|Father Mark Townsend
(creator: Father Brad Reynolds)
|Father Mark Townsend, S.J. is co-pastor at St Joseph's Church on Seattle's Capitol Hill. (There is a real Jesuit church of St Joseph in Seattle, known well to the author. Indeed in one book, he thanks "the entire staff at St. Joe's.") Father Mark is a large man with long legs, but not exactly tidy. "His desk was a clutter of empty coffee cups, books and stacks of letters, mostly unanswered .... Photographs seemed to be everywhere .... Father Townsend's office looked like a gallery dedicated to the memory of everyone he had ever met."
He had dark brown eyes and "a full head of thick brown hair, and a lighter brown mustache that grew past the edges of his mouth. He had a naturally muscular build, and a bearing filled with the confidence of a man who knew himself well enough to have survived the self-doubts and inner struggles that are a natural part of living out a Jesuit vocation for nearly twenty years. Some would describe his crabby looks as handsome, and more than a few of his female parishioners found an attraction to the priest that went beyond the spiritual." He is in his late thirties.
He had done his regency in Alaska. As he explains, "Before a Jesuit studies theology and gets ordained, he spends two or three years working. They call it regency. You've got about four years of study before then and four years after, so it's a good break from the books. I entered the Society to be a dogsled priest in the Alaska missions. Had this fantasy of mushing from village to village and doing the sacraments. It was still a dream of mine when it became time for regency, so my provincial sent me up there for a little reality. After three months of studying the Yup'ik language, I was assigned to work with one of the old-time missionaries out along the Bering coast." And it was an experience he never forgot. But, after he was ordained, he never went back there, for a reason that emerges in the first book - and it was due to more than his fear of flying in perilous light aircraft.
"A Jesuit education lasts at least thirteen years, and the majority of those are spent studying philosophy and theology. Once past ordination, it is very seldom you are able to apply that knowledge to anything concrete in the real world." So Father Mark rather enjoys explaining to a puzzled police detective that his reasoning was based on a "hypothetical syllogism". But it still led him to the right answer.
He has a married sister, "and two loving parents, retired and living in Arizona". His grandparents live at LaConner, Washington on the Northwest's Puget Sound.
Father Brad Reynolds, S.J. (1949 - ) was a Jesuit priest at Portland, Oregon, where he served as the executive assistant to the Provincial for the Jesuits. Like his creation Father Mark Townsend, he used to live in Alaska, and writes about native life with real understanding. (He first went to Toksook Bay on Nelson Island in 1973 to write on the work of Jesuits there.) He is the author of the four books listed below, and has had over 300 articles published in numerous magazines and newspapers, including National Geographic, America, Alaska and American Scholar. These are often illustrated by his own photographs. In Fall 2006 he was artist-in-residence at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. His work for National Geographic helped form the basis for his first book, The Story Knife. He has described himself as "introvert and melancholic".
The Story Knife (1996)
The great strengths of the story lie in its realistic understanding portrayal of Father Mark, and its description of life in the icy arctic setting, both of them taken from the author's own experience. So the clerical background is well handled, as when he explains that "ordinarily he enjoyed funerals. He loved to tell his fellow Jesuits that he preferred funerals over weddings. He would wait two beats, then add his punch line: 'At least you know they're going to stay dead.' Although always good for a laugh, it was surprising how many priests nodded in agreement. Something about celebrating the sum total of a person's life and achievements, offering comfort and solace and helping others to grieve, made funerals seem worthwhile. Most weddings, on the other hand, disintegrated into protracted struggles with interfering mothers, petulant musicians, and bandit florists. A good funeral drew people together to share their grief and to find comfort in one another. Most weddings seemed destined to drive them apart." It really sounds as if it is the author speaking, as when he explains, "There is a truism among priests: 'The longer your homily, the less time you took to prepare it.' The trouble with truisms is that they are usually true."
The village of Soognyak is convincingly described: "It's, like, out on the edge of the world ... It's way below zero. And (at 9.30 am) it's still dark here." The author explains that in reality "there is no place called Soognyak, although I wish there were. But although this is a work of fiction, I have tried my best to stay true and honest in describing the qualities and traits, the customs and idyosyncracies, of both groups (Jesuits and Yup'ik) - at least as far as I have come to know, love, and respect them."
However, the plot is not really very engrossing and, even when two more people are killed and Father Mark's own life is threatened, it is not all that exciting. But the unusual setting and the tie-in with the author's own background make it worth reading.
A Ritual Death (1997)
Mark eventually discovers two hidden tribal masks that lead him to what is really going on at Goat Island, the apparent home of illegal treasure-hunting. It all builds up to a dramatic climax, in which Mark is almost killed then manages to turn the tables, and not only grabs the villain's gun but gets the man (who is now his prisoner) to tell him how to dial the coastguard's number so that his accomplice can be caught too. It does not sound too likely, and the author is not at his best when describing such moments as when the villain "offered his captive (Mark) an evil grin. His eyes, filled with antagonism, never left Mark's face. And the gun on his chest never wavered. 'Now, Father,' the killer addresses Mark mockingly, a grimace pasted on his face, 'we can do this nice or we can do it mean.' He raised the gun and pointed it directly into Townsend's face. 'It's up to you, Padre.' " It is difficult to feel really involved. It all seems just too far from the author's own experience.
As in the previous book, it is not the plot but the setting and characters that hold the interest. His quarrelling/loving grandparents come over strongly. It is his grandmother who explained to him that, following Dutch's death, "Your grandfather is really hurting. I'm worried for him .... When you get as old as we are, every time you lose a friend it feels like you lose a little piece of yourself. Then one day you wake up and realize that you know more dead people than you do living .... Your grandfather is more scared than anything, Mark." It all sounds very real.
Mark himself is very much on the ball. It is he who spots the bullet hole in Dutch's body.Looking at his grandparents, "he suspected that a great deal of what they were thinking and feeling was communicated between them without any need for words. That realization reawoke a very familiar ache deep inside the priest, and in the early morning silence of his grandparents' house he was once again faced with his own aloneness."
Another character who comes to life is the confrontational and aggressive Sister Carter, who tries to warn him away from the Indian reservation. But eventually Mark gets through to her: "He let the woman talk. Tears began to flow as she told about the pain she felt living as a religious woman in the Catholic Church. The feelings and thoughts she were expressing were not new to him, but she made the hurt and the brokenness sound personal and he found himself squirming in his seat." It really changes the way that he (and we) think about her.
The tribal environment is described graphically and sympathetically, as when Mark is allowed to attend a Seeowyn tribal initiation ceremony which lasts from October to April. "Those who are learning the old ways have to isolate themselves from the influences and distractions of the modern world ... Once they enter Seeowyn, they return to life as it was lived before the whites showed up with all their supposed improvement." It is an Indian who tells him, "Not too long back, the Catholic Church wasn't too keen on Seeowyn. I remember when I was a kid, a sister told us this was devil worship. Scared the hell out of me."
Cruel Sanctuary (1999)
The dead body of Tony, a 14-year-old (oddly described as a 13-year-old on page 162), has been found in the park, badly bruised, and with his trousers round his ankles, with Father Mark's incriminating note and $20 bill in his pocket. The police want to know about Mark's relationship with the boy, a runaway from a small Alaskan village whose family now lives in Carnation, Washington. Mark is stunned, yet concern for the boy's family, as well as his own reputation, demand that he search for answers. This he succeeds in doing, despite the storm of disapproval and suspicion that grows around him.
The young people's violent and squalid way of living is very convincingly and sympathetically handled, "Most of them are runaways and some of them are as young as nine or ten. A few service agencies do what they can for them, but the population is much larger than anyone can adequately handle. As a consequence, the kids end up scrounging whatever and however they can to survive. Drugs, prostitution and child pornography are not your usual childhood occupations, and neither are muggings, breaking and entering, and even murder. But all of them are familiar to many of the youngest denizens on Seattle's streets." It sounds all too real.
There is also the problem of a young woman who is one of his own parishioners, who has suddenly discovered after her mother's death that she had been adopted. She is desperately upset and, against her husband's advice, is determined to track down her real mother. Mark cannot help but get involved: "Priests think of themselves as healers. To the best of their abilities, they try to ease people's pain. Not so much the physical as the spiitual and the mental, but the three are seldom very far apart." Once again, the author seems to know exactly what he is talking about.
Mark's pressurised life is well described, as is his relationship with his understandingly supportive provincial superior, who is responsible for all the Jesuits in the area. (Indeed the author gratefully acknowledges the encouragement of his own provincial for allowing him time in which to write the book.) The Jesuit background, as you would expect, seems to ring true, as when we are told that Mark always manages "to hang on to the Examen .... a sort of daily spirital compass-reading that was intended to refocus the Jesuit's attention and direction back to God. The procedure is simple self-reflection: what directions has my life taken during the last few hours, which were the right turns and which the wrong, and where was God in all of that?"
"When he had first considered joing the Jesuits, there were two mountainous hurdles Mark Townsend had to get over: no sex and no children." Children respond to him because "he seemed to like them for who they were and not because they belonged to their folks." But "the one thing Father Townsend could never walk away from was their pain .... Try as he might, Mark had never found anything in his theology that made him feel comfortable with the suffering of children. He could never connect their pain to God's mercy; it never worked for him." And this is why he risks everything to find out what had really happened to young Tony.
When the local newspaper picks up the rumors about him and the boy, he can't help complaining to an older Jesuit colleague why it is that even "if you're doing the work right, you end up getting crucified in the process? Instead of someone saying thanks, you get smeared in the newspaper. It doesn't seem fair." But then the old man reminds him, "If you want to be a Jesuit, then you go wherever that takes you. You are not leading the Lord, you are following .... One more thing, Father Townsend. If I were you, I'd advise spending less time trying to solve people's problems and more time being with them. There's a whole raft of agencies set up to help people, and they usually do a better job of it than we can. .... So there may be some that need you, Father, but not your help."
Although the story unfolds rather slowly, it holds the interest. Recommended.
Deadly Harvest (1999)
Mark gets to meet the strangely impressive, white-clothed albino Brother Gabriel, with his over-riding preoccupation about the end of the world, but unfortunately the author does not pursue these ideas further but has him murdered and then Angelina vanishes. It is Mark, of course, who eventually discovers what happened to her.
It is difficult to feel very involved with either the characters or plot. The most interesting parts are the occasional comments on Jesuit life ("following directions instead of giving them did not always come easy") and there seem realistic portrayals of some of the priests, such as old Father Stanley. He is in his eighties and "whenever he thought he could get away with it, he conveniently forgot any of the changes introduced by the Catholic Church over the past forty years. Then when he was reminded and asked to observe them, Father Stanley complained that 'the print's too small'. He was quite convinced that "Satan has penetrated the Vatican, including the pontifical palace itself. The secretariates, the congregations, the nunicatures, and those so-called bishops conferences are firmly in his grasp." But even he is described with some affection.
And there is Father LaBelle who "was six feet, seven inches tall, plus three more whenever he wore his cowboy boots, which was always. The man loomed over people and was so skinny he looked emaciated. His tanned hide was stretched tight over a framework of bones that looked devoid of even a pound of meat. His fellow Jesuits called him Bones. His eyes shone brightly from behind thick rimless bifocals and he had a smile that stretched the length of the valley." His friendliness, respect for the Spanish people he serves, and his sense of humor bring him to life. His story about novices being shown Xavier's arm and in their excitement accidentally setting fire to an alb so that there was "water, hot coals, and steaming incense all over the floor ", are actually more interesting (and entertaining) than the ramifications of the plot.
The author seems happiest when writing about what must have been his own experiences, as when he says that "the single most practical and useful experience of all Mark's years of studies" was a field trip when he was taught: "Whenever you arrive to preach at a parish where you have never been, do not dare presume to step into their pulpit without knowing something about the people to whom you will be preaching. That is the height of clerical arrogance .... The least you can do is arrive a few minutes early and spend some time becoming acquainted with your surroundings. Walk past their houses and look into their yards. Greet anyone and ask them how they are doing. Listen to their voices and observe how they are dressed. If there are billboards or signs about, read them. Learn five things about the people in that church before you dare say one word about how they should live their lives or love their God."
Then there is a fascinating description of a quinceañera, a traditional Spanish coming-out ceremony for 15-year-old girls that was partly religious and partly social. "There remain holdouts in the Catholic Church who bemoan the loss of Latin, the language universal. ... But for Father Townsend, hearing the mass in different languages seemed like an incredible experience of universality itself. Whether it was standing bundled inside a fur parka in a frozen church in an Alaskan Eskimo village while listening to the Gospel read in Yup'ik, or sweltering inside this one for the quinceañera of a teenage girl he had never met, Mark experienced the availability of faith to all cultures." Unfortunately, though, all this has little to do with the main story. A long section on apple-growing is more relevant but there is too much even of it. An editor's friendly touch seems sadly lacking.
The author doesn't even seem quite sure what to call his hero. In a single parapgraph (on page 208) he addresses him as Mark, Townsend, and Father Townsend! Elsewhere, of course, he is just the Jesuit, the priest, or even Padre Mark.
One way and another, it is a very slow-moving story and so perhaps it is no surprise that it was the author's last.
|The paperbacks of the first two books had really arresting covers.|