Book Review: Leaving North Haven

leavingnorthhavenLeaving North Haven: The Further Adventures Of A Small-Town Pastor

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York & Berkeley: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

251 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2013-0, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In this sequel to Good News From North Haven, the Reverend Michael L. Lindvall continues to tell his heartwarming stories of many of the characters in his first novel.

The Reverend David Battles has now served Second Presbyterian Church for some ten years. He hadn’t expected to stay that long. He has learned much in those ten years. Yet, it is with a humble heart that he observes: “In these last ten years, I have come to know that I know less than I once did, but I do know this, just this: to see anything that matters, you must always bring two things to your looking—attention and love” (p. 23).

One character readers may remember is Minnie MacDowell, who had a fall and broke her elbow, was suffering from Parkinson’s and believed she was dying. On at least three occasions, she had gone through the ritual of having Reverend Battles ask her the question, “Are you prepared to die?” Then he was to read the twenty-third Psalm and pray the Lord’s Prayer. After this, she was to close her eyes turn her head to the window and pass away (p. 25). This ritual reminds me of a parishioner of mine who asked me every time I visited her: “Pastor, why am I still here? Why doesn’t the Lord take me home?”

The Reverend Battles, reflecting on if it was time to move on after ten years has this to say: “The town has come to be an unlikely home for us, but we can hardly stay forever. The hard truth is that in a year or two, maybe five on the outside, the church won’t be able to pay a minister a full-time salary.” (p. 38). This reality, of course, is an all-too-familiar one for many a mainline Protestant clergyperson serving in a rural and small-town parish.

In one of his adventures Reverend Battles thought he’d shot a ten-point buck deer. He had placed his gun triumphantly on the antlers, and one of the Wilcox brothers was about to take a picture when the buck suddenly came to life, got up, and ran away with the gun still in his antlers.

Then there is the young boy, James Corey, who is fascinated by a momma killdeer.

There is also the prophetic-like eccentric, Ivar Johanson, a bachelor, everyone is curious about his mysterious building project of Redi-Mix cement and chicken wire.

In the concluding chapter the Reverend Battles is celebrating All Saints’ Sunday, which was also his last Sunday at Second Presbyterian. Something surprises them and gets them laughing on that solemn day.

Those who love the culture and tales of small-towns and their churches will enjoy this novel. Clergy and laity alike will laugh, cry, and be edified by these tales of God’s loving grace.

Book Review: Good News from North Haven

goodnewfromnorthhavenGood News from North Haven: A Year In The Life Of A Small Town

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

189 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2012-2, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Reverend Michael L. Lindvall was born and grew up in small-town Minnesota. He developed a love for the stories told by folks living in such communities. Therefore, it is not surprising that the stories he tells in this novel are set in North Haven, Minnesota and, at the very least, are implicitly autobiographical. The storyteller in this novel is Reverend David Battles, the minister of Second Presbyterian Church—and Lindvall himself is a Presbyterian minister.

The novel begins with a brief history of First and Second Presbyterian congregations—the former lost their building to a fire, and most of the members subsequently joined Second Presbyterian. As the novel unfolds, Reverend Battles is keen to tell what he refers to as “tales of grace” revealed in the “things that happen” in daily dramas (p. 19).

In his compelling narrative style, Lindvall introduces us to a host of eclectic and eccentric characters—similar to the sinner-saints we clergy meet in our parishes. There are: the “intractable, intransigent, unmovable…iron butterfly” Alvina Johnson, who is skeptical about this year’s Christmas Pageant after directing it for four decades; the inactive Roman Catholic barber who confides in Reverend Battles about growing up with an abusive dad; Reverend Battles learning that the little things in life like reading a bedtime story to one’s kids and kissing them good night are important “…because the mark a man or woman makes on this world is most often a trail of faithful love, and quiet mercies, and unknown kisses” (p. 37); Carmen Krepke the rebellious young biker-woman who had a vision of Jesus; the wise patriarch of Second Presbyterian, Angus MacDowell; the single-minded boat-builder Lamont Wilcox, and many more.

The novel is also worthwhile for its humorous stories of Reverend Battles’ “short trip” on Easter Sunday while climbing the stairs to the communion table with the offering; Reverend Mitchell Simpson’s comments which he thought were spoken in private, but were heard by the congregation because his cordless microphone was turned on, when he thought he had turned it off; when soprano choir member, Emma Bowers’ spiked high-heeled shoe got tightly lodged into the heating grate, when choir member, Elsie Johnson was “raptured” during a recessional hymn, and more.

The final heart-warming story is the baptism of single mother, Tina Cory’s son, James; the whole congregation “stands with” James during the baptism as an act of love, acceptance and grace.

I highly recommend this delightful novel to the general reader, and especially to the clergy who serve in small-town and rural churches. The Reverend Lindvall shares a great deal of his folksy wisdom, insights and humour in these stories that instruct and inspire.

Daily Prompt at Daily Post @

Today’s Daily prompt is: Take the first sentence from your favourite book and make it the first sentence of your post.

I have difficulty, like others, selecting “your favourite book,” since there are several of them in a variety of genres. However, as for the novel, I’d say my favourite book is The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Mikhail Dostoyevsky.

The first line introduces one of the family members in the Karamazov family history: “Alexey Fyodorovich Karamozov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a landowner of our district, who became notorious in his own day (and is still remembered among us) because of his tragic and mysterious death, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall relate in its proper place.”

I find this opening sentence intriguing for at least three reasons. The names Fyodorovich and Fyodor may perhaps be autobiographical. The reference to “his tragic and mysterious death” may also be autobiographical in that Dostoyevsky’s dad was murdered in 1838, a year after his mother had died. The sentence also, I think, is paradigmatic of Dostoyevsky’s wonderful gift of storytelling.

The novel, for this blogger, is the best I’ve ever read in that Dostoyevsky writes about—with inspiration, depth and authenticity—nearly everything under the sun: life and death, the innocence of children in the face of evil and abuse, the problem of evil, the gift of grace and the strength of faith, the sanctity and dignity of life, parent, child and family relationships, the church and the world, belief and atheism, truth and lies, love and hatred, power and its abuse, Christ’s veiled and revealed presence in the world of Dostoyevsky’s nineteenth century Russia.

Book Review Still Alice

Still Alice: A Novel

Author: Lisa Genova

Publisher: Pocket Books A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2007, 2009

293 pages + Discussion Questions & A Conversation with Lisa Genova

CDN$ 17.50, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Not everything is as it seems at first blush. Dr. Alice Howland has been William James Professor of Psychology at Harvard University for twenty-five years. Her husband John is also a Harvard professor in the biology department. Alice loves her life of privilege and influence. She is bright, ambitious, and well respected by colleagues and students; travelling the globe to deliver lectures at numerous universities and professional conferences in addition to her duties at Harvard. She also had three wonderful children, who were on their way up in the world. All-in-all, life was grand.

Until, little by little, Alice’s life begins to go awry. At first there are little glitches in some of her lectures—she struggles to find the proper words to describe what she is attempting to communicate. Then there is one occasion when she went out for her daily run and felt lost, even though she was on her familiar route. On another occasion, she had planned to attend an important conference in a distant city and had completely forgotten about it, missing her plane. This was quite out of character for her, since she loved participating in such conferences.

Initially, Alice, her husband, and the children all attribute these irregularities to such factors as too much stress, depression, and menopause. However, after a series of tests, Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice, John, and the children all struggle with the diagnoses—journeying from denial to the eventual acceptance of it. One would think that among Alice’s colleagues in the hallowed halls of academia, that there would be a built in support system with resources aplenty to draw on. However, it is most ironic that her colleagues often respond to Alice inappropriately by avoiding her—fearing that one day they too could be given the same diagnoses as Alice; which would make them vulnerable and ruin their careers. Such thoughts were too disturbing for them.

The author, herself a Harvard PhD in neuroscience, brilliantly develops Alice as a character living with early onset Alzheimer’s, telling the story from a first person perspective so that readers are given significant insights into Alice’s innermost being; likely evoking empathy and compassion within readers for Alice and others in her predicament.

One heartbreaking scene has Alice looking at pictures of her mother and sister who have both died in a car accident several years ago. Alice has forgotten this, and when she is told, it is as if she had heard the news for the first time, and she begins to weep without consolation.

In a more humorous scene, Alice had been reading Moby Dick. However, she had misplaced the novel somewhere and could not find it. So husband John got it on video. Shortly after that, Alice was going to use the microwave, opens it up, only to discover the novel inside, and she begins to laugh.

One of the tragic ironies explored in the novel is that here was a bright professor with expertise in psychology and linguistics and familiar with the attendant brain functions who was losing the very faculties of her own expertise. No matter how vigorously Alice and her husband pursued medications, diet and lifestyle choices to slow or reverse the early onset Alzheimer’s disease wreaking havoc on their lives; the favourable consequences were minimal. The disease, inch by inch, mercilessly chipped away at Alice’s being and identity. Yet, the title, Still Alice, is an apt one, since Alice at the end of the novel responds to her daughter’s inquiry in a most humane way. Moreover, as Alice leaves behind her academic career and focuses on her identity as a wife, mother and grandmother; there are some beautifully moving scenes that highlight her humanity.

This novel shall prove most helpful for healthcare professionals, families, and individuals interested in and living with Alzheimer’s disease. It not only develops a character diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in a realistic, in-depth fashion; it also explores how such a diagnoses effects the relationships of the person living with Alzheimer’s and their family, friends, colleagues, and healthcare professionals. Moreover, the novel shall be beneficial to readers interested in the ethical-moral issues surrounding dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The discussion questions and conversation with Lisa Genova; along with recommended websites; make this novel a worthwhile resource for educational institutions. The fact that the National Alzheimer’s Association endorsed this volume attests to its value for a wide array of readers. For further information visit the following website.