judgment for each other and for the townspeople, but they do not see sin in themselves.

Nonetheless, the author makes a statement about the consequences of sin by weaving biblical references of God’s judgment and Jesus’s salvation throughout the novel. The family name Ellis (which jolted me from the start as I wondered why the author gave her fictional family the same surname she chose as her pen name) in Hebrew means the Lord is my God. Alluding to the sheep which shall be separated from the goats on Judgment Day, the author introduces Virginia Woolf (a ewe grazing about the estate) and The Goat (a local pub). There’s also a scene about limp bread and vinegar which reminds readers that Jesus, the Bread of Life, limp from His scourging but not broken, was offered vinegar on the cross before he died for our rebirth.

The names Michael and Angela suggest Michael the Archangel, the defender of faith, which Rose is not. Though Michael Ellis is not without sin, he is the single character who defends the Captain, who is “genuinely fond of Father.” The Captain receives little stage time, but we know about him through the family who does not rush to see him and makes their obligatory visits short. Although the Captain is sinful, the author makes a positive statement about God the Father by writing the Captain as a generous gift-giver to his children although the children do not revere him or seek him out. Like the Gentiles, the housekeeper is an outsider who recognizes the generosity that the father’s children assumes is theirs without responsibility or courtesy.

In the Welsh myth, The Sin Eater title refers to a character who rids the dying person of sin. In this novel, the reverse is true: the characters do not rid themselves of petty differences, grudges, or any other sin but instead are consumed by them.  I believe the author is saying that feeling a need for repentance is absent in modern times; that as the Captain approaches physical death, his family members approach spiritual death.  But the reader learns, as the characters are about to learn, that sin has painful flesh and blood consequences—not  just for the hereafter, but in the here and now.

This was Ellis’ first novel, originally published in 1977. At least four different covers have been used over the series of printing. One has a black and white family photo. Another is a road in the village. A third captures the countryside charm of a teatime pitcher and table. A fourth is plain yellow with fern leaves. Perhaps the covers make a statement about sin’s effect on a family, or on a town, or the contrast of sin in a beautiful world, or that sin today is as rampant as weeds but that hope and faith allow us to see through and beyond it.  No matter the cover art, all readers will find something of themselves in these characters and will see that the experience could be the reader’s own life. And that—perhaps  more than the unseen fires of hell—should be motivation enough to repent.

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