Black Robe

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Julie at Happy Catholic has posted a list of works recommended by one writer as "essential Catholic reading" (my words). Black Robe is on that list. And I just happened to have been reading it at the time. (It was one of those discount book purchases I couldn't resist.)

I very much enjoyed Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, which was a brilliantly conceived and well-written story of an aging spinster seeking the meaning of her life.

Black Robe is a completely different story, but it follows in a long line of Catholic novels about priests and their feelings of unworthiness in the face of what they must do: The Power and the Glory, Silence, Diary of a Country Priest, and so on. Black Robe details the journey of a Jesuit Missionary from the home base in Quebec to his mission outpost--it is a very small slice in the life of the priest, but it is filled with event.

Moore's strength in this books is sense of place. It is extraordinary how seemingly effortlessly he gives one an overwhelming sense of place. However, the weakness of the book is in the characters. They are stock and they are ciphers. He attempts to recreate the gutter-speech of the Native American populace and it comes off like a forced convention of stereotypical Australians. The central battle of Father Laforgue against sin and toward meaning is so sparsely and unconvincingly sketched against the backdrop of this amazing setting that I am compelled to wonder why he bothered at all.

Apparently the author of the book Julie read indicated that the book was rife with torture and other unpleasantness, and while there is a fairly graphic scene of torture and death, it remains fairly unmoving. (There are also other unpleasant scenes, but nothing the rises to the level of most of the forensics novels of current popularity.) The reader is at such a distance from events (perhaps mercifully) that it is rather like glimpsing certain things through the fog. There is no emotional context, only physical brutality.

And that marks most of the book. When Father Laforgue begins to meditate upon his sins and unworthiness, we have so little intimate knowledge of him that it comes off as pasted on. We've experienced his physical suffering, his temptation and fall, his hardships, but we've been given almost no real knowledge of his interior life. What was the extraordinary strength and insight of Judith Hearne is all but missing here.

I wondered for a fews moments why this book was on the list and realized that it was very probably the result of the fact that the list was composed by a Jesuit and hence there may have been an affinity for the North American martyrs. Or perhaps the reading did not extend so far as to take in some of Moore's better works.

Whatever the reason, Black Robe does not belong on a list of essential Catholic novels--it is definitely second string. Well written, interesting, a ficitonalization of Francis Parkman's The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, which, in turn, is a distillation and expansion of certain parts of The Jesuit Relations. It is fine, fast reading--if one can tolerate the simplistic vulgarity of much of the dialogue--however it is neither a Catholic classic nor the finest work of Moore on Catholic themes. If you want to read a really fine work about the interior life, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is your book. (On a side issue, I really wish I could find a copy of the film. I don't think Netflix has it listed, and it is one for which Maggie Smith received a great deal of critical acclaim.)

So, on this book, recommended with some reservations.

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Passion /f Jusith Hearne is available on DVD.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 30, 2006 8:29 AM.

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