I was excited to win this novel in a giveaway through the author’s newsletter, and despite the various other obligations I had going on at the time a few weeks ago, I picked it up and began reading, because it looked like it could be a quick read. And it was! I found myself staying up way too late to read over half of the book in one sitting and finished it in the span of just a few days.
Once I’d begun, it was easy to keep turning the pages. The impact of Violet’s past trauma on her present was very believable, and when she had a chance encounter with the man from her past who had been involved in that trauma, the pace of the story didn’t slow down. Violet is a likeable character, and I sympathized with her struggles.
The fact that her ex-boyfriend had become a priest in the years since she’d last seen him threw in more challenging layers of drama. The chance to read another modern fiction book with a priest as a main character was something I appreciated as somebody writing novels starring a priest myself. Seeing priests in fictional stories can make them more 'real' to us as human beings with real lives and feelings (for other ways to make priests more real to you - talk to them! Invite them over for meals! Include them in your own life!). Seeing that this book is the first in a series gives me hopes for further development of Tristan, so we can see why he made the choices he did and what will happen to him. In The Love We Vow, he came across as not taking his priestly vows too seriously, and perhaps he entered into the seminary in an attempt to escape and ignore and maybe even try to make amends for his past mistakes with Violet. Our priests today are bombarded with difficulties and secular noise, so I found myself disappointed when he left the priesthood, but not completely surprised.
I loved the minor character of Tristan’s father. The man stood by his marriage vows even though it was not easy as his wife struggled with alcoholism that impacted their relationship. His talk with Tristan near the end of the book was one of my favorite scenes – his words and example of sticking with your commitments seemed to challenge his son to excellence, and if Tristan grows more as a strong young man, hopefully he will rise to that challenge in the subsequent books, whether he returns to the priesthood or not. The title of the series being Vows for Life has me optimistic for him or for another character to fill the role of a selfless priest devoted to his calling.
Violet’s current boyfriend, Jude, seemed to be all that is good, until his big secret came out just over the halfway point of the novel. Even so, his likeableness had been established in my mind already, so I still found myself rooting for him.
I’ll end this review by asking that people please pray for our priests – we need more of them, and we need to support them and pray for their steadfastness. And pray also for our seminarians, that they discern God’s call for their lives. While seminary formation in recent years has been strong and serious, these young men still need our prayers to help them through. Discernment of either marriage or the priesthood needs to be presented to young people as permanent vows that require a decision made in advance and with full understanding of the commitment. This book is a timely reminder of that.
American literature sometimes contains themes of roaming, travel, listlessness that takes characters on wandering journeys - maybe because America is so vast simply in terms of land mass compared to smaller European countries. Or maybe because Americans are listless.
I've mentioned before that some of the stories that stand out from my younger years involve a physical journey. I loved The Grapes of Wrath when we read it in school. My favorite movie was A Perfect World, the story of an escaped convict running running the law across Texas.
And one of my favorite things to do was take the regular family road trip to Florida. I kept and checked/updated a travel log that contained lists of everything at every exit off I-75. I still have it. And there were always sentimental 80s songs playing on the radio during these trips, so that they have become engrained in my memories as "songs that remind me of Florida." I've checked my memory on this to make sure I wasn't making it up - but I have a strong recollection of riding in the back of the green Ford Fairlane wagon in fall of 1984, looking over the seat and asking my dad why we were going to Florida, and his answer that my grandmother had died. I remember lying back down next to my younger brother (because we didn't have car seats for 2 and 5 year old back then) and feeling sad, with two songs playing on the radio as a backdrop to my little five year old thoughts. Looking the songs up as an adult, I found that both had been recently released and were popular at that time in 1984. I was really remembering those exact songs at that moment when I was only five. Music can play a powerful role in memories.
Driving back to Florida now to get together with family at the same beachfront condominium we stayed at multiple times during my childhood - taking my own children there - is special. Same songs (because I taped them off the radio in the very early 90s and then burned them to CDs from Napster downloads in the early 2000s), same road, some of the same roadside landmarks and businesses, but many have changed.
Although I have always enjoyed restless journey stories, I've been content with repeated drives to the same destinations overall. It's exciting to see new things, but I love the familiarity of a repeated road trip.
We've discovered that today is the travel day for some sports car convention trip between Atlanta and St. Petersburg, Florida. Lucky us - that means we get to avoid multiple speeding crazy people in decal-covered expensive looking cars as we drive the same route today. Interestingly, the Lamborghinis drive the most reasonably. I guess when your car costs that much, you don't take stupid risks with it as much as the people with the Mitsubishis and such. What are they all looking for on their $22,000 nine-day journey? All I know is that I've never seen so many cops along this stretch of interstate before.
Restless travel exists throughout the Chalice series, but especially in Book One. The protagonist is not satisfied with repeated trips, and he doesn't care where he's going as long as it's somewhere new. While it's not a chase for the latest and greatest - he's extremely frugal and from an underprivileged background - it comes from a place of dissatisfaction with his life. When questioned about his wanderings by his best friend, Dallas says, "You know I never go the same place twice if I can help it."
This same drive we're completing today is one I've used in my fiction writing, putting an actual realistic setting to events I've created. A character who we meet in Book Three of the Chalice series, Eric, has taken family vacations to the beach along this route numerous times throughout his childhood, and he is taking a return trip as an adult. So I took this trip from my own childhood and placed a fictional family on the same route, with the same vacation plans. Dallas goes along with Eric's family this time, and the experience gives him a taste of tradition and family bonds, a window into a world where pointless roaming is not the norm.
His search for a destination, a true home, is very literal, but it speaks to a deeper longing inside. Each book gets him a little closer - a little less restless. But it takes him a long time to truly understand and live out a belief in St. Augustine's words: "Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you."
The other day, I had the privilege of hearing a brand-new priest’s homily at his first Mass, and a connection struck me regarding something I’d written. The priest’s words were true - nonfiction - and what I had written was a fictional scene for a book. That scene actually got cut from the book – I decided it didn’t fit, but it had provided valuable “pre-writing” that gave me insight into one of the main characters, so it was not time wasted.
Why write Catholic fiction? What are my goals? The connection to the priest’s reference to a flowing stream leading us to our own ascension into heaven and having its source and destination as the same - God - had me marveling at how a fictional character’s wonderings about his own source and destination in relation to a river could point to greater universal Truth. Both of these waterway analogies express the realities of God. If God is the source and summit of our lives, then wouldn’t it make sense that characters in a fictional story are also seeking Him?
Truth, beauty, and goodness. We've all heard them before, but can they be goals of a Catholic fiction writer?
First, I do not write with a goal of making money or gaining notoriety. I’m fortunate that my husband’s income provides for all our family’s needs. Some writers do need the money, and I encourage anyone who enjoys a good story to seek out fiction writers of faith: purchase their books, support their families, put your money where your faith is.
I write because there was a story to tell. There were two characters begging for purpose, for redemption, for God. These are real things that all humans struggle for, whether they recognize it or not. To feel a longing or emptiness that only God can fill, to sense that we were not made for this world in its imperfections, is to be human. Fictional characters, while not real people, have human struggles with which we can identify. We may not experience their same situations, but we can see ourselves in their temptations, their failures, and their yearnings to be better. As they search for Truth, we cheer them on, knowing that we do the same in our own earthly journeys. And the subtleties of absorbing truths by entering into fiction is something that pulls people in as they delight in the action and conflict of the story, mourning with and rooting for the characters.
The world is a hostile place for Christianity. Movies and books - our secular fictional stories - too often want to glorify sin and depravity, or leave God out of the picture entirely. A good story does contain evil. It features sin and temptation and struggle. But the hero comes through it stronger. A Christian fiction story doesn’t mean the protagonists have perfect lives as soon as they recognize and accept God as a reality – at least, they shouldn’t. In fact, the devil often throws obstacles in our paths when we are on the right track, because he doesn’t want us to get to heaven. Christian fiction should feature heroes who make mistakes and learn from them, or who face depravity and sin but fight against their allure, or who experience sorrow with an attitude of offering it up, accepting their crosses to unite their suffering with Christ. Everyone likes a happily-ever-after ending, and that ending should be heaven. It doesn’t mean there won’t be struggle along the way.
My family asked me recently if I would dedicate my first book in this series to anyone. I answered, “It’s dedicated to all young people seeking to follow God’s will for their lives.” The protagonist is a young man, but young women can find truth in his story as well (I think I can say this as a female myself). Anyone who was ever resistant to God as a reality, anyone who has struggled with control issues, anyone who’s made impulsive mistakes, anyone who faced challenges to forgive self and others, and most particularly, anyone who has never considered that God has a specific plan for their lives – my hope is that all can find something to which they can relate. We should see bits of ourselves represented in a fictional character, even in those whose lives are vastly different from our own.
I also write fiction because it is a creative outlet that brings me joy. Losing yourself in a story, revising and editing so much that you really get on a personal level with the characters, knowing them inside and out – I find it personally satisfying. Many people need an outlet, an escape, but it’s not healthy if you find the wrong kind of outlet. Writing fiction is one that produces rather than consumes, gives rather than takes. However, reading fiction consumes, takes. When doing things that entertain – be they producing or consuming – it’s a good idea to ask whether these things can be categorized as the true, the beautiful, and the good.
So, what’s my goal in writing Catholic fiction and having it published? Of course, it is to have people read it. But I hope it will share universal Truth with the readers. I don’t want to promote it so that people will look at me. I want them to look at the characters and the stories and see God working in those lives, just as He works in their own lives. I want them to feel the emotions brought on through fictional characters while seeing that God is in everything – that truth, beauty, and goodness exist in our world, even (and maybe especially) when we must walk through the fire to find them.
In a Far-Off Land by Stephanie Landsem
After requesting several Catholic fiction novels to be purchased by my public library as part of the Stock the Shelves campaign sponsored by Chrism Press, I was surprised to get a message a few days later saying one of those books was already in. When I went to retrieve my book on hold, I found that it had been sent via inter-library loan. Apparently, In a Far-Off Land was already in our system. In fact, there are five copies already circulating in the public libraries in my system in the state of Georgia. Yay!
In a Far-Off Land is a story that keeps you reading. I finished it in about a week, the second half of it in about two days. There is just enough detail given to make you wonder what’s coming next and want to keep going. It is a redemption story – I’m partial to those myself – in which the reader meets likeable characters with flaws who sometimes learn their lessons the hard way. I think my favorite part about the writing style is that it switched between characters, with only the protagonist’s view in first person as she tells her story. We get Oscar’s story told in third person, as well as brief snippets of Mina’s father’s story. Towards the very end of the book, we get Max’s point of view told in first person too, which was unexpected, but it worked well.
My favorite character was Oscar. His loyalty to his family, his sense of duty and wanting to do the right thing, and his assuming of all responsibility for his brothers were appealing traits that drew me to him. I enjoyed seeing him wrestle with wanting to do what was right while not always knowing what that was, and also while struggling with the grudges he’d held. In spite of his grudge against Max and his anger at Mina for falling into his life and throwing everything into chaos (which she truly did), Oscar still made the right choices ultimately. An inability to forgive others was his biggest hurdle and brought mental anguish on himself, and he was able to gradually soften as it unfolded that he’d not always had all the facts of the story to begin with.
A great lost-and-found story, In a Far-Off Land’s prodigal son themes show us that fame and fortune aren’t all they are cracked up to be and that love is a gift rather than something earned or deserved.
Did you know that you can ask your local public library to purchase books? They have funds allocated for this very purpose, so why not visit your library and ask them to put those dollars to good use in buying some literature from your favorite authors? This is a great way to get those new authors or lesser-known novels onto the shelves and into the hands of a wider audience of readers!
The Stock the Shelves campaign, sponsored by Chrism Press, is your prompt to ask for fiction from Catholic and Orthodox authors - books that are often less known to the general public. Some libraries have a place online where you can make materials purchase requests, but the way I did it was to stop by the front desk with a list of about eight different fiction novels by Catholic authors. I asked them to consider making these purchases.
Keep in mind that you can do this year-round! Some libraries are nearing the end of their fiscal years right now, so it is possible they have extra money they need to spend, but asking for books to be purchased in the fall when they have more money available would be a good strategy as well.
You can visit Chrism Press's website to see a list of participating authors - consider asking for one of their books at your own library! As for me, I have no books published as yet, but I hope to be able to get some into the libraries once Firetender comes out early next year.
Growing up in Atlanta taught me to be an aggressive driver. I lived a stone's throw away from practically any store I could have wanted to visit. Little Five Points and the busiest airport in the world were our playground as high school teenagers. It took 45 minutes to drive to my best friend's house - without traffic. We thought the roads were clogged then, but 20+ years later, I see how much worse it could have been.
Living in a small town has its trade-offs. My current hometown's population of about 50K is far smaller than Atlanta. Yesterday, I decided to take a thick envelope to the post office to weigh it and buy the specific postage at the self-serve machine. Harkening back to my Atlanta high school days, I recall using the newfangled self-serve machines in those post offices in the late 1990s. The one I encountered yesterday is no doubt a newer model, complete with touch screen... so how is it that it works worse than those machines I first saw as being such an advancement so long ago?
The touch screen failed. "Touch here to begin" resulted in no beginning, just an ad for a USPS service I was unable to purchase because of the failure of the touch screen. Since the post office closed at noon on Saturday, there was nothing I could do. I even peered behind to see if I could find the plug, because obviously this machine needed a reboot as the first attempt at fixing its problem. It was too heavy and possibly attached to the wall, so no luck there.
Small town woes - only one other post office to try. Even though I have previous knowledge of its smaller size and lamer overall services, I drove over there hoping they had a working self serve machine. They had no machine at all, being further behind in technology and more remote than my small town's central post office which had already failed me.
By this time I was saying things that probably weren't appropriate to be said by somebody who was trying to mail a card to a Catholic seminarian assuring him of our prayers as he finished his final days of seminary and approached his ordination date. You know, curse this stupid small town and its non-working technology, etc.
When I finally made it back to the local coffee shop to do some reading and writing, I had forgiven the non-functioning post office equipment and the absence of large-town technology in every post office in our town. I moved onto the patio to reread and edit the third book of the Chalice series - I think it's going to be called The Fire of Your Love, but don't hold me to that yet - because the shop was closing at 5:30 that day. Since I practically live there, they don't care if I stay on their patio. I even know how to turn off the lights out there after they leave. I was sitting in a low chair in front of a big window that has a high tabletop seating area up against it on the inside. Perfect spying position for whoever's inside.
When the shop closed, a guy came onto the patio from inside. "Are you writing a story?" he asked me. "Is it fiction?"
I told him yes to both, and then he wanted to know if it was realistic or something else, like fantasy or sci-fi. We had a discussion about his favorite genres (not mine) and how I appreciated the quality of writing and the themes in many of those books even if they aren't my personal favorites. I had to throw in that my teen daughter loves Lord of the Rings, though, and that I think Tolkien is brilliant even if fantasy stories don't resonate with me the way they do with some people.
When he wanted to know what kind of fiction my book was and I told him it was a modern realistic fiction with Christian themes and was signed to a contract with a small Catholic publishing company to be published in January, he said, "Oh yeah, I saw "Father" on your screen a few times and figured it was about a priest." I told him it was. We talked a little more about the value of classic literature and I mentioned Little Women as an example of one I'd never read until homeschooling my own children - and he'd read Little Women last summer for the first time. I got to go off on one of my favorite topics - that homeschooling my kids has given me a chance to learn and appreciate so much more than what I retained from my own school years.
And then after he'd left, the girl seated at a nearby table on the patio turned to me and said, "What's the name of your book?"
"The first one is called Firetender," I told her.
"I'll have to look it up, then," she said.
Small local coffee shop, the afternoon slowing down, people who aren't so rushed they can't acknowledge one another (because they won't have to merge into an eight-lane-wide interstate to make the half-hour drive home from the coffee shop)...
And just like that, the small town redeems itself.