Monthly Archives: April 2014

Kim Silveira Wolterbeck, A Place of Light

KSWcoverAPlaceofLightRobert of Arbrissel is one of the most fascinating characters from the Middle Ages. A truly counter-cultural figure, he was a monk and a hermit who preached poverty and renunciation of the world, and surrounded himself with the rejected and outcast of medieval society: lepers, the poor, and women, including prostitutes.

A Place of Light builds off one of the most compelling stories told about him by his contemporary, Baldric of Dol. According to Baldric, one day Robert walked into a brothel in Rouen, and preached about sin to the women inside. They, swayed by his words and moved by his vision for their future, followed him into the wilderness on his path to found a new community where they could live in peace and safety. In her novel about Robert and how he founded the medieval abbey of Fontevrauld (known best of all now as the site of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vivid tomb) with these women, Wolterbeck asks who they might have been, what their stories were, and why they followed Robert. It is a richly imagined and gripping portrait that treats religious ideals and idealism alongside vanity, pride, envy, greed, and lust with authenticity and nuance. If you are tired of historical novels that promise “meticulous research,” then deliver cardboard characters out of step with their age (medievalist friends, I have you especially in mind), you will love this book as I did. Wolterbeck never takes the easy or obvious route with any of her main characters (who include, in addition to Robert the monk, Madeleine, the wary prostitute; Philippa, the mis-married duchess of Aquitaine; and Girard, the failed Benedictine). The unsympathetic characters have virtue and potential; the characters we love the most have flaws and hidden damage. Indeed, if there is a theme to this book, it is the relationship between damage and redemption. Its message is one the medieval audiences of Robert’s sermons would have understood: we all are sinners; we all can be saved.

I was especially excited/nervous/anxious to read this book, because it is the first published offering from Cuidono Press, the press that will be publishing my own novel, Pilgrimage and in the interest of full disclosure, the novel was a gift to me from its editor. But if you have been reading my reviews over the years, you know that I do no reviews by request, and that I only review books that I love. This is especially important to me for books about the Middle Ages. I am proud my book will be standing beside this one.

Passover

We celebrated Passover tonight; me, my son, and my husband. It is something I’ve done more years than not since my son was at pre-school at Akiba-Schechter, sometimes with friends, but most often just me and him, and now, this year, my husband too. It seemed a natural thing to do when my son was bringing home paper seder plates with the sections marked, a children’s haggadah with frogs pasted in haphazardly, and a tie-dyed matzah cover.

Every year it means something a little bit different. This year, I think of my cousin and uncle, celebrating in Israel on their first visit there, with the Berman family, with whom ours has been bound for so many decades. My son and I shared part of this season with them three years ago. I think of my grandfather, the first of our family to find himself in Jerusalem, who left from there for England on April 2, 1939 missing the start of Passover by only a couple of days. My grandmother probably rarely celebrated, if at all, but I am sure that until he was forced to flee his homeland at least, my grandfather celebrated every year. Did he celebrate with his fellow Czech refugees in their messy flat in Putney in 1939? Or was that the first year he let it slip?   And this year the words of the Haggadah expressing the joy of the Jews at their liberation, and their gratitude to the God who protected and saved them ring especially loud. “He brought us out from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to festivity, from darkness to great light.” I imagine my ancestors repeating this over the centuries during times when they were far from free or festive. But each year they repeated these words of joy and humility and gratitude no matter their current pain.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I drove out of town one Saturday to visit an old friend who is dying. Strangely enough, we both knew her through completely different channels long before we met each other. We were not surprised that she was only capable of speaking to us for a very few minutes. She was in her beautiful bedroom, in a hospital bed facing a large window looking onto the sky and the trees, agonizingly slow to come into bud this year.

“You have a beautiful view,” I said.

“I know,” she replied, before she drifted back to sleep. “I’m lucky.”