Steerforth Press, $23.95, 240 pp.
Now and then a novel surfaces, seemingly from nowhere, telling a tale we didn’t even know we needed to hear. Such a rarity is The Witness of St. Ansgar’s. Information on its author is scant. Born in lower Manhattan in 1920, Francis Nielsen worked variously as an actor, a farmer, and head of production for CBS television, while writing two books of fiction “under a pseudonym in the 1970s,” his publisher cryptically informs us. He died in 1990.
Nielsen’s tenderly evocative book tells stories from a lost world, a Bavarian Franciscan parish in Manhattan’s lower West Side in the decade before World War II. The world of the parish is a crowded one; fifteen or so Franciscans reside at St. Ansgar’s on Stanley Street, and numerous are the “Dutchies” and their children and grandchildren making their living over at the freight yards and the Hudson River piers. Narrating events through the eyes of a neighborhood boy, Mario, Nielsen presents an urban village, with a village’s stories: foreshortened horizons, smothering social scrutiny, some desperate marriages and trapped youngsters. The surrounding metropolis seems strangely far away. Yet this isn’t Winesburg, Ohio. St. Ansgar’s snares its villagers in duty and surveillance, but it grants them the gift of...