Reviewed by A.R.K. Watson
Arthur Power’s collection of short stories read with the emotional depth and beauty that I’ve only ever really experienced reading Ray Bradbury, Michael Ondaatje or watching Bladerunner—not that Power’s short stories are anything like those—they are in completely different genres for one thing– but they give you the same sort of emotional journey.
Making comparisons between books is something everyone does but there is no way to do it that is not unfair in some way. There are so many different kinds of books and different goals of experience they can have that making blanket statements is usually unhelpful for a reader to find something to read other than what their friends are into. This unfortunately creates situations where a person thinks they don’t like reading when usually they just don’t like reading the sorts of things those around them like to read, and then they never get the opportunity to find what they actually like. This is why Catholic Reads has shied away from a rating system in general. It’s much more practical so say, “This book is good for type A reader but bad for type B and tolerable for type C.” Now that long caveat aside I would like to make one of those blanket statements, because for the simple pleasure of a well-crafted sentence, Arthur Powers might be the man to beat.
These stories are for the reader looking for beautiful prose and style. Some of them aren’t even actual stories, in the sense that they follow a three-act structure or have a definite beginning, middle and end. Many are more like poignant vignettes or moments in time that are never fully resolved but that leave you with echoes of something deeper than the surface events. One short story starts when a bunch of drunk men break a bottle of wild-flower honey at a market. One of the shopkeepers watches the honey run out on the ground while his partner stops the drunk men and even makes them pay for the broken bottle twice the amount that it is actually worth. Then she shrugs off the loss and goes back to work. It’s a simple plot and the conflict is resolved quickly but the narrator gets so lost in mourning the lost beauty of the honey that the scene sticks with you and taps into a part of your heart better than a sermon against monetary materialism ever could.
It is unclear how much of these stories are fiction or nonfiction. Many of them seem like things that could happen but I am not sure how Powers could have learned of them. One story, for example, involves a young woman who carries on an imaginary affair with the stranger in town until she is eventually convicted by her guilt and gives up her daydream. Another involves a man who gets a strange premonition of his death a decade before it actually happens.
In the foreword Powers writes that he was inspired by his many years spent working for the Peace Corps and then the Church in Brazil. I don’t know much about Brazil, but Powers introduces the reader to the wild backlands, where priests come visit so sparingly that couples can only get formally married once a year, where rich land owners employ gangs to scare rural farmers off their land, and where organizing labor unions goes hand in hand with catechesis. Apparently in Brazil, it is a common practice for rich men to steal land from poor farmers when it becomes valuable. This often happens far from the cities where the police, if there are any, are easily bribed, and lawyers fear for their lives if they even decide to take the farmers on as their clients. Then, when the farmers are displaced into the cities, they face the same plight. There is one story where a whole ghetto is burned down by a gang in a rich man’s employ, rendering the whole neighborhood homeless so that gentrification can spread.
I do not know how often these things occur or if they are more or less common now, but Powers brings the reader into a Christian identification with the poor, the disabled, and the hopeless and reveals their dignity and beauty through the clarity of his prose.
This book has a whole page full of awards that is too long to list and I am certain it deserves all of them.
Protestants and secular readers will find they have a similar experience reading it. Brazil is a very Catholic country, and the Catholicism is part and parcel of the setting and symbolism. Yet, human dignity is a universal theme. If you are looking for a modern Catholic author that might be tomorrow’s classic, A Hero for the People is an excellent start.
Genre: General Fiction, Short stories
Themes: Poor, Poverty, Brazil, Mission work, miracles, labor unions, Worker’s Rights, human rights, gentrification, social justice, charity
Audience: 10th grade and up
Year Published: 2013
Author’s Worldview: Catholic