Christmas Critics

Alice McDermott

This year’s fuss over Harry Potter’s grand finale serves as a reminder of both our longing to glimpse some magic behind the veil of the familiar, and literature’s unquestioned right, and ability, to address that need. For all the children, and adults, who gorged themselves on the Potter tales this year, L. Frank Baum’s much neglected classic The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (Signet Classics, 192 pp.) might well serve to restore some magic to that all-too-familiar caricature of the jolly old pitchman in the red suit. In this delightful tale, first published in 1902, the author of The Wizard of Oz places the biography of Claus firmly in the world of folklore, of enchanted forests, Nymphs, Knooks, and Ryls, and of a time “so long ago our great-grandfathers could scarcely have heard it mentioned,” when an abandoned human infant, raised by immortals, invented the first toys and then, out of love and pity, sought to share them with all the children of the world, until he, for his goodness, becomes immortal himself.

This is not a mere secularization of the Santa tale (Claus comes to be called “saint,” Baum tells us, because “it is possible for any man, by good deeds, to enshrine himself as a saint in the hearts of his people”), but a retelling that takes into account both the powers of enchantment and the exigencies of realism. Here, even the most skeptical young reader will find a rational explanation for all of Claus’s most doubt-inducing feats, as well as the debunking of some long-held misunderstandings about the man. (This Claus, for instance, makes no distinction between naughty and nice. “He brought toys to the children because they were little and helpless, and because he loved them. He knew that the best of the children were sometimes naughty, and that the naughty ones were often good.”) Moreover, Baum’s tale reminds us of the very notions that must have given rise to the Santa story in the first place, the notion that, as Max Apple writes in his wise afterword, “A toy delivered only once a year by a stranger in the middle of the night may be enough to convince you that the invisible world, every once in a while, is on your side.”

I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the notion of this invisible world very much added to my enjoyment this year of Walter Isaacson’s hefty biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon and Schuster, $32, 704 pp.). I am generally more admiring of thick biographies—admiring of both their hard-working authors and their substantial presence on my bookshelf—than I am able to find the time actually to read them. But this portrait, based in good part on Einstein’s personal letters, is fascinating, even for those of us who just don’t get physics. In it, Isaacson reveals the great man as great wonderer, a creative, imaginative, and independent thinker awed by creation. How lovely to read about this complex mind while, elsewhere on the best-seller list, flat-footed arguments against God were all the rage. Here’s Isaacson quoting from the conclusion of Einstein’s well-known credo, “What I Believe”: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science.... To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness.”

Dan Barry, the New York Times columnist whose collection City Lights (St. Martin’s, $25.95, 320 pp.) was just published, conveys something of this beauty and sublimity, as indirectly as it may be revealed, in his portraits of New York City and the various characters who make up its 8 million inhabitants. This is a great book to dip into, reading randomly, a column at a time. It’s the book I’m giving to everyone I know who loves New York.

In fiction, the mystery of the invisible world informs each of Edward P. Jones’s beautiful and authentic stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children (Amistad, $29.95, 416 pp.). Denis Johnson’s Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 624 pp.), is as compelling, and exhausting, as anything written about that war. Two debut novels also impressed me, Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove Press, $24, 416 pp.) and Peter Behrens’s famine tale, The Law of Dreams (Random House, $13.95, 416 pp.).

I also had the occasion this year to revisit John Barth’s 1987 novel The Tidewater Tales (Johns Hopkins University Press, $21.95, 655 pp.). With his exuberant prose, his wild, sometimes dizzying voice, and his riffs on A Thousand and One Nights, The Odyssey, and Don Quixote (to name a few), John Barth—who has said that literary fiction is “seldom simply, but always also about itself”—reminds the adult reader that there is more magic in our experience, in our intelligence, in our language, our science, and our art—not to mention in our love for one another as we navigate this life-than any boy wizard could ever know, or hope to conjure.


Alice McDermott won the National Book Award in fiction for Charming Billy (1999). Her most recent novel is After This (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Paul Elie

The twilight of the idols has been postponed.” This epigrammatic line opens Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God (Alfred A. Knopf, $26, 352 pp.), one of several books this year that try to take the religious measure of the age. Lilla’s occasion is the seeming resurgence of politically charged religion in a supposedly secular era: after two centuries in which intellectuals were preoccupied with narrowly political questions, Lilla declares, “today we have progressed to the point where we are again fighting the battles of the sixteenth century—over revelation and reason, dogmatic purity and toleration, inspiration and consent, divine duty and common decency.” His main idea is that there occurred, in the eighteenth century, a “Great Separation” between religion and politics, which on the one hand opened the way for democracy and science and on the other created an opening for diabolical subreligions such as Nazism.

The argument teeters at times, because Lilla’s emphasis on history as a succession of great books and great thinkers sets aside the crucial question of just how books influence society, and also fails to account for the religiosity of tens of millions of Europeans in the very years when novelists and philosophers were mounting their challenges to religion. But the idea of the Great Separation is memorable and useful, for it reminds us (and, alas, we do need reminding) that the struggle between established religion and aggressive secularism has gone on for several hundred years, at least, with strong faith and strong skepticism existing simultaneously. In any case, the idea of the Great Separation served to frame much of my reading this year.

I encountered Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit in a battered secondhand edition that appeared to have crisscrossed Europe in some bearded latter-day Romantic’s backpack. Now in print again (New York Review Books, $22.95, 880 pp.), it is a long book—especially given that Shelley died at twenty-eight. After reading Holmes’s introduction—in which he states his aim to show us Shelley not as a “fluttering apparition” or a proto-Victorian lyricist but a “professional writer” who produced a series of long poems on the spiritual problems of his age and speculative essays on the same problems—I skipped ahead to Shelley’s departure for Italy more than four hundred pages in. It is strange that Shelley—one of the most convinced of nineteenth-century atheists, and the author of The Necessity of Atheism—should choose, as his place of exile from English strife, the place then most strongly associated with religion. But Holmes’s telling makes clear the extent to which for Shelley atheism was not a critical but a creative act—a decision to work out his own cosmology and sense of last things—and in this, Italy’s physical evidence of both pagan and Christian cosmologies was a powerful stimulant. So Shelley speaks of the “oppressive form of the Christian religion” but models his work after Milton’s; after completing “Prometheus Unbound,” he goes to Easter Mass at the Vatican, where so much has been made of “a youth with patient looks nailed to a crucifix.”

New York Review Books has also published a new edition of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country ($12.95, 160 pp.). This slender novel describes a summer’s idyll spent in an English country church shortly after the Great War, when the narrator, an art restorer who fought in the war, is called in to uncover a fourteenth-century Last Judgment long obscured by time and dirt in order to fulfill the terms of a will left by a local benefactress. He has been engaged by the dead to uncover the past, that is, and in the process he begins to overcome the horrors of the war. It is a novel about the power of religious art to captivate even the unreligious or faintly religious—a group that, in the novel, includes the whole English people, their country churches notwithstanding: “The English are not a deeply religious people,” the local vicar declares. “I have yet to meet a man whose hair rose at the nape of his neck because he was about to taste the blood of his dying Lord. Even when they visit their church in large numbers, at Harvest Thanksgiving or at the Christmas Midnight Mass, it is no more than a pagan salute to the passing seasons. They do not need me.” The colophon indicates that the novel was written over the course of one month in 1978, but it seems at once older and more recent than that. Its tone of wistful comic yearning is akin to that of Brideshead Revisited, but, while its setting is a generation earlier than Waugh’s, the novel is authentically modern: its slenderness, its obliqueness, its offhand ease, and the amiable self-deprecation of its narrator make him a precursor to Julian Barnes and Nick Hornby more than a successor to Waugh.

Geoff Dyer’s book about photography, The Ongoing Moment (Vintage, $15.95, 287 pp.), is appealing in many ways: the compactness of Dyer’s frame of reference, the snaky originality of his critical prose, and his characteristic way of writing about art with a passion stripped of the desire to enlighten or edify. But amid my other reading, the book is especially refreshing in that it stands outside the schemes of decline and fall, sacred and secular, tradition and revision. It is not a history of photography but a book about great photographs and great photographers, which Dyer joins by creating a daisy chain of influence and resemblance. Series of photographs of blind people, of street accordionists, of nudes, of the shadows of trees on snow—the subjects are seen in a way that seems closer to the photographer’s way of seeing than to the historian’s. This is a view of history as the “ongoing moment” of Dyer’s title. These images are the early maturity of a recent tradition. They are mechanical as much as cultural. They owe relatively little to ideas or religion or the European inheritance generally. They are joined by the more mysterious bond of artistic kinship. 


Paul Elie, a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003).

Nicholas Clifford

Though the disparaging acronym drawn from “Failed in London; Try Hong Kong” is applied to him by British lawyers, it actually tells us little of the real Edward Feathers, the protagonist of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth (Europa Editions, $14.95, 289 pp.). In fact, when the Malaya-born Feathers is offered a chance to flee the cold and miserable London of 1947 for Hong Kong, he enters a long and successful career there, while marrying another “Raj Orphan.” (The term applied to those who, born to families in the service of the old British Empire, were sent back as children to be schooled at home in England.)

But Old Filth’s Chinese years aren’t the real subject of Gardam’s engaging novel. Orphanage in its broadest sense is at the center here, for Feathers’s losses begin when his mother dies days after his birth, and continue when he is sent back to England by an unfeeling father (who himself vanishes in conquered Singapore, never to see his son again). Feathers loses a close friend in the war, while his own military career finds him guarding another unwilling refugee, the Queen Mother, exiled from London to avoid the Luftwaffe. Now, at the age of eighty, he is retired in Dorset. As his wife Betty dies and old friends and enemies vanish, Old Filth emerges as a deeply affecting, yet humorous character, interweaving memories of loss and orphanhood, as he seeks to give shape to his life.

A very different East is with us in Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals’s Mao’s Last Revolution (Harvard University Press, $35, 752 pp.). Capping the former author’s three earlier volumes on the origins of the Cultural Revolution, the new book describes the disastrous last decade of the Chairman’s life and the ways in which—contrary to his intent—his movement helped to set China on its present course of great-power capitalism. The sweeping comparative study that sets Mao’s rule side by side with those of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini remains to be written. But no one interested in the movements that disfigured so much of the last century can ignore the Chinese experience, and this book is a splendid guide to the great expiring gasp of Chinese communism, and to the ways it sucked so many into its maw.

Robert and Jean Hollander’s Paradiso (Doubleday, $40, 944 pp.) marks the completion of a very different but no less magisterial accomplishment. Their translation of the Inferno appeared in 2000, their translation of the Purgatorio in 2003, but this most difficult of the cantiche is an “impossible poem,” as the translators put it. For the Paradiso, they believe, is unique—not only in Dante’s work, but in literature. Maintaining a vision of the inexpressible through thirty-three cantos of roughly 140 lines each is hard enough. But how do you engage your readers’ earthbound interests for so long?

For some readers, of course, you don’t, and whatever knowledge they have of the Commedia never reaches beyond some of the more famous parts of the Inferno, such as those dealing with Ulysses, or Paolo and Francesca. But for those who persevere through the very human Purgatorio to the sublimity of the Paradiso, the trip is richly rewarding. That Dante manages to make it so—images of light, of dance, and of music abound here within the community of the saints—is no small miracle, and neither is the Hollanders’ accomplishment in bringing us this new version.

Some blame the Paradiso’s difficulties on the academic style of Dante’s guide, Beatrice, who explicates aspects of both Scholastic theology and medieval astronomy. And I confess to having some problems with the dottoressa myself, though how one could even dip into this poem and still fall for the modern superstition that people in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth is beyond me. But then, I’m among the scientific illiterates castigated a half-century ago by C. P. Snow in his Two Cultures, and though I once worked up the Copernican-Galilean-Newtonian cosmos well enough to teach it in a freshman humanities course at MIT, what came later has remained clouded in mystery.

As much of it still is, despite the clarity of Walter Isaacson’s splendid new Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon and Schuster, $32, 704 pp.). In any case, his concern is not only with the physicist, but also with the man, whose life reflected some of the heights and depths of the twentieth century. Swiss by choice, Einstein worked contentedly in Berlin until it was clear that “Jewish science” was not wanted in the Third Reich. He then came to America. Convinced of an ordered and rational universe (“God does not play dice,” he would say), he was upset by those who confused relativity with relativism, and sometimes stubbornly resisted the ideas newly developed by men like Bohr and Heisenberg. Today, as post-Einsteinian cosmologists talk about the possibilities of parallel universes, readers might also examine the last cantos of the Paradiso, where Dante’s beloved teacher—and who else ever had such a Frau Professor?—explains something of such mysteries to him.


Nicholas Clifford, who taught Chinese history at Middlebury College for many years, lives in Vermont. He is the author, with Deborah Pickman Clifford, of The Troubled Roar of the Waters: Vermont in Flood and Reconstruction, 1927–1931 (University Press of New England).

Don Wycliff

"What’s a jungle bunny like you doing in these parts?” Gore Vidal is said to have uttered that insult to Ralph Ellison in 1959, when Ellison was living in Saul Bellow’s home in overwhelmingly white Dutchess County, New York, and teaching at Bard College.

In his book Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 657 pp.), Arnold Rampersad attributes the recollection of the offensive question to Ellison’s friends, Renée and Ted Weiss. And while such a remark would have caused at least a little scene, even in that relatively benighted time, Rampersad says nothing of how Ellison—a notoriously proud, prickly, and often angry man—responded.

A grievous omission, and one made all the more grievous by the fact that the Vidal incident echoed a scene out of the first pages of Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man (Vintage, $14.95, 608 pp.).

One night I accidentally bumped into a man, and perhaps because of the near darkness he saw me and called me an insulting name. I sprang at him, seized his coat lapels and demanded that he apologize.... And in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat...when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare!

In fairness, omissions of any magnitude are exceedingly rare in Rampersad’s long, well-researched, and copiously documented biography of probably the greatest one-hit wonder in the history of American literature.

Ralph Waldo Ellison could be said to have spent the first half of his life (from his birth in 1913 to the publication of Invisible Man in 1952) producing his masterwork, and the second half (from 1952 until his death in 1994) struggling to produce another novel that would live up to the great expectations created by the first.

More than one critic has called Invisible Man the greatest American novel of the second half of the twentieth century. Rare is the list that doesn’t put it among the top ten. It remains the only novel that was indisputably Ellison’s.

(Another novel, Juneteenth, was assembled after Ellison’s death by his literary executor John F. Callahan from more than a thousand pages written by Ellison during the last forty-one years of his life. So Juneteenth was unquestionably written by Ellison, but it is not clear that it was authored by him.)

The Vidal incident, while given no special emphasis by Rampersad, seems emblematic of so much in Ellison’s life and character as a black—or, to use his favored term, NegroAmerican. One suspects Ellison did not react angrily or behave demonstratively, for if he had, his friends would have remembered it and Rampersad would have recorded it. More likely, he found a way to brush off the insult from the crude, uncivilized Vidal.

Rampersad suggests that once Ellison had achieved success with Invisible Man and began to achieve acceptance among successful and/or wealthy whites, he reserved his indignation and outrage mainly for blacks—whether college students in the grip of a fervor for “Black Power,” or young writers trying to give expression to an American reality that their experience suggested was irredeemably racist, or even a onetime friend and mentor such as Langston Hughes.

Ellison seemed to see his role in life as the Jackie Robinson of American letters—except that in his case, his duties included making sure no others followed him through the door he had opened. Toni Morrison may have summed it up best in an observation quoted by Rampersad: “My suspicion was that he considered himself an exception. He got to speak for us but he did not like to be identified with us.” Ironically—and sadly—it may have been that refusal to refresh himself in black life as it was changing in the decades after Invisible Man that deprived Ellison of the vision, the insight, the juice that he needed to complete a second novel during his lifetime.

Not that Invisible Man wouldn’t have been triumph enough all by itself. As complex and layered as the “Negro” and American cultures it attempted to illuminate, it is a novel that repays every rereading. (I first read the book when I was twenty, and reread it annually until I was fifty.) It and its creator more than merited all the accolades that were heaped upon them, and just as no American student should end his or her schooling without having read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, none should do so without having read Invisible Man


Don Wycliff, former public editor of the Chicago Tribune, teaches media criticism at the University of Notre Dame.


Ernest Rubenstein

My overarching reading for the past two years has been Proust. I read Remembrance of Things Past (six volumes, from Penguin Classics, in a new translation by Lydia Davis and others, between $16 and $20) on my morning commute, a perfect context, as it includes an hour-long train ride through rural New Jersey, past many of the kinds of things described in the book: neighboring church steeples that, seen from a moving vantage point, glide in and out of alignment with each other; paths hugging streams bordered by flowers in the summer; broad expanses of tall grass—never mind that this is the swamp-grass greening sites of abandoned industrial ruins. I am only three quarters of the way through the massive novel, and I do not especially recommend it for Christmas reading or giving. It takes up too much space on the shelf and, like Proust himself, in relation to his lovers, requires too much commitment. In any case, it does not so much fit the prescribed seasons of our time as fashion a time of its own. But it does shape a mood that connects to other possibly seasonal books. One outcome of reading Proust is a sense of enveloping friendship with him that can be nurtured only by reading more by or about him. And for that I recommend Edmund White’s impressionistic biography (Marcel Proust, $19.95, 128 pp.) in the handily diminutive Penguin Lives series, any one of which can be read in a single sitting.

So short a biography must work in just the opposite direction of Proust’s own tendencies to build gradually an impression of character over many dispersed and successive views of it. White must give us the goods straight out, and he does, with such tidy summations of Proust as these: that he was a “mystical atheist,” “the great philosophical novelist,” “interested only in those details that pointed toward a general truth.” His great novel, for its part, is “Olympian, philosophical, seamless, and all-encompassing.” Andrew Holleran, on whom more below, once said of Remembrance that it contains “Absolutely Everything.” White also pinpoints a key feature of Proust’s theory of memory, linking him to French postmodernism: to work transformingly memory must come upon us startlingly, involuntarily, from beyond the grasp of intellect or will.

One of White’s illuminating comparisons is between Proust and Henry James: whereas Proust’s emergent characters could appear at times with Dickensian boldness, James’s overshading sometimes effaced the distinctiveness of his characters. But the inwardness of the two authors cannot help but draw any reader of the one into the orbit of the other. The genius of Irish writer Colm Tóibin’s novel about James, The Master (Scribner, $25, 352 pp.), is that it captures the tone of James and fashions a believable portrait of him in improbably un-Jamesian spare and simple sentences. Tóibin realizes for James that very effacement that White suggested James practiced on his own created characters—but to poignant and moving effect. Several figures appear jointly in the factual account of Proust and the fictional one of James: Oscar Wilde (whom neither writer liked), George Eliot (whom both admired), and French writer Paul Bourget. Tóibin casts the novel as a series of memories, interrupting a succession of quiet days between January 1895, when James witnesses the public failure of his play, Guy Domville, and October 1899, when he is visited by his ailing brother William and his family. The memories are of women’s deaths—his mother’s, sister’s, cousin’s, closest friend’s—which prompts the comment from the narrator that his memory was “working like grief.” In the last chapter, James briefly describes a protagonist he envisions for a future story who, sensing an impending catastrophe, suddenly realizes he has been inhabiting it all along: his own coldness. If Tóibin has given his James a quiet epiphany there, then the memories have worked transformingly, as Proust would have them do.

My last recommendation for anyone taken with Proust and James is Andrew Holleran’s most recent novel, Grief (Hyperion, $19.95, 160 pp.). The three books, all of which evoke La Belle Epoque, stack up together like complementary fruit and chocolate in a Harry & David gift basket. At the beginning of his book on Proust, White cites Holleran as one of many writers who, from the very love of Proust, had to distance himself from Proust psychologically in order to find his own authorial voice. At a recent book signing, Holleran shared how much Proust was a model for him; so much so that a unifying idea of Grief—that a book selected at seeming random from a guest-room library can uncannily mirror the unsuspecting reader’s own life—had already sounded in The Guermantes Way. Ghosts are a theme of Holleran’s book, as they were sometimes, too, for Henry James, who helps set the tone here early on: strolling past the stately homes of a residential section of Washington, D.C., the setting for this novel, is like “walking through a novel by...Henry James.” In Holleran’s story, the narrator, who has just lost his mother, finds consolation in the published letters of Mary Todd Lincoln, who never outlived her grief over her husband’s assassination. Holleran explores whether grief can, better than ghosts, itself be the afterlife of the deceased, and so understandably prolonged indefinitely. Holleran’s brilliant sense for the comic—that shows here in a character named Frank, an evocation of the character named Sutherland in Holleran’s unforgettable Dancer from the Dance (1978)—keeps anything maudlin at bay. Of course, grief thematized in literature is no longer sad, but cathartic, connective, even comforting. And what could be more suitable for Christmas? 


Ernest Rubinstein is the theology librarian at Drew University and the author of Religion and the Muse: The Vexed Relation between Religion and Western Literature (SUNY Press, 2007).


William Storrar

Their stories have stayed with me, long after I stopped serving as their pastor in my native Scotland. An elderly woman recalled her lifetime as an unmarried domestic servant and then whispered to me its tragic source, her fiancé’s death in the trenches: “You see, he didn’t return.” A local man described being a prisoner of war and slave laborer in a salt mine on the other side of the world: “It was hell.” We are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, ordinary people with extraordinary tales to tell. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to writers who give voice to the voiceless.

Chief among such writers in the United States must be Studs Terkel, now ninety-five and finally publishing a memoir of his own extraordinary life, Touch and Go (The New Press, $24.95, 269 pp.). In a recent interview on C-Span, this chronicler and broadcaster of ordinary lives declared that he was a neo-Cartesian: “I tape therefore they are!” By “they” he means, of course, the people whose stories he has literally recorded over the decades, from the heroic combatants of World War II to the neglected inhabitants of his beloved Chicago. By taping and writing up their stories, Terkel has, in his own words, “been celebrated...for lending voice to the face in the crowd.”

His own moment of astonishment at the transforming power of this practice came thirty years before, he writes in this memoir. On hearing her own voice and words played back to her on the tape recorder, a young mother in a Chicago housing project gasped, “I never knew I felt that way.” It is this undiminished sense of wonder at the feelings and thoughts of ordinary people that makes this account of his own life not only a delight to read but also a fascinating introduction to those otherwise forgotten nobodies, saints and sinners, rogues and heroes, and just plain folks.

Even when Terkel is telling you about the famous in his lifetime, he cannot forget his dear “et ceteras,” the faces in the crowd. There is a sympathetic account of William Jennings Bryan, for example. While Bryan has long been mocked for his opposition to evolution in the Scopes trial, Terkel remembers him as the eloquent, if now largely forgotten, voice of the working poor and small farmer. With the oral historian’s perfect pitch for evidence that scholarship so often misses, he notes: “There were more country songs written about Bryan than about Abe Lincoln; at least twenty-five.” Whatever people make of Terkel’s own controversial career on behalf of the downtrodden, recounted in these pages, readers will take away from this memoir the rough eloquence of “the least of these,” recorded by him and not forgotten by us.

I don’t know what it is about great industrial cities like Chicago but they seem to breed writers like Terkel who want to name the human sparrows that otherwise fall unnoticed in their midst. In her latest book, Writing in an Age of Silence (Verso, $22.95, 138 pp.), the crime novelist Sara Paretsky offers her own memoir, “focusing on questions of voice and voicelessness.” In it, she gives a moving account of her struggle from childhood to find her own voice as a silenced woman and writer. This experience made her determined to portray her own literary hero, the Chicago Southside detective V. I. Warshawski, as a complex female character dealing thoughtfully with the moral ambiguities of urban life.

Warshawski has a deep sense of outrage at the violation and silencing of ordinary people, especially women, by powerful institutions with no public accountability. This is a constant theme in the novels and in the story of Paretsky’s own life. Again, as with Terkel, the causes that she has taken up as her own will be controversial and even unacceptable to many. But none can miss the biblical echo in the stories she writes about a detective who “does not try to save the world”—she knows she cannot. But in her own small milieu, she tries, as Lincoln did, to “bind up...wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

Chicago is not the only grimy, golden city in which we find such memoirs being written, giving voice to the voiceless. In Glasgow, a world away, Terkel and Paretsky have their unlikely counterpart in a Presbyterian preacher. John Miller has just retired after serving one of the poorest urban parishes in Western Europe for thirty years. Each Saturday night he wrote a full-page obituary for every person who had died in his parish that week and printed it in the Sunday worship bulletin. Like Terkel, he became an oral historian of working-class life in his city, tracking the impact of world events, a declining local economy, and a changing culture on the lives of his increasingly unemployed but ever resilient parishioners.

This led him to compile the stories of pensioners in his parish who had lived through two World Wars, published as Silent Heroes (Saint Andrew Press, $11.70, 168 pp.).

One ex-soldier said this to Miller, after recounting his harrowing wartime exploits: “I couldn’t come and talk at your service myself.... But I’ll be glad if you think that there’s anything in that you could tell them.” Since the Gospel writers first gave voice to a young woman’s face in the crowd, such stories have indeed been worth telling. I’ll be glad if you agree. 

William Storrar is director of the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, and co-editor of Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century (T&T Clark Continuum).


Read more: Christmas Critics from 2006, 2008 and 2009

Published in the 2007-12-07 issue: 

William Storrar is a minister of the Church of Scotland, and a visiting professor in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

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