Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
New books from James Lee Burke, Nancy Horan; ‘Frontline’ documentary offers themes of life, death, sacrament

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Oct. 25, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Reviews

About eight years ago my sister, Patty, and I traveled from her home in Hastings, Minn., to Spring Green, Wis., near Madison. Spring Green was the home of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. After an intense scandal forced him to leave Chicago, he build a home in Wisconsin. He named the house Taliesin.

My sister and I took the fascinating tour of Taliesin, which is now part of the Wisconsin State Park system. During the tour we heard the gripping story of how Wright and his great love Mamah (pronounced May-muh) Borthwick Cheney both left their spouses and children to begin a scandalous relationship that lasted from 1909 until 1914.

Nancy Horan, who writes from the Puget Sound region of our state, uses the available documents of the time to weave an intriguing historical novel of illicit love and mystery in her new book, Loving Frank. The book is published in hardcover by Ballantine Books, New York at $23.95.

Mamah Cheney meets Frank Lloyd Wright when her husband hires the architect to build a new home in the fashionable Chicago suburb of Oak Park in the early 1900s. Sometime later Frank continues to meet Mamah to talk over the garage addition to her home. (It is ironic that later, it is Wright who gives us the modern carport.) It is during these visits that he pursues her.

Mamah visits an old school friend in Boulder, Colo., to decide if she will leave her husband and two children and join Frank in Europe as he leaves his wife and six children. She eventually does, and when it becomes known, the newspapers of the time run with the story literally for years, forcing the couple to eventually settle in Wisconsin. The pain and suffering of spouses and children, as well as the intense romantic love between Frank and herself, are told through the eyes of Mamah throughout the story.

Mamah fights to find herself as she stays in Europe for a time. She becomes a follower and English translator for an early feminist from Sweden by the name of Ellen Key. She eventually comes to terms with the beautiful countryside of Southern Wisconsin and the exemplary Prairie-Style home of Taliesin.

The ending of the story is as dramatic as a story can be. Throughout the book Nancy Horan shows the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. Early in the story Wright is portrayed almost as if he is straight from the cover of a romance novel. But as time goes by we see his ability to manipulate, control, and lie, and his belief that the gifted can ignore the rules of community and society.

There is not a lot of literary metaphor and symbol in Loving Frank. It is more “just the facts, the facts alone.” And yet Horan gives the facts with a wonderful style that pulls the reader on to its incredible climax. She has written a fascinating historical novel.


The popular mystery writer James Lee Burke, who now lives in Missoula, Mont., much of the year, has recently written a new Dave Robicheaux novel titled The Tin Roof Slowdown.

This mystery novel is multilayered with several strains that make up an elaborate interconnected puzzle. But what this Burke novel does in an extraordinary way is to give the reader an incredible feel for what Hurricane Katrina was like, in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, during and after its dramatic event.

The story centers on the human violence that took place during Katrina and the looting of property that was not uncommon right after the hurricane. The opening chapters quickly focus on a Catholic priest who soon disappears during Katrina. Was he killed? Or did he die trying to save a number of poor people in a building that was under attack by nature?

Dave Robicheaux is a sheriff’s detective from Iberia Parish, assigned to New Orleans because of the earth-changing storm. He begins with a complicated case of the looting of a gang leader’s empty home that involves young men who may have been involved in a horrendous rape. There seems to be a vigilante loose who has killed or wounded several of the looters.

As the story progresses, Dave’s wife and college-age child help solve the myriad crimes and as a result, find themselves in harm’s way.

The Catholicism of Dave and his family come through time and time again. His wife is active in the peace movement of Pax Christi. Mass and prayers are a part of their daily lives.

But it is the story of time and place in the midst of Katrina and its aftermath that makes this novel memorable. The Tin Roof Slowdown takes us to a world we may remember from television accounts in a way that almost makes the experience more devastating than what we saw on television.

The union of story and sacrament with nature can be seen as a prayer.

One of the very bad guys in this story had sought redemption, with Graham Greene-like themes of human weakness and reconciliation. Burke writes:

“In my fantasy, I see Bertrand far out on the water, pulling on the oars, his arms pumped with his task, the ruined city of New Orleans becoming smaller and smaller in the distance, a great darkness spreading across the sky just after sunset. The blisters on his hands turn into wounds that stain the wood of the oars with his blood. As the wind rises and the water becomes even blacker, he sees hundreds if not thousands of lights swimming below the surface. Then he realizes the lights are not lights at all. They have the shape of broken Communion wafers and the luminosity that radiates from them lies in the very fact that they have been rejected and broken. But in a way, he cannot understand, Bertrand knows that somehow all of them are safe now, including himself, inside a pewter vessel that is as big as the hand of God.”

The Tin Roof Slowdown is published in hardcover by Simon & Schuster at $26.

Television Review

I recently had the opportunity to see a press preview of the emotion-packed Frontline special shown on PBS on Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 9 p.m. The documentary is called The Undertaking. It is the story of Thomas Lynch of central Michigan, who has been written up in Catholic magazines such as U.S. Catholic.

Lynch is a funeral director of family-owned funeral home. Using writings from his acclaimed book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch in a powerful documentary style shows us life, dying and death and the sacraments of those mysteries.

The stories of real people, old and young, and their families going through the journey of life unto death – and, as we believe, unto new life – are told with dispassion and love.

In particular, the story of Anthony and Nevada Verrino, facing the death of their 24-month-old son, Anthony, will touch your heart and soul. Yes, you are liable to have tears watching this hour of life and death. But for older teens and adults, this documentary will be one that deeply affects you. Even though The Undertaking is difficult to watch, it has the potential to change your views and your fears of death. This is a vital program for the living. Do not miss it.

(Father Caswell is Ecumenical Relations Officer and archivist for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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