The Glorious Mysteries

Fiddlehead, October 2014
When I started reading this book I immediately began receiving Laura Ingalls Wilder on the ends of my sensitive whiskers. The prairie childhood depicted in the first four stories is evocative of Little House on the Prairie, even including the cast of characters, the conservative older sister, the reassuring father with the deep voice and strong hands, the loving mother. I sank deep into these stories, just as one does with the Little House books, because of their detailed depiction of that long-ago-yet-recent (because these stories are set not at the end of the nineteenth century, but in the fifties and sixties of the twentieth) life of the pioneer prairie farmers.
Shortly, though, I began to sense that this was not the actual trend of the stories at all, merely a well-realized setting for another theme entirely. The family in the book are conservative Catholics who live in a conservative Catholic community. Their faith, their religious practices are the background for everything they do, and the young “Laura” character of the first four stories references everything that happens to some conflict within that belief system. In the first story, the mother gives her baby clothes to a young native woman in a symbolic gesture of renunciation – she will have no more children (i.e., practise birth control, although probably through rhythm); in the second story, “The Water Witcher”, the father gets help finding a well with a dowser.

“Is that a good witch or a bad witch?”
“Neither,” he said. “You’ll see. She’s a real one.”

In “The Redemptorists”, a missionary priest who has witnessed a pair of white colonialists in Africa being murdered by a crowd is so tortured by the memory that he describes it even to the children.

“They were wild, like animals. Hacking, hacking.”
My mother looked alarmed. We were all standing, staring, even my father. She shooed us into the next room. My father sat us down on the couch, one on each side of him. Katherine and I were afraid to look at each other. He held us close and mussed our hair, waiting for the upset to stop, his big calloused hands covering our ears, but we could still hear.

The scene then changes, from the prairie community of childhood to the 1980s in Oakland California, and this is the setting of perhaps the strongest and most complex of the stories and the heart of the book, “Red Magdalena.” Here, Gabrielle, as the “I” is now called is living as a lay helper in a Franciscan mission to street people and illegal emigrants in Oakland, California. She falls in love with a man who she gradually realizes is a “coyote”, one who makes a living smuggling Latinos across the border from Mexico into the United States. She has a friend, a fugitive on the run from her vengeful and controlling husband, who is a Mariologist, a Catholic mystic, who worships statues of the Virgin, the “black madonnas” almost as if Mary were a goddess.

“My mother lights candles too, but at the church.”
“Yes, the practice is ancient among women. Candles, incense, photographs, jewelry for prayers requested, for petitions granted . . . In Ireland, even in Cuba today, they leave their hair.”

Both these women, the red Magdalena of the title, and Gabrielle, the narrator, whom Magdalena calls Angelita, “my little angel, when I am so far from home,” are unusual in the mostly Latino community because of their light hair colour.
When Magdalena disappears with the coyote, for protection presumably in exchange for sex, Gabrielle makes a ritual sacrifice:

“I started to cut, slowly at first . . . the madres watching me. And above them in the mirror, tears streamed down my cheeks . . . I laid each lock carefully on the altar in front of me, until the Virgins were surrounded by gold.”

This story and the ones around it, about Mexican and Central American refugees, are fascinating and not just because of the deep undercurrent of Catholic contrarianism that is the overt theme of them all. Once again, as in the stories at the beginning of the book, the details are laid out with total conviction, and we never for a moment doubt the voice of the narrator, who remains essentially the same narrator throughout. This book is almost a novel, a kind of female Bildungsroman about growing up within, but also in defiance of the culture of Catholicism.

The mistakes of the Church are taken up one by one, story by story: sex out of wedlock, male hegemony, and in the last story, a bombshell, and the only one that absolutely departs from the clear voice or presence of the “I” of most of them, Jesus as an object of homosexual desire.
The male narrator (and in the case of this final story) is talking to his parish priest, also perhaps a homosexual, although a repressed one.

I was born in the wrong age.
Kneeling there I imagined Jesus listening, the life-sized crucifix suspended over the altar “A man of sorrows. A man with healing hands. That’s who I want.”
Father Felix moved his face away from the window, sat on his hands, rocked himself slightly, side to side, pondered the carpet, and frowned.
“He doesn’t exist.”
“He exists, Father Felix. You just have to believe.”

I wondered what does the story, or indeed, any of them, have to say to me, a non-believer, a non-Christian, brought up and living my life in an essentially secular context? I can comprehend the blasphemy in this story, and the blasphemy in the others too, but can I feel it? Is the full appreciation of these stories actually limited to a subculture of believing Christians?

In that case what about some of our greatest literature, Joyce’s Ulysses, for example? Is that also in a sense marginalized, in the same way and for the same reason, because so deeply set in the context of a deeply believing Catholic culture?

Obviously, it’s the role of fiction to take readers to a place they had never imagined and to make them feel things they had never believed they might feel. I can feel the impact of these stories – I did. The limpid narrative voice, the clear presence of the main female character, gentle, perplexed, yet also tough, took me somewhere and showed me some things and made me actually worry about them, as I never thought I might.
— Susan Haley, author of Petitot, Gaspereau, 2013.

Prairie books now, April 2014
The Glorious Mysteries is a debut collection of stories by Audrey J. Whitson. The opening set of stories revolves around a curious girl named Grace growing up on an Albertan farm. We see the world through her young eyes. In the opening story, a couple shows up at the door after their car has run off the road, and Grace observes their gentle encounter with her parents. In “The Water Witcher,” Grace, despite her mother’s protests, learns to divine with Miss Annie. A missionary comes to town, and when he speaks about “debauchery,” young Grace thinks to herself, “I didn’t know what revelling or debauchery or licentiousness was, but I was eager to find out.”

Another set of stories in the collection revolves around Gabrielle, a young woman struggling with her privileged American background, trying to make a difference in the world. Another character tackles issues around sexual orientation, and in the title story, a young nurse is not sure how much “faith” to show her patient and struggles with the need to break the rules of her faith.

“Sometimes they present themselves fully fleshed, sometimes I have to spend time alone with them to get to know them,” Whitson says of her diverse characters.

“I first encountered Annie in ‘The Water Witcher,’ for example, as I was driving by the old hotel in my hometown. She was a mirage on the front step, nothing more.”

There are future plans for Annie; Whitson is working on a novel about her 35 years on, as an old woman.

“We know from the short story that she was sent away to the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives as a teenager. Why and what happened? How has she come to terms with all this?”

In all Whitson’s stories — in vivid settings as diverse as California, Alberta, and Mexico — Catholic faith is a backdrop. Whitson says she was encouraged in a writing group to write about Catholicism.

“I’ve always thought of Catholicism as a hybrid between pagan and Christian — that mix makes for interesting characters.”

The title of the collection, Whitson says, is an allusion to a meditation that is practiced by some when praying the rosary.

“There are some sorrowful mysteries and joyful mysteries in the tradition too. All focus on major events in the life of Jesus and Mary. But I took it here to mean the mysteries of life, and those are interwoven throughout these stories — birth, death, evil, desire, grief, betrayal, mental illness, the workings of the natural elements, and more.”

In “Snow,” Gabrielle’s friend Martin shows signs of mental illness. He is fixated with snow, which at first seems harmless, but the fixation grows more troubling. Martin remembers his one experience with snow, the only time his parents had stopped fighting: “The whole world was still. You could hear. Your heart. Your breath. Yourself. Hear everything.”

Whitson says audiences have been receptive and excited. “I think the characters resonate with their experience of the world as a mysterious and sometimes awful place, and yet a place of truth too.” —  Karen Green (Prairie Books NOW, Winter 2014)

ALBERTA VIEWS, April 2014Audrey J. Whitson's second book is her debut collection of short fiction. The 10 stories follow four main, characters in their quests to find meaning. While all four characters are Catholic, the stories subvert simplistic expectations; none lead to stereotypical moralistic lessons and all steer clear of judgment and guilt. Instead, Whitson's protagonists connect with extraordinary personalities who defy traditional religious attitudes: Annie, a local recluse, teaches Grace how to divine water with a witching rod; Marta, a married Mexican woman, tells Gabrielle her plans to have an abortion; Father Felix extends friendship and acceptance to Claude, a man struggling with his sexual orientation.

The stories are presented chronologically by narrator's age, which gives the impression at times of reading a memoir. Similarities among the innocent, searching personalities of the three female protagonists, Grace, Natalie and Gabrielle, further contribute to this sense of prolonged narrative voice. The stories in the book's first half are quiet, even lulling in places, imbued with nostalgia for locations and moments of revelation from childhood and young adulthood.

One of the engaging strengths of the Glorious Mysteries resides in the odd characters who leave indelible impressions on the protagonists—such as a missionary who confesses his inability to forgive and an old man who spent his life with a woman he loved, but could never have physical contact with besides hugging her each night—from the neck up.

Whitson's reverence for and relationship with land is the dominant theme in her previous book Teaching Places and it shows up again in this collection, especially in "The Land Within"
The collection ends with an unexpected and welcome bang. The only story told from a male perspective, "The Parts of Man That Can Be Held Together," flings us into the mental turmoil of Claude, who is both gay and Catholic. Whitson does not shy from describing her character's sexual desires, and she effectively captures how Claude expresses his emotional disconnection through art: "I've never been able to draw someone whole. Whole would be too close. Whole would be making them real, a human being with needs and wants and demands. Only bits and pieces. Hands. Cock and balls. Sometimes a mouth." Again, Claude's best friend, a priest, offers only compassion and support.

Audrey Whitson has published poetry, short fiction, essays and a memoir. Her latest effort is traditional in form while deftly exploring the challenges of life from a faith-based perspective. —Kat Main is a writer and editor in Calgary. — Kat Main

Kat Main is a writer and editor in Calgary

Telegraph-Journal, September 21, 2013

Audrey Whitson’s The Glorious Mysteries is a collection of short stories rooted in the complexities of faith. Most of the characters in these 10 stories are Catholic and are, in their own ways, navigating what that means.

The most compelling stories follow Gabrielle St. John, a volunteer at St. Joseph’s Outreach in Oakland, who is struggling to reconcile her privileged background with the woman she is becoming. In “The Land Within,” Gabrielle visits Marta in rural Mexico on a self-exploration trip that also helps her to better understand her friend. Perhaps the best story in the collection, “The Land Within” is sprinkled with Spanish, vivid cooking scenes and rich sketches of the landscape.

Whitson demonstrates a gift for writing the various voices of women. A child named Grace is the protagonist in several stories. Grace’s voice is strong and unique, as are the voices of adults ranging from Gabrielle to Magdalena (“Red Magdalena”). But Whitson stumbles over Claude in “The Parts of a Man That Can Be Held Together,” making him feel two-dimensional and unreachable in a way that clashes with most of the characters in this otherwise strong collection.

With this collection, Whitson prods us to examine our own journeys towards (or away from) faith in search of our true selves. — Rebecca Higgins for the Telegraph-Journal