Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Here are a few more catch-up reviews from February of 2013.


the elegance of the hedgehog muriel barberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery ~ 2006

This edition: Europa, 2008. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-9833372-60-0. 325 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I was moved to read this bestseller by the recommendations of respected fellow bloggers; sadly I cannot recall exactly who those were at this point in time! But to them I must say, “Thank you.”  For this was indeed a charming story.

In an exclusive Paris apartment building there dwells, upstairs, a snobbish upper-class family: mother, father, and two daughters. The youngest of the girls, twelve-year-old Paloma, is a strangely precocious child, given to thoughts well beyond her years. In her diary, which makes up half of the book, we learn that she is seriously disillusioned with life, and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, unless something occurs to give her faith in the value of existence.

Downstairs is the stout, plain, elderly, and very obviously unintelligent concierge, Renée. Renée stumps around brusquely carrying out the tenants’ orders; she is blatantly uninterested in improving herself, and she carries out her duties with a sullen disrespect for her “betters”. Hers is the other half of the narrative.

Needless to say, for this novel follows the tried and true formula of loners uniting against the bitter world, Paloma and Renée find each other, and a friendship forms between the two social outcasts, who are soon joined by a third, new tenant Ozu, a wealthy Japanese businessman. And it will come as no surprise to readers that Renée is hiding an interior of the purest gold behind her prickly spikes – for she is indeed the hedgehog of the title, a creature of secret refinement, “deceptively indolent, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant”.

Predictably, tragedy does indeed strike, but from an unexpected direction.

There is also a cat.

Need I say more?

god grew tired of us john bul dauGod Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau & Michael Sweeney ~ 2008

This edition: National Geographic, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4262-0212-4. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

In 1987 a young Sudanese teenager was forced out of his home by a brutal raid on his village. What followed was a barefoot 1,000 mile trek through Sudan, Ethiopia, and eventually to Kenya, to a haven in a refugee camp. There John Bul Dau joined thousands of other displaced children, the “Lost Boys” of the Sudanese civil war.

Having no way of knowing the fate of his left-behind, possibly slaughtered family, John eventually immigrated to the United States, where he worked tirelessly to educate himself, all the while striving to raise awareness of the tribulations he himself went through, and to bring assistance to those still suffering from the aftermath of the war back in Sudan.

This book and its associated National Geographic film eloquently describe the situation. An earnest and strongly emotional memoir.

through the narrow gate karen armstrong 001Through the Narrow Gate: a memoir of life in and out of the convent by Karen Armstrong ~ 1981

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2005. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97709-X. 350 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Intriguing and occasionally bitter memoir of an ex-nun.

In 1962 Karen Armstrong, just seventeen, and child of a not particularly religious family, entered a Roman Catholic convent as a postulant, with the aim of becoming a nun. Seven years later, while attending Oxford under the sponsorship of her order (Armstrong was in training to become a teacher-nun) she realized that she had lost her faith, and she returned fully to the secular world.

Since then, Karen Armstrong has become well known for her writings on religion, and for her outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church’s more archaic practices, and of the confusion brought about by the mandated reforms of Vatican II.

This book, Armstrong’s first, is compelling reading. A very articulate writer.

The Guardian – Profile: Karen Armstrong is well worth reading if you are curious about this now high-profile public character; it references Through the Narrow Gate near the end of the article, with an amusing anecdote from Karen’s sister telling of how the family, after dropping Karen off at the convent for her entrance into her religious life, then went on to watch a production of The Sound of Music. That same sort of dark humour and willingness to smile at oneself is evident in places in this memoir, to leaven its more serious passages.

Sstarting out in the afternoon jill fraynetarting Out in the Afternoon by Jill Frayne ~ 2003

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-679311-881. 256 pages.

My rating: 4/10

This is an autobiographical memoir of the author’s mid-life crisis, and of the solace she sought and found in communing with nature.

A solo road trip, hiking, biking, camping, sea kayaking and such all help to salve Jill Frayne’s inner pain at the dual blow of both the break up of her long-term romantic relationship back in Ontario, and the moving away of her young adult daughter. Once she begins to gain a degree of competence in her new pursuits, and to feel herself physically comfortable in nature, Frayne begins a deeper exploration of her own emotions.

While I’m sure that this was a marvelous thing for Jill Frayne herself, but sadly I had trouble relating to her angsty navel-gazing, and I felt more and more like I was reading a very private diary. I eventually lost patience with the “me-me-ME” of the author’s inner dialogue; it coloured my reaction to the book as a whole.

I certainly admire the author’s courage as a woman alone going off into challenging territory by herself, and I would have enjoyed this more it had spent more time on the scenery and nuts and bolts of solo travel, and less on the touchy feely bits. But that’s just me; others may embrace the personal narrative and find meaning there which resonates with their own lives.

Back story: the author had an almost fatal accident several years before she set off on her trip; she had been told she would never walk again. She proved everyone wrong. Extra kudos to her, and I do hope the writing of this very personal book brought her comfort and much-needed inner peace.

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the family nobody wanted doss 1 001The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss ~ 1954. This edition: Little, Brown & Company, 23rd printing. Hardcover. 267 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Well, this was an interesting read, and I’m still trying to decide what my personal reactions really are.

On the surface it is a simple feel-good memoir about a young childless couple adopting twelve children in the 1940s and 1950s, but there are deeper currents to the tale, especially from a half-century later perspective. In particular, there is a damning sub-text of racial intolerance which is very much a part of why and how this family came together.

I didn’t yearn for a career, or maids, or a fur coat, or a trip to Europe. All in the world I wanted was a happy, normal little family. Perhaps, if God could arrange it, Carl and I could have a boy first, and after that, a little girl.

God didn’t arrange it.

In fact, as our doctor regretfully informed us, Carl and I couldn’t have any children of our own. No children, no sticky fingerprints on the woodwork, no childish tears and laughter, no small beds in the other bedroom. Just barren, empty years, stretching aimlessly into a lonely future…

So Helen’s husband Carl, driven to distraction by his wife’s continual bemoaning of her barren future, suggests that they adopt a baby. Helen loves the idea, and the two optimistically prepare a room and trot off to the nearest orphanage, where they learn that it isn’t quite as simple as all that. Most of the babies in the orphanage were simply not available, being only in temporary care, or waiting for relations to take them in, and the adoption agencies which are the next resort are not particularly helpful either. Helen and Carl are informed that waiting lists are years long, and that each baby must match its potential parents perfectly in ethnic makeup and family background. And of course the parents must be financially stable, as well as sterling characters in all other aspects.

Carl and Helen are sure their characters are good, but the money thing is definitely an issue, and the waiting list situation seems cruelly stressful. So they set aside their ideas of forming a family and instead decide to pursue other interests. Both enroll in college, Helen to study literature and writing, and Carl to pursue a long-held dream to become a Methodist minister. And then, miraculously, one more attempt at adoption through an agency results in a beautiful blue-eyed baby boy. Helen is ecstatic; Carl more reserved. They can barely feed themselves, so this new addition is a challenge in more ways than one.

Young Donny thrives and grows, and all is well for a while, until Helen starts to brood over the loneliness of the only child. “If only he could have a little sister…” But another child is an impossibility, declares everyone they contact. “Just be happy you managed to get the one.” Unless, of course, they would consider a mixed race child. Lots of those were languishing in adoptive limbo, and, three years after Donny’s adoption, Filipino-Chinese-English-French Laura joins the family. And, only two months later, frail and sickly Susan, undesirable because of her weak constitution and a tumorous red birthmark on her face.

Helen is still thrilled, though she finds three children something of a challenge, but all three thrive, and Helen starts thinking again. Maybe just one more, a brother for Donny…

Eventually, with increasingly strident resistance from Carl, Helen collects a round dozen of children, six boys and six girls. She writes about the family’s experiences, and the tragedy of mixed race children being seen as undesirable by families otherwise desperate to adopt a baby; even though the Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malayan, Burmese, Spanish, French and American Indian children she and Carl eventually acquire are accepted by family and neighbours, a constant refrain is “As least they aren’t Negro!” Carl and Helen do attempt to adopt a part-black child from a German orphanage, child of black American GI father and a German mother, but the transaction is strangled by red tape; their families and friends are loudly vocal in their relief, and one of the most passionate chapters in the book strongly condemns this attitude, and addresses the degrees of racism inherent in American society, and its effect on innocent children along with its part in much greater societal ills.

Helen and Carl come across as truly sincere in their attitudes that colour means nothing, and that human is human; Helen starts writing articles about their “United Nations” family, and the Dosses catch popular attention, being interviewed, photographed and featured on radio and television, as a kind of shining example of American acceptance and tolerance, though in reality the very existence of their family group has come about through blatant American racial discrimination. These are, after all, the children that nobody wanted.

the family nobody wanted helen doss 2 001

The book ends only twelve years after that first baby, Donny, is adopted, and the tone is happily optimistic, but there are undertones that perhaps all may not be so well in future. Carl is a reluctant participant in the continual enlargement of the Doss family, though he is very willing to tout its benefits for interviewers; Helen persists in collecting children in the face of Carl’s outright “No more” plea, time and time again. The news that the Doss marriage ends in divorce in 1966, twelve years after the publishing of this bestselling book, comes as no surprise, though it is sad; one hopes that the children – some at that time well into adulthood, one must admit –  weathered their family breakup with a minimum of trauma, though one doubts that would completely be the case.

Knowing several cross-culturally adopted children who now, as adults, are seeking diligently to reconnect with their birth parents’ heritage, I wonder what happened to those twelve children as they grew up, and what they each personally made of their inclusion in this unique family, and of the publicity which their parents’ outspoken willingness to discuss their adoptive choices attracted.

I do think, both from the tone of Helen Doss’s memoir, and from other reports on the Doss family I read on the internet, that their intentions were, once they started adopting, only the best. And, also, I do tend to think that children deserve a loving family versus being institutionalized, and that if the only fit possible is cross-cultural, so be it. If it were more widely accepted (as it wasn’t in the 1940s and 1950s) then at least the “novelty factor” would not be such an issue.

I’ve tagged this post with a “religion” designation, because it is also very apparent that Helen and Carl Doss were motivated in a great part by their Christian faith. Carl Doss is quoted as saying that

…The whole idea of Christianity is radical (a)nd the whole idea of democracy is radical.  Think how really it is to say that all men are created equal, and that all men are brothers – and that the individual is important!

Conflicted as Carl seems to be by his wife’s acquisition of child after child, once they are brought into the family he apparently embraces his fatherhood fully, being as full of latent paternal affection as he is of “radical” Christian ideals.

A thought-provoking memoir, and, as I said, a bit uncomfortable to consider more deeply, given that a whole lot must have been left out. Though I was interested and pleased to see that Helen Doss was very frank about her own motivations of needing children to “complete” her idea of true womanly fulfillment; the ideal of a happy, multi-racial family group seemed to develop as her circumstances changed.

I did my usual look-around the web, and was interested to see how highly this book was rated on Goodreads; a large number of people apparently read and loved it in their school years; the reviews are by and large quite glowing.

It is very readable, and provides a truly fascinating (though superficial) glimpse into the mid-20th Century’s social dilemmas and attitudes towards both adoption and racial and interracial societal division lines. It is also frequently very funny; Helen Doss’s anecdotes of her children’s doing are downright adorable, and well targeted at the sentimental readers who have obviously embraced it as a “sweet tale”. It is a sweet tale; it is also an indictment of the bitter evils of racial discrimination; and a strong advocate of true Christian behaviour; and a revealing portrait of a marriage not without deep personal conflicts, despite its publically positive façade.

For more on the Doss family, these links will be good starting points.

Helen Doss – Obituary

Adoption Topics – The Family Nobody Wanted

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