One of my favorite couples in the world had a baby last week. Holding their sweet newly-minted little princesses in my arms I was struck, again, by how sacred the task of parenting is. At the birth of a child, a tender immortal soul is entrusted into our love and care so that we may help her grow into knowing, loving, and serving God both here and in heaven forever. That task is impossibly hard and, maybe, getting harder. The path to heaven is strewn with brambles and detours. Without grace, none of us could hope to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21)
Recently, Susan Howard asked me to read her book, In the Realm of Mist and Mercy, and give it an honest review. To be frank, Diane and I accept very few requests like this because we each have deep stacks of books we already know and appreciate that we want to review for Plumfield and Paideia. Something inside me, however, nudged me read this one. I am so glad I did. It is one that I am happy to recommend.
When we built Tolle Lege Book Community (formerly Potato Peel Pie Society), we did so for several reasons. One of our chief aims was to create a place where we could join together with others who were trying to pursue the transcendentals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. It was never our intention to create a group that celebrates books of every stripe just because they are books. Rather, we wanted a place wherein we could celebrate those books which enrich our lives and better equip us to pursue grace.
In our efforts to know what to review and how to review it, we look for books which are a successful combination of truth, goodness, and beauty. Some books reveal truth through their goodness and beauty, like Little Men. Some books are good because of how their truth and beauty work together to tell an excellent story, like The Bark of the Bog Owl. Other books are beautiful because of their goodness grounded in truth, like The Benedict Option. Because there are more books than we can ever hope to read, because books have great power to influence our attitudes, and because the Holy Spirit so often speaks to us through good and great books, we try to put a much higher priority on reviewing good books than on writing cautionary reviews of books which disappoint us. In the Realm of Mist and Mercy is a beautiful book because of the truth it tells and the goodness it can inspire.
In the Realm of Mist and Mercy is the story of an orphan found in the forest and taken in by a bachelor woodsman who has a good heart and an even better soul. Haden has no experience with children when he finds Wally, but that does not stop him from giving the best of himself to his new role as surrogate father. When Haden and Wally must leave the woods and move into town, things get very complicated for both characters. Wally boards in the home of a widow with twin sons while Haden lives in the back room of the grocer’s store. Something unsettling is happening in the town and it seems to be connected to the manipulative judge and the strange gifts he gives out.
“Nothing is quite as invisible as something overlooked for its constant presence, nor as easily dismissed as the idle talk of old men.”
A bit like Henry York in the 100 Cupboards books, Wally is a normal boy, but he has a special vision which allows him to see and sense things that others miss. It isn’t a superpower, but rather a kind of spiritual gift that helps him have eyes that see. We learn throughout the story that this sensitivity is, in fact, a gift given by the King of the Realm so that Wally can know, love, and serve Him. Anyone with any Christian training will know that this story is a loose allegory for the Christian life.
Written by a Catholic author, this story is ripe with symbolism. That symbolism is beautiful all on its own. Catholic readers, however, will get another layer of meaning from it as they see parallels to our tradition. I think that this book respects the non-Catholic reader while also ministering to the Catholic reader. The symbolism is not off-putting nor is it esoteric. It feels natural to the story, but like Galadriel’s rope in The Lord of the Rings, it can serve to encourage Catholic readers in a special way.
I have a few quibbles with the story. First, the setting is unclear. Sometimes it feels medieval. There are knights, everyone travels by foot or horse and carriage, there is no mention of modern conveniences. But sometimes it feels modern. Wally orders a soda at the local restaurant and the knights are made fun of for wearing swords at their sides. I am not sure when and where this is really set and that does impact my ability to connect with the story arc.
Second, the book starts with a lot of names and details all at once. Howard tries to set up two related stories at the same time. I understand, I think, why she did that, but it does feel a bit disjointed and too much to take in too quickly. The first few chapters would have benefitted from a little better pacing. After that, however, the story has good momentum and evolves nicely.
Third, I am not a fan of allegory because it often feels contrived. In this case, I do not think that it feels contrived, but I do think that some of the symbolism feels wedged into an otherwise lovely story. I don’t resent the symbolism at all! I just wish that it had been developed better, more slowly, or more carefully. I think it would have been more effective if it had been given more influence over the story itself.
My quibbles are just that – quibbles. These technical issues do not, in my opinion, seriously detract from the worth of the story. I mention them so that when readers encounter them they can know that I think that the story is worth the effort of getting around or looking past the little things.
When I held Tiny Clementine in my arms, I felt my passion for goodness stir. I cooed to her and told her that I could not wait to see what kind of saint she would grow into. I think that books like In The Realm of Mist and Mercy are so important to our work as parents. Beautiful stories like this one give us an opportunity to feed our children, grandchildren, and our friends’ children good food for their moral imaginations. Wally’s life gets hard and complicated but he rises to the occasion and allows grace to invade his soul such that he can live as a witness to the goodness and glory of his King, our God. I want the children in my life to be spoiled with riches in stories like this.
“You’ve read the story of Waljan of the Wood, Haden Hunter, Penelope, Bo Dog, and their friends… now the real adventure begins… an adventure in faith!” – In the Realm of Mist and Mercy: Lesson Plans
Teachers, book club leaders, parents, librarians, and anyone else reading along with children may want to know that Howard designed a lovely resource guide to go along with this book. The lesson plan book is expressly Catholic and cites the Catechism and Catholic tradition, and makes use of the New Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition Bible. “This book can be read individually for its entertainment value without the aid of this lesson plan, influencing the reader through story as many good books do. Or, it can be read aloud by a class according to the lesson plan and augmented with assignments or additional curricula. It can even be used for family reading time and discussion… I recommend that the story first be read in its entirety for the sake of continuity and flow, and then reread, lesson by lesson. Each lesson covers one or two chapters at a time.” – In the Realm of Mist and Mercy: Lesson Plans