Tag Archives: Patti Callahan

December Reading

December passed in a blur of decorating and frantic knitting, but there was also reading! Audiobooks are perfect for needlework and cooking times. Here are some fiction and nonfiction adult books, two of which were terrific on audio. Someday, I may blog about podcasts, which accompany hours of my handcrafts, too.

How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith

The history of our nation cannot be told without talking about slavery, but a great deal of that history is hidden by the “official” story we all learn in school. Clint Smith takes a unique approach to the history of slavery by traveling to various locations that are integral to the story, interviewing local people, and relating the memories passed down by the slaves’ descendants as much as possible. Some of the places are well known, such as Monticello and New Orleans, but it may be a surprise to find out that the second-largest slave market in America—second only to Charleston, SC—was in Manhattan, and that, at a certain point in time, the rate of slave ownership in New York was higher than in the South. Smith also visits such places as Blandford Cemetery, a resting place for Confederate soldiers, during a remembrance ceremony where he holds very difficult conversations with those who cling to memories of the Old South, and Angola, a maximum-security prison that used to be a plantation and now houses thousands of black prisoners. Their unpaid labor blurs the line between slavery and incarceration.

We visited Monticello for the first time in late November on the way home from my niece’s wedding, and this book—along with other excellent new works on the topic— was prominently displayed in the gift shop. We were impressed by the Jefferson Foundation’s ability to continue to showcase the great accomplishments of the former president while being completely open about his unapologetic enslavement of hundreds of human beings. Jefferson may have written about the horrors of slavery, but he did nothing to free the slaves that he owned, except for his own children. Great care has been taken to represent Sally Hemings’s life and the stories of all her children and their descendants. In the 1990s, the foundation started the Getting Word project to gather the life stories of the 607 enslaved people of Monticello and their descendants. We hoped that Clint Smith would talk about Monticello in his book, and indeed, it is the first chapter. Smith agreed that the Jefferson Foundation was making progress in opening up the history of slavery in our country’s founding, but apparently, this has not always been the case. Until the DNA results of the Hemings descendants were confirmed to be related to Jefferson in 1998, the Monticello guides would not discuss the possibility of the president’s relationship to an enslaved woman.

We listened to an audiobook edition of the book, which is read by the author. Some of the chapters show hopeful progress in our reckoning with our past, while others reveal the dark underbelly of our history, still churning with hatred and division to this day. Fascinating and important.

Once Upon a Wardrobe, by Patti Callahan

Megs’s little brother, George, has a weak heart, and in 1950s England, there is no treatment. George has just read the new book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his greatest wish is to find out where Narnia comes from. Megs is a brilliant maths scholar at Oxford, and she sets out to find the answer to her brother’s burning question. Walking to The Kilns in the middle of winter, Megs meets the Oxford professor, C.S. (or Jack) Lewis, and his brother, Warnie. Over many chats by the fireside, Jack and Warnie tell the tale of their sometimes difficult childhoods, their early stories, and the fantasy world they created. The next Narnia tale is coming out soon, but George will probably not live to read it. Her parents worry that George gets too excited about this fantasy land, but the stories that Megs retells from her notebook are the very things that give George’s life meaning.

Solitary walks in the snowy wood, cozy teas at The Kilns, and an impetuous trip to a ruined Irish castle: this is a perfect winter’s tale with a sweet romance mixed in. Callahan’s Becoming Mrs. Lewis (reviewed here) is probably a stronger story, but Once Upon a Wardrobe is a sort of prequel that fills in the blanks in Lewis’s young life.

Adorning the Dark, by Andrew Peterson

Since I am a children’s book selector, I knew Andrew Peterson as the author of the wildly popular “Wingfeather Saga.” His book for adults, Adorning the Dark, is a meditation on the creative imagination and an encouragement for those who wish to be sub-creators, as Tolkien would say, after the great Creator of all things. It is also a memoir of someone who considers himself primarily a songwriter, recounting his struggle to put words and melodies together in a way that would support himself and his growing family. He and his wife found an idyllic piece of land outside of Nashville, Tennessee, and one of my favorite stories is of an English master gardener who came to stay with them during a conference, then mailed back a detailed schematic of their property with outdoor “rooms” designed to make even more beauty in the wilderness. This volume is an inspiring, thoughtful read.

N.D. (Nate) Wilson is one of the contributors to the latest addition to the saga, Wingfeather Tales. If you can find it on YouTube, Wilson’s conversation with Betsy Bird and Jeanne Birdsall on this topic of creativity is not to be missed. Ditto Wilson’s children’s books, beginning with 100 Cupboards.

If you have children in late elementary or middle school, the “Wingfeather Saga,” beginning with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, is a fantastical yet homely tale in the style of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” Peterson is also the founder of the Rabbit Room Press, publisher of the beloved book of everyday liturgies, Every Moment Holy.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of Adorning the Dark, and I listened to library audiobook copies of the other two books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs. LewisRivers of ink have been spilled by and about C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don who wrote 20th century classics for children and adults, such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Through the years since his death, biographers have given us hints of his late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, and the book and movie Shadowlands have introduced her to the public. Rarely, though, have we seen their relationship through her eyes, but now Patti Callahan has written a novel that moves this misunderstood woman to the forefront.

Joy Davidman was born into a scholarly Jewish family and later converted to Christianity as an adult. When the novel opens, she is a young mother of two boys, married to an alcoholic and adulterous husband. Both of them are writers, and because of the times, Joy is expected to put up with her husband’s behavior and concentrate on improving her homemaking and motherly skills, pushing her own writing aside until her boys are grown. When a friend gives her a couple of books by C.S. Lewis, she takes a risk and writes to him for advice on a theological question. They continue to exchange letters for several years, increasingly confiding in one another and becoming close friends.

When several health issues and her difficult marriage have both reached crisis level, Joy travels to England to consult with doctors there and to do research for her writing projects. Here she finally meets Jack, as Lewis was called, and his brother, Warnie. She soaks in the history and beauty at Oxford and at The Kilns, Lewis’ home. While she is there, she receives a letter from her husband informing her that he is in love with her cousin and is living with her, along with their young sons. Joy’s life is at a crossroads.

The story takes place over years, but nothing goes smoothly for Joy, her sons, or her overwhelming love for Jack, fifteen years her senior and seemingly oblivious to her devotion. She is an acclaimed poet, but no one sees the series of sonnets that she writes to him. She longs to tell him of her feelings, but he is cheerfully friendly and perhaps purposely obtuse. All the while, he arranges to see her every day, asks for her help with his work, and considers her a member of his family. Warnie is devoted to her, and Jack acts as a father to her children, but romantic love is completely absent. It takes a catastrophe to open his eyes, and then it is almost too late.

Using all of the Lewis scholarship available, plus Joy’s prolific papers, poems, and the letters between them, Callahan has filled in the gaps with imagined conversations and Joy’s intimate thoughts on her frustrating, fulfilling, and quietly spectacular life. There are many famous individuals among their acquaintance, and they weave in and out of the narrative. Tolkien, in particular, disapproved of Joy intensely, even though he was a happily married man himself. Callahan is not on a feminist rant here at all, but she does include gentle reminders that even nice men did not respect women’s work just fifty or sixty years ago (or ten or five or yesterday). Callahan has also interviewed Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and one of Lewis’ most authoritative biographers. As a matter of fact, I own a Lewis biography by Gresham and had forgotten that Gresham was Joy’s married name.

Lewis lived most of his life before he met Joy, and his earlier romantic relationships have been—and remain—an interesting and perhaps unseemly mystery, but his evolving and complex relationship with Joy Davidman affected him so deeply as to change him in foundational ways. Not only did he rethink his opinions on serious issues, but he also seemed to open doors in his soul that he had kept locked all of his life. Joy was his muse for the book he declared to be his favorite, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, she is the subject of A Grief Observed. However, Joy Davidman met her great love after having lived a full life, as well, and together they played a tragic, but magnificent, final act.

I highly recommend this book to all those who are fellow Lewis nerds, historical fiction fans, and to anyone who relishes a great story with literary characters.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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