World War II

The Conduct of Saints

ConductSet in Rome in the wake of the Second World War, The Conduct of Saints reveals Christopher Davis as a writer who remains at the height of his powers at the age of 85. The novel follows a Vatican lawyer named Brendan Doherty (who wins points in my book being a native of South Philadelphia) as he plays devil’s advocate against the man who murdered  Maria Goretti yet now claims to have been saved through the soon-to-be-canonized saint’s intercession. At the same time, Doherty is also attempting to prevent the execution of Nazi war criminal Pietro Koch — not out of any sympathy for Koch or his worldview, but out of a firm belief in the sanctity of all life. The result is a complex novel that explores the intimate relationship between faith and doubt while simultaneously delivering a moving and thoroughly engaging story.

Throughout the novel, Davis’s gift for setting is especially apparent. The streets of Rome come alive on every page. Indeed, one doesn’t so much read this book as enter its perfectly imagined world of bicycles rattling over cobblestone streets, urchins begging for money, and olive trees providing the only respite from the hot summer sun. What’s more, the time period provides the ideal backdrop for a rigorous interrogation of faith and justice, as the atrocities of the Nazis are enough to raise doubts in even the most pious among us. Yet we are all fallen in some way or another, The Conduct of Saints insists on every page. And the world is highly adept at shaking our faith–however we define it and whatever we believe. Ultimately, however, it’s our power to forgive that renders us so deeply human, and this is the ultimate, uplifting message of Davis’s fine novel.

Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and spectacular writing.

See Ya

Well into Cheryl Kerr’s See Ya, we learn that one of the characters “no longer thought of war in terms of countries and what they wanted, either for themselves or those they rolled across. He thought of the people, the little lives that were ground up or changed or ended in the machine of world events.” In many ways, this revelation gets at the heart of Kerr’s novel. According to one of the endorsements on the book jacket, Kerr has captured “the essence of war,” but her method for doing so is, interestingly, not to tell a “traditional” war story in  the vein of either Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or films like Saving Private Ryan. Rather, Kerr examines the ripple-effects of war by giving us a protagonist whose quest to better know her recently deceased father becomes an opportunity for self-discovery and a meditation on the meaning of honor.

When retired Colonel Matthew Rankin dies of a heart attack, his daughter, Manda, is devastated. Yet the subsequent and sudden appearance of a German citizen named Pieter Becker raises a number of questions about the colonel — most notably that of why he was photographed with Becker’s missing father, a former Nazi soldier, in Grand Central Station many years earlier. What follows is a journey that takes Manda and Pieter to places they never imagined — both geographical and emotional. In Kerr’s words, “There are rooms that exist, though no one will say so, so hidden are the entries. Some of these are secret chambers of the heart, some are alcoves and corners of the mind and some are real and dusty places with hidden, hard-to-find doors.” For Manda and Pieter, the quest for the truth takes them through all of these hidden territories and then some.

Throughout the novel, Kerr employs a number of different voices to get her story across. Much of the narrative is related by Manda in the first person, but some stretches are told via flashback, as when she discovers a diary left by her father, or when other characters bridge the gaps in Manda’s knowledge of past events. The effect of this is to suggest that history is not static, that it is an organic social phenomenon that changes with each telling and, in changing, alters our sense of identity on both collective and individual levels. It’s also to suggest that secret histories, those we carry in our hearts, may also be the most powerful, for as Manda discovers each new piece of information about her father, she comes to realize that he was more complex, yet also more noble, than she could have possibly imagined.

Like many novels and films about the subject, See Ya does not shy away from the horrors of war, but it also focuses on so much more, demonstrating that for all of our flaws, humans are capable of great kindness and wonder. Emotionally moving and well-crafted, the novel is a testament to the power of love in all of its forms and, above all, a tribute to lives of quiet, unsung rectitude.