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Catherine Wheels.

Catherine Wheels. By Leif Peterson. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2005. ISBN 1-57856-894-3. Pp. 330. $13.99.

This debut novel by Leif Peterson shows a deftness of touch and maturity of style that should win him many readers. Catherine Wheels engages themes of death, loss, and rejection with a sobering kind of steadiness that almost obscures--and finally enhances--the long, slow trajectories of healing.

Chief agonist and narrator of the novel is a young man, Thomas, who in fairly quick succession loses his mother, his fiancee, and his brother. His mother dies in surgery; his fiancee leaves him at the altar; his brother, an Episcopal priest, commits suicide as a result of a crisis of faith. Adrift in pain, Thomas leaves graduate school and takes up residence with a college friend, Perry, in a mountain castle in Montana. Perry is the only son of a fabulously rich family; he also happens to be dying of lupus.

Soon after Thomas arrives in Montana, his nine-year-old niece, Catherine, is deposited at the castle door by his brother's widow, who departs for places unknown. Here the novel begins to turn. Catherine is a spiritually precocious girl who can reel off the histories of Catholic saints at a moment's notice. Moreover, she reports encounters with these saints, in the form of statues, in the woods and fields just outside the convent next door. Whether these statues really exist is part of the novel's sleight of hand. Certainly they are more than apparent to the one true saint of the story, a local woman named Clare who looks out for Catherine and gradually falls in love with Thomas. Then again, Clare happens to be blind.

What is indubitably present, in a little hole set in the wall of the convent, is a Catherine wheel, a rotating line on a pulley by which those outside the convent can send their petitions like laundry to the sequestered nuns. It is Catherine who discovers the wheel and convinces Thomas and the others to literally make use of it to make their needs known to the praying sisters. At the end of the story, on an island in the Caribbean, some of the same characters discover another Catherine wheel in the wall of another convent, this one ruined and abandoned. They attach their prayers anyway, sending them direct, as it were. In a novel with much Catholic flavoring, this is perhaps the Protestant spice: without any nuns to intercede, the abandoned wheel would seem to stand for the priesthood of all believers. This time it really is Catherine's wheel.

The art of this novel is found not in its linearity but in its many digressions into childhood memories, dreams, and visions, held together by a seamless prose that is both direct and tranquil. Each memory is like a tick discovered at the nape of the neck--something that has been pulling at the blood of the narrator all this while. Here is one that begins the novel:
 Summer days in Spokane are hot and dry, the evenings long, and the
 nights cool and starry. After work we'd play Wiffle ball while a
 sprinkler on the neighbor's lawn ticked back and forth. We'd play
 late into the evenings long after it got dark, the sound of the bat
 on the ball, plastic on plastic, hollow and sharp like exclamation
 marks. (1)

The reported dreams are really dreamlike--not in a gauzy, wishful way, but in their strange familiarity that dislocates us into meaning:
 It's the first day of a new school year, and I've left the house
 excited and hopeful.... Once at school, however, things begin to go
 wrong. I can't find my homeroom. I keep walking into the wrong
 classrooms, and I'm met with belligerent stares. I do find my
 locker, but the combination I have doesn't work. I try it five or
 six times, but then I notice that the numbers on the dial are not
 in order and are larger than they should be, some of them in the
 thousands. (113)

And the daylight visions--often of a joyfully pregnant young woman who would seem to be the Virgin Mary--have a quality reminiscent of Julian of Norwich. In a novel about a barren present, this cloud of memories from the past and of dreams and visions outside of time is the true means of spiritual replenishment, the real plot that can only be seen out of the corner of the eye, the statue only beheld by the blind.

Thomas, in his spiritual journey, is reminiscent not only of the doubting disciple but also of yet another Thomas in American fiction--Thomas More in Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome. Both narrators are remarkable for their benumbed passivity, a mark of the trauma in their lives. So great are the ruins around and within them, so awful the power of thanatos, that they are like victims in a web. It is their gradual awakening and release from this web that convinces us that redemption is still possible. But the fact that grace can take so long and be so slow convinces us that the powers of darkness in this world are very strong. The Montana castle next to the convent holds an enormous wine cellar that Thomas visits much too often; it is Bunyan's Dungeon of Despair.

I have two criticisms of Catherine Wheels, and they are small. First, almost none of the characters in the novel seem to work at paying jobs. They eat, drink, sleep, dream, and go on strolls to contemplate their spiritual vacuity, but no one ever says, "Oh no! It's eight o'clock! I'm late for the office!" This of course reminds us of the fictional worlds of F. Scott Fitzgerald, an author whom Peterson's characters dutifully read. But with Fitzgerald, the indolence of the rich is part of the social decay he is diagnosing. With Peterson, the wealth and leisure seem somewhat inadvertent and hurt the credibility of his usually well-drawn characters.

My second criticism is about the drawing of one character in particular: Catherine seems a bit too precocious to me for a nine-year-old. We do love the wise child in literature--the ineffable Bill Bob in David James Duncan's The River Why comes to mind--but what fourth-grader of anyone's acquaintance can recite, in detail, the miracles and sufferings of Saint Anthony, and Saint Valentine, and Saint Clare, and many saints more? Our author tries to cover the difficulty by having his narrator report: "She sounded as if she was reading from a book. I wondered if she'd swallowed an encyclopedia of saints, and all she had to do to see it was close her eyes" (79). But I don't think Peterson gets away with his child-as-hagiographer.

Even so, Catherine remains a delightful presence in the novel. She is the Alice in this not-so-wonderful Wonderland who brings the others back out of the rabbit hole. She is also a literary descendant of William Wordsworth's nine-year: old daughter Caroline, of whom he writes in one of his sonnets: "Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year; / And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine, / God being with thee when we know it not" ("It Is a Beauteous Evening" 12-14). When Jesus said that each of us must enter the kingdom of God like a child, he may merely have been referring to the complete lack of status and power of children in his own time. But since then we have fallen in love with the Romantic invention of the spiritually prescient boy or girl--especially the girl. It is this tradition that stirs at the heart of Leif Peterson's modern tale of suffering.

Paul J. Willis

Westmont College
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Author:Willis, Paul J.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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