Frank and Michael grew up together in New York City just down the hill from The Cloisters. As boys they would often go to The Cloisters to sit in the garden, smoke cigarettes, and discuss life. They were altar boys together and their growing up, in the 1940s was as naive and as Catholic as my own life was a decade later.
Michael served in Korea where he was a hero and spent 3 years as a POW. When he returns to America he decides to enter the seminary. Frank is an aspiring poet, aspiring beatnik, and ultimately winds up teaching at Fordham, the Jesuit university in New York. Carroll is a masterful writer and, though he spent a lot of time describing the era, the politics, the settings, it was done so well and the story was so compelling that reading it was sheer joy.
As a young deacon, a year away from ordination, Michael meets the very beautiful and feisty Sister Anne Edwards and, because of her passionate commitment to trying to save the school she teaches at, he has his first taste of political activism but things do not go well. In the fallout he introduces Sister Ann to Frank, returns to the seminary, she leaves the convent and goes back to being Carolyn. She has fallen in love with Michael but, because he is unavailable, marries Frank. This was a bit of a stretch for me but, okay, I'll bite, what's up with this?
But, of course, it doesn't matter because the rest of the book is about Father Michael Maguire --- it is about the politics leading up to the war in Vietnam and Michael's efforts to save the children being wounded in the war, and then his fight to stop the war, and then his life as a fugitive and an activist, and a hero to the millions who support his cause. Now, at that period of time, when I was in high school, college, and beyond, the war against the war in Vietnam was very much a part of my life. I was fascinated by and hero-worshipped the resistance. I loved Abby Hoffman. I loved Tom Hayden. And I especially loved the Berrigans, Daniel and Philip, two brother priests whom I found the most incredible people of the era. So reading about Father Michael Maguire was a delicious treat. The character of Michael seemed very close to Fr. Philip Berrigan in places but also to all the resistance-priests who became politically active. It was a volatile time for Catholics not just because of the war but also because our Church was changing thanks to Pope John XXIII's Vatican II Council.
So, here I am thoroughly engrossed in the story. Throughout Michael's most intense period of activism, during his trial for destruction of Federal Property, and then while he is living underground, he is very much supported by Frank and Carolyn. They love him and admire his work and, when he jumps bail rather than go to prison, they are the ones who forfeit the $20K bail they posted. But it is worth it because they believe in him and what he stands for. This is the story of an incredible, brave, heroic, magnificent warrior-hero priest but it is set against the background of my life. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough and then --- BLAM!
Okay, SPOILER ALERT. If you plan to read the book you might want to quit here. I almost wish I had quit there. We come to find out that Fr. Michael has been banging his best friend's wife for the past several years and, when Frank finds out, he is so stung by their betrayal he in turn betrays his lifelong friend, the FBI picks him up, and off to prison he goes.
Now, I'm not going to argue the likelihood or the morality of this. It is what it is and I am a firm believer that a storyteller can tell his story anyway he wants to but... this is the 10% I hate: once again it is the immoral, conscienceless, greediness of a woman that destroys a man. I mean, come on! Was that necessary? Eve offers the apple and Adam says, “I couldn't help it, Frank, the woman gave it to me. Sorry if I betrayed our lifelong bond by banging your wife but she said she loved me.”
Okay, I'm not crazy about a priest breaking his vows but it happens and I'm not crazy about him having an affair with a married woman because that happens too. But it is the blithe, cavalier way that Carolyn (a former nun) continues on in her married life (with his best friend) organizing fund-raisers for him, allowing her husband to support her (and in many ways him) all because she is just so beautiful and she loves him so much. It's such a cliché.
Yes, I know these things can happen but I resented her turning into such a dislikable, self-centered, immoral twit. Is that what the author really thinks of women? Couldn't he come up with something better than that? But, of course, the writer is male and the woman is just so damn beautiful so who cares if she comes across as a selfish brat?
Sigh. The final scene of the book is just gorgeous, haunting, unforgettable. Much of the book is. But I wish the woman they both “loved” had been worthy of their love --- and of the author's respect.
Thanks for reading.
POSTSCRIPT: I just realized, is it a coincidence that the nun who turns into the evil temptress in this book was Sister Ann Edwards, and the married woman/scientist who befriends Emilio and accompanies him to Rakhat is named .... Ann Edwards. Hmmmmm..........