Women and Religious Tradition

  • Dora Dueck
    The Hidden Thing. CMU Press
  • Robert Eady
    The Octave of All Souls. Editio Sanctus Martinus
  • Mary Frances Coady
    The Practice of Perfection. Coteau Books

In all three of these recent books, the authors highlight the complex lives of women whose lives are irrevocably shaped by their religious faith.Coady’s collection of short stories is set in a convent during the late pre-Vatican II 1950s. It traces the experiences of four young postulants as they seek to embrace their order’s traditions of silence, service, and isolation from the outside world. To succeed on this journey, relinquishment of individual skills (for example, Melanie’s expertise on the cello), clothing choices (all must wear a “long black dress with a Peter Pan collar”), and desire for the sake of “conformity to the will of God” is crucial.

Coady highlights the tensions that emerge within these young women as their idealistic desire to serve God rubs up against their youthful exuberance. A hint that the timelessness of this world is soon to be shaken comes when Mother Alphonsine, the novice mistress, asks Mother Superior to let her charges read a recently published book on the Dead Sea Scrolls that will reveal “new things about the Bible.” After her request is denied, and she departs the convent for a time of “rest,” the agitated whispering among the nuns, even during times of silence, foreshadows of turbulent times ahead. While highlighting the archaic nature of this closed world, Coady also gestures toward the complex layers of meaning within this confined space generated through both pursuit of communal goals and individual encounters with the divine.

Setting his book in Strathearn, a fictional Ontario town, Catholic writer Robert Eady shapes the plot of his epistolary novel around his narrator’s observance of the tradition of praying for the souls of the recently deceased during the week following All Saint’s Day. Within this framework he unfolds both the inner life of JT, an aging single woman, and the complexity of small town life as she writes letters to a childhood friend (an Oblate missionary priest) that update him about mutual acquaintances who have died during the past year. Her letters provide vivid and wry depictions of a diversity of local residents, including Paula, the vindictive city councillor, Augusta, a much venerated, retired English teacher, and the fast talking Luther Stronk, whose naïve involvement in drug dealing ends with the discovery of his body in a local gravel pit. JT’s astute commentary highlights the complex world lurking under the surface of this seemingly mundane small town context. Eady’s narrative strategy effectively reflects his themes; his focus is narrow, constrained by one woman’s thoughts and words as shaped by her religious tradition. However, it also highlights the sustaining value of lifelong continuity to geographical place and religious faith.

Finally, Dora Dueck’s novel, the 2011 McNally Robinson Book of the Year, traces five decades in the life of Maria Klassen, a Manitoba Mennonite woman who is forced to take a job as a live-in domestic days after her arrival in Canada in the late 1920s, in order to financially support her refugee family. Young Maria experiences various levels of displacement while working in the Winnipeg home of the Lowrys, an upper middle-class Anglo family: she must not only adjust to a new homeland and language but also to a new cultural context and a socially subservient role. Increasingly exposed to new ways, Maria is caught between her longing to embrace more cosmopolitan “English” mores and her desire to retain the conservative values of her Mennonite religious background.

Made susceptible to the sexual advances of the Lowrys’ adult son by her loneliness and naïve belief that their relationship will result in marriage, Maria conceives a child whose birth and subsequent adoption reshape the trajectory of her life. Stoically closing the door on this aspect of her life, she returns to her Mennonite community, determined to never disclose “this hidden thing.” Taking the place of her recently deceased mother, she devotes her life to caring for her family. In return, she gains cultural security, close familial bonds and, over time, benefits from the growing prosperity and social status of her extended family. However, her inability to come to terms with “this hidden thing” stunts her emotionally and also points to the dangers of being overly defined by a narrow cultural and religious context.

This review “Women and Religious Tradition” originally appeared in New Work on Early Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 213 (Summer 2012): 163-164.

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