It is becoming evident to me that when I opened a Café Stream on Catholic novelists, I had no idea that  there were and are so many Catholic novelists, and  there is an ongoing and heated debate in some circles of the Church about exactly what constitutes “a Catholic novel.” The late priest/sociologist/novelist Father Andrew Greeley [1928-2013] authored an excellent essay on this debate in a 2008 issue of America Magazine in his discussion of the work of Jon Hassler, author of about a dozen major novels during the second half of the twentieth century. His North of Hope  is the subject of this entry’s review, but before I plunge into that, a word about defining a Catholic novel.
Father Greeley, who rarely minced words, explains the two schools of thought on the nature of a Catholic novel: “The ‘right’ contended that a novel could be called ‘Catholic’ if it presented orthodox Catholic teaching and edifying Catholic people (no “bad” priests) and was written by a “practicing” Catholic author. The ‘left’ said that any quality novel was by definition ‘Catholic,’ like James Joyce’s Ulysses.”
The two authors, in my opinion, who threw the window open on expanding the definition of a “Catholic novelist” are Graham Greene [1904-1991] and Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964]. Both authors eschewed pious, conventional treatments of Catholic subjects and found their subjects in the blunt world of human sin and weakness in which God’s saving grace appears in the most unusual of circumstances. One of Greene’s most enduring characters is “the whiskey priest” in The Power and the Glory.
Britannica describes Greene’s approach thusly. “The world Greene’s characters inhabit is a fallen one, and the tone of his works emphasizes the presence of evil as a palpable force. His novels display a consistent preoccupation with sin and moral failure acted out in seedy locales characterized by danger, violence, and physical decay. Greene’s chief concern is the moral and spiritual struggles within individuals, but the larger political and social settings of his novels give such conflicts an enhanced resonance. His early novels depict a shabby Depression-stricken Europe sliding toward fascism and war, while many of his subsequent novels are set in remote locales undergoing wars, revolutions, or other political upheavals.”
Wikipedia provides a fine summary of O’Connor’s work. “She felt deeply informed by the sacramental and by [St. Thomas Aquinas’s] notion that the created world is charged with God. Yet she did not write apologetic fiction of the kind prevalent in the Catholic literature of the time, explaining that a writer's meaning must be evident in his or her fiction without didacticism. She wrote ironic, subtly allegorical fiction about deceptively backward Southern characters, usually fundamentalist Protestants, who undergo transformations of character that, to her thinking, brought them closer to the Catholic mind. The transformation is often accomplished through pain, violence, and ludicrous behavior in the pursuit of the holy. However grotesque the setting, she tried to portray her characters as open to the touch of divine grace. This ruled out a sentimental understanding of the stories' violence, as of her own illness. She wrote: ‘Grace changes us and the change is painful.’”
Greene and O’Connor stretched the limits of both the identities and the subjects of Catholic writers and allowed future generations of Catholic writers to express themselves and their theological worldviews with a variety of brushes. One such author is Jon Hassler, who produced twelve novels between 1977 and 2005, including the work I am citing here, North of Hope . He was an English professor for many years and novelist in residence at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. I came across his body of work very recently in an essay in America Magazine this past May. America features Catholic novelists as one of its regular literary contributions and, in my view, this journal is the finest periodical for Catholic adults undertaking ongoing study of Catholicism.
Hassler’s writing is not as secular as Graham Greene’s or as hardball as Flannery O’Connor’s, but he does not shy away from the grim realities of life, either. North of Hope combines tragedy and sin with the chronic malaise of clerical rectory life. Later in his life the author admits to an interviewer his penchant for “happy endings” in his novels—but I guess we all have our definitions of “happy.” Hassler spent his entire life in Minnesota, and literary scholars are beginning to recognize that the Gopher State has produced more than its share of Catholic clerical novels. When I began North of Hope a few weeks ago—it is a 500+ page novel—I had to laugh. In the past year alone, I have read three novels about troubled clerics based in Minnesota by three different authors--Morte d’Urban  by J.F. Powers, North of Hope  and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse  by Louise Erdrich. One explanation is the influence of St. John’s University in Collegeville, the Benedictine school that excelled in English literature as well as liturgical studies. Many of you have the Collegeville Biblical study aids in your libraries. [Hassler and Powers often bumped into each other at the St. John’s library.]
But to our novel, North of Hope is the story of Father Frank Healy, set in post-World War II Minnesota and extending into the 1980’s. Healy’s mother died in his childhood, and the lad is more than tended to by the housekeeper of his parish church, Eunice Pfeiffer, who is making a play to win the newly widowed Mr. Healy. Pfeiffer, tending the boy’s mother at her moment of death, reported to all that the woman’s last wish was that her son Frank become a priest.
An introvert coping with maternal loss, Frank Healy progresses through high school—a very handsome, intelligent, and athletic figure but something of an enigma to his peers, and thus even more intriguing and desirable to his women classmates, none more than Libby Girard. It is Libby who brings the energy to this story, albeit in a pathological way. Desirous of Frank as both a lover and a protector from her abusive father, Libby makes her play for Frank in a way that forces him to fish and cut bait on his decision to enter the college seminary. When Libby makes her final desperate play for Frank—pursuing him to his new home, the college seminary, of all places—he keeps her at arm’s length and she begins her long dolorous adulthood through three highly dysfunctional marriages and a severely troubled bipolar daughter, Verna.
There is a long break in the narrative, and we pick up Frank [now Father Frank] and Libby in a most unlikely setting, as neighbors in the Basswood Native American Reservation. Several Amazon reviewers criticized this quarter-century gap as disruptive to the rhythm of the work. On one level I agree: we learn precious little about Frank except that he was ordained and immediately assigned to teach math at an exclusive Catholic academy, where he spent the first quarter century of his priesthood. When the academy closed, and after a brief stint at the Cathedral parish where he developed panic attacks while preaching, Frank receives the bishop’s reluctant permission to rediscover his priesthood in the poorest throes of his diocese.
On the other hand, this gap in the narrative sets the stage for Libby, now working as a nurse at the reservation health center with her third husband, a seedy physician, to unfold her life’s narrative to Frank in a series of episodic crises prompted by Libby’s [and Verna’s] lifetime of trauma, poor choices, and in Libby’s case, likely undiagnosed major depression. She makes repeated and more open appeals to Frank to leave the priesthood and pick up the relationship she remembered from high school days. To his credit, Frank, who is in the throes of depression and midlife identity crisis himself, is able to save Libby from her worst self as her life continues to unravel in a series of shocking revelations and criminal conspiracies.
To focus on the plot exclusively, though, does not do justice to the full work. The bulk of this novel pivots around grimy reservation life and dysfunctional rectory life, each with a culture all its own. The story is peppered with colorful “parish people” who alternately humor and infuriate us. Frank lives with an ineffectual pastor Father Adrian, a monsignor whose life as a pastor and chancellor of the diocese was marked by extraordinary mediocrity but a private, charming piety. Playing out the string, the old pastor has few friends in the diocese, but Frank finds him a comforting presence. As the novel reaches its climax, Father Adrian demonstrates an unexpected energy of tolerance and understanding that contributes to the plot resolution.
On the other hand, there is the rectory’s housekeeper, Mrs. Tatzig. If you have ever watched an episode of “Father Brown” from British TV, you have a decent representation of the power of rectory housekeepers, at least in recent history. In a J.F. Powers short story, “The Prince of Darkness,”  an aging assistant pastor prays for a pastorate so that he might install his mother in the position before she is too old. In our story here, Mrs. Tatzig lives in the rectory and assumes the care of the old monsignor, particularly after his heart attack.
Mrs. T. does not take to Father Frank. His drinking and his preoccupation with Libby obviously do not sit well with her, but his main transgression against her is his penchant for playing cards close to the vest. She cannot read him. Libby’s crises finally disrupt rectory life, and certainly the housekeeper’s, but in this madness Frank comes to realize that his stoic and blunted interpersonal style may indeed be hurtful to Mrs. T., and he takes her into his confidence about the gravity of the crises around them. It is a subtle indication that Frank the priest is finally learning about himself, to the degree that there might be hope for his priestly vocation.
Caesar Pipe gives us a flavor of reservation life and ambiguity. Pipe draws half of his salary from his position as president of the tribe, the other half as local law enforcement officer. His laissez faire approach to the law component allows a significant drug operation to prosper among his brethren by blood. He has a basic contempt for white men, particularly their habit of fishing through holes in the ice. He is nominally Catholic, but he believes Father Frank’s daunting effort of saving the reservation church is a fool’s errand.
While the novel does not wrap up in a Pollyanna happy conclusion, most of its human trajectories appear more hopeful. Even the bishop reluctantly decides to keep the reservation church open with Father Frank at its helm and Father Adrian and Mrs. Tatzig in support. While not a classic, North of Hope is a good summer read that conveys how a church of fallible beings can still rise to the occasion in time of crisis.
CATHOLIC NOVELISTS and the BOOKS THEY WRITE