Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

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

Media Watch:
‘Philomena’ is ‘stark yet life-affirming,’ while Grisham’s latest novel is a story that ‘needs to be told’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the January 16, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)

Movie Reviews

In November I had the opportunity to go by train on the Empire Builder to visit my sister, Pat, in Hastings, Minn. Going through eastern Montana and all of North Dakota I was impressed by seeing again the vast open spaces and relatively few people on the ranches and in the small towns.

The new film by Alexander Payne, titled Nebraska, gives a vision over and over again of the importance of place in the open spaces of the vast Midwest.

The film starts in Billings, Mont., where Woody (Bruce Dern) keeps walking down the local highways trying to go to Lincoln, Neb. to collect the money he thinks he has won. Woody is well in his 80s and, we might say, slipping a bit. He believes he has won $1 million as one of those come-on ads tells him. His wife, Kate (June Squibb), treats Woody almost cruelly as she finds out what he is up to.

Woody and Kate’s younger son is David (Will Forte). David gets tired of picking Woody up time and time again and decides to take a few days off from his dead-end job and humor his Dad by driving to Lincoln and stopping off in his Dad’s old home town of Hawthorne, Neb. David hopes at the least he might get closer to his father on a road trip and forget some of his own troubles. The result is that friends and relatives in Hawthorne believe Woody has won the million, no matter what David says.

There are two nephews of Woody who are out of a Coen Brothers movie. The Hawthorne section of the film is filled with humor.

Eventually, Woody and David make it to Lincoln, and there is an absolutely wonderful ending that should not be spoiled by any reviewer.

Alexander Payne has given us a beautiful slice of Americana very much in the tradition of Preston Sturges, a memorable director from the early 1940s. His film Sullivan’s Travels certainly connects with Nebraska.

I laughed a great deal at the section set in Hawthorne and wondered at first if Payne was making fun or patronizing his characters. But as you go forward toward the powerful ending you realize he respects and, in a sense, loves them.

Nebraska, filmed in a very appropriate black and white, is the story of family, especially the love of a son for his father. It is also a story about the greed that can easily develop when people think you now have a great deal of money.

Bruce Dern is terrific in the role of a lifetime. But for my money, Will Forte is the great surprise. He knocks it out of the ballpark as a serious actor. June Squibb, the local actress from Nebraska, may be over-the-top, but she is delightful. And all the ordinary Nebraskans gives a real slice of America. What a wonderful movie!

Nebraska is rated R-restricted, under 17 requires an accompany parent or guardian by the Motion Picture Association of America. The Catholic News Service rates the film L-limited adult audience, films with problematic content many adults would find troubling.


On the basis of the movies I’ve seen so far, the best movie of the year is Philomena, starring Judi Dench as the main character, Philomena Lee.

The story starts out with Philomena telling her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) a secret that she has kept for 50 years: As a young girl, Philomena had a child out of wedlock and was sent to a convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary in Ireland. She worked in a Magdalene Laundry and was allowed to see her son each day for one hour.

When the child was three, according to the film based on the book Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, he is sold to a wealthy American family, and for 50 years his mother does not know where he is. She tries to find out at the convent several times, but it is said there was a fire and the records were lost.

This background sets up a road trip to America with Philomena being joined by Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who has lost his job with the BBC and as a political spin doctor with a British political party.

Philomena is above all a story of forgiveness in the midst of a discussion of an unbeliever and a believer within the context of class differences. Martin is a sophisticated journalist with the finest of educational opportunities. Philomena is from a working-class background, a retired nurse who loves to talk about soapy romance novels.

The journey to America is filled with hopes dashed, humor and finally the trail leading to the truth.

The ending of the film back in Ireland at the convent where it all began leads to several twists and turns that are best not to know before seeing the film. The ending is indeed inspiring and powerful. For me, the revelations late in the film that take place in recent times are the greater sins. In the midst of it all the two main characters are true to who they are, and yet able to appreciate each other with what might be close to love.

Director Stephen Fears has given us a stark yet life-affirming film. Judi Dench is outstanding as a mother who has suffered greatly but holds on to her faith. Steve Coogan, who is known as a comedian in Britain, brings an acerbic wit and a seriousness to a great part.

Philomena is a film that will stay with you long after you have seen it. It is a film not to miss.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned, some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. There is strong language, thematic elements and sexual references. Catholic News Service rates the film L-limited, films with problematic content many adults would find troubling.

Book Reviews

I haven’t read a John Grisham book in years. But I was ready for a novel with lots of plot. So I took it on the train to Minnesota to visit my sister, Pat. And I thoroughly enjoyed the train trip with lots of interesting people and seeing the Arabian-like oil fields of western North Dakota. But having a wonderful book that could well be Grisham’s best was a true gift.

Sycamore Row (published in hardcover by Doubleday for a list price of $28.95) takes place in Clanton, Miss., three years after Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill. Jake Brigance, the well-known lawyer of that novel’s famous trial, now finds himself defending a will recently hand-written by a wealthy white man, Seth Hubbard. Seth has just committed suicide on a tree where Sycamore Row once was. In this new will, which is legal in Mississippi, he cuts out all his children and grandchildren and gives his multimillion-dollar estate mainly to his black maid, with smaller amounts to a long-lost brother and his church. Lawyers come out of the woodwork to contest this last-minute will.

This set-up may sound like not the most exciting court case novel that one could read. But it sure is exciting. There are several strong women characters and dozens of lawyers with strengths and weaknesses that won’t stop. The non-stop action and surprises will keep you wanting to continue reading into the night.

This is a novel about history, sin and redemption. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review for Nov. 10, reviewer Charles Rubin compares Sycamore Row to the famed novel To Kill a Mockingbird that had a connection to the same Mississippi town. He believes they will be read back-to-back in the future.

Well, I am not so sure about that, but I do agree Sycamore Row has the potential to be a book that lasts and is read through the years. Sure, it is more than a bit didactic toward the end of the story. But it is a story that needs to be told and is told in a memorable way.


Recently a prayer journal written by Flannery O’Connor was found. It was begun in January 1946, when she was not yet 21 years of age, and ended in September 1947. She was at the Writers’ Program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

The new book A Prayer Journal includes in print the 40 pages of that journal, plus an actual facsimile of the entire journal in O’Connor’s hand. The book version is published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux for a list price of $18.

However, it looks like at least 80 pages of the journal was published in the Sept. 16, 2013 issue of The New Yorker that is probably available at most libraries and on line.

Whether in book or magazine, the prayer reflections of this talented young woman are meant to be read and reread and prayed over. It is amazing that such a young person could speak with such searching fervor and meaning.

One of the early prayers starts like this: “My dear God, I am impressed with how much I have to be thankful for in a material sense; and in a spiritual sense I have the opportunity of being even more fortunate. But it seems apparent to me that I am not translating this opportunity into fact. You say, dear God to ask for grace and it will be given. I ask for it. I realize that there is more to it than that – that I have to behave like I want it. ‘Not those who say, Lord, Lord, but those who do the Will of My Father.’ Please help me to know the will of my Father – not a scrupulous nervousness nor yet a lax presumption but a clear, reasonable knowledge; and after this give me a strong Will to be able to bend it to the will of the Father.”

In some of the reflections she speaks of suffering. Within a few years she came down with lupus and died in her late 30s.

Her journal tells about how she saw God and helps us do the same. And the journal helps us gain some understanding of the foundational basis of her writings, and that draws us to return to read a favorite short story or novel.

Local Theater

Interplayers Theatre of Spokane in December had a memorable production of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic American play Our Town. Through long negotiations with the estate of Thornton Wilder, Reed McColm, Artistic Director of Interplayers, was able to do something never done before: The company was allowed to use eight actors to play all the parts normally played by 32 actors. And by golly, it worked.

I am biased, having played a part in a high school production at the old St. Patrick High in Walla Walla in the ’50s. But an extremely talented cast led by Patrick Treadway as the Stage Manager character and directed by Michael Weaver gave us a play filled with thoughtfulness, sadness, humor, and originality. Wilder’s Our Town, reinvented for a smaller cast, makes this play that continues to speak to us today hopefully more available to small theater groups across the world.

Magazine Articles on Pope Francis

Time magazine named Pope Francis “Person of the Year.” The pope is featured on the cover of the Dec. 23, 2013 issue. There are 19 pages of a cover story and copious pictures. It is well worth checking out.

The New Yorker for Dec. 23 and 30, 2013 has a drawing on the cover of Pope Francis making a snow angel. In the issue, James Carroll has written a fascinating profile of the pope, titled “Who Am I To Judge?”

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist, and a regular contributor to this publication.)

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