Biographies and memoirs are quite the potpourri. They open up to the reader the wondrous and infinite variety of God’s children. We gain sympathy for others in powerful ways when we can see them as whole people, rather than as caricatures of The-Lousy-Driver-Who-Cut-Me-Off or The-Rude-Cashier-Who-Overcharged-Me or The-Mom-At-Preschool-Whose-Hair-And-Makeup-Are-Always-Perfect. Biographies and memoirs remind us that what we see of a person isn’t all there is and that we are all still works in progress.
“To light the light of those in darkness”
Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light
by Mother Teresa, ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC
Mother Teresa is an absolute inspiration. Her single-hearted devotion to God, as seen through this collection of letters she wrote over several decades to her church leaders and confessors, is breath-taking. Despite incredibly painful spans of her life when she felt intense loneliness and separation from God, she radiated joy and love to all those around her. The enthusiastic and boundless love she has for Jesus seeps out of every page. It is also such an intimate view of Mother Teresa’s pain, simultaneously humanizing her and showing how more-than-mere-human she was.
The book starts with her leaving home at age 18 to become a missionary – a calling she had been considering since she was 12. Almost from the beginning she mentions in her letters a “darkness” which she sometimes feels, and her willingness to live by faith instead of sight, to suffer all things for Jesus, to endure anything and everything He asks of her. And her devotion never wanes. When she was 32, she made a private vow, one that directed the course of the rest of her life: “to give to God anything that He may ask, Not to refuse Him anything.'”
The work for which she is best known, founding the Missionaries of Charity and working with “the poorest of the poor” in Calcutta, began with a “call within a call” she received during a train journey in 1946. After almost two years of entreating her leaders, she was granted permission to leave her cloister and travel to Calcutta to begin her mission there. Her reaction to disappointment is instructive and humbling. While eager to begin the work to which she feels called and persistent in her petitioning of her ecclesiastical leaders, she is also completely obedient and willing to accept their word as the will of God. And then follows fifty years of constant hard work, cheerfulness in spite of her own pain, determination to serve God in every way. It is heart-breaking and uplifting and sometimes overwhelming to read.
This book left me with not a “if she can do it, so can I” feeling – devoting fifty years to serving the poor in Calcutta isn’t my calling – but a “if she can do that, I can certainly do a little better in my sphere” resolve. Her complete humility, her willingness to turn her life entirely over to God, her pure desire to do His work and not her own are nothing short of inspiring. As the editor states in the conclusion,
It was not the suffering she endured that made her a saint, but the love with which she lived her life through all the suffering. She knew that everyone can, with God’s grace and one’s own resoluteness, reach holiness, not in spite of the mystery of suffering that accompanies every human life, but through it.
One note: parts of this book may be a struggle for those not familiar with Catholic theology, church structure and terminology. But it is well worth the work it will take to better understand Mother Teresa’s spiritual life.
“America’s first genuine superstar”
John Smith Escapes Again!
by Rosalyn Schanzer
Earlier this year, my husband and I packed up our three young children and flew cross-country for a family reunion in Virginia’s Historic Triangle (the area delineated by Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown). I wanted my boys to appreciate the rich historical settings they would be touring, so I checked out every single children’s book my local library had on Jamestown. Every. Single. One. So I have a frame of reference from which to say this children’s biography of John Smith was the most intriguing of the lot. It captured my boys’ attention; even the four-year-old sat still to listen to the exciting escape stories and study the amazing illustrations.
John Smith Escapes Again! is packed full of facts about Jamestown, John Smith, Native Americans, and European history in the 1600s, a lot of which were brand new to me.
For example, did you know that John Smith fought as a volunteer soldier in the Netherlands, was thrown overboard in the Mediterranean and marooned on a desert island during a storm, spent some time as a pirate on a French ship, and was captured and sold as a slave in Constantinople before escaping through the Circassian Desert to a Russian outpost, all before he even considered traveling to the New World? Neither did I.
Rosalyn Schanzer compresses an astounding amount of information into this book. She provides historical context for the events she describes with a flair for story-telling that focuses on the action and bright illustrations that enhance the stories with incredible detail. This book has maps, illustrated timelines, and little-known stories, as well as a bibliography for further reading and a thorough index. This is a great way to introduce young readers to a pivotal figure in early American history, and unless they are Jamestown scholars, the adult readers are sure to learn quite a bit as well.
“No one was there to ask…”
A Long Way Gone
by Ishmael Beah
A Long Way Gone is told from the perspective of a young boy, 12 years old when the book starts, in Sierra Leone. In the struggle between various factions to control the government, ordinary people are mercilessly caught in the crossfire. The book, not for the faint of heart or squeamish of stomach, describes horrible mutilations, murders, and tortures that took place, sometimes at the hands of the government forces, sometimes at the hands of the rebel armies, and sometimes at the hands of adolescent boys, recruited by both sides and high on drugs to dull their senses and enable them to commit atrocities.
Ishmael tells of his life before his village was destroyed and his family scattered, weeks spent alone or with few others running and hiding in the forests, his dread when finally he is captured by the government army and forced to kill, rewarded and praised for doing so as viciously and brutally as possible. I loved the insights into his culture from more peaceful times, how elders rubbed children’s heads, songs that were sung and stories that were told, though that made the horrific scenes of blood running in the rivers and dismembered corpses that much more difficult. His account of life after being in the army including his rehabilitation at a UNICEF camp and school, the nurse who took a special interest in him, being taken in by a relative whom he’d never met, and eventually traveling to the UN in New York, seemed far too brief a counterpoint after the hellish experiences he’d had. Thankfully, there are those moments of lightness and compassion interspersed through the narrative. Boys bathing in a stream while hiding in the jungle, taking a few minutes to splash each other, just as normal boys would. A fisherman who allows a group of these young boys to hide in his hut, rest and heal, bringing them food and medicine. The uncle who takes the orphaned author in and cares for him as a son. The UNICEF workers who consistently work with this challenging population despite lack of progress, recidivism, and setbacks galore, and remind them over and over again, “This is not your fault.”
While there have been some doubts raised as to the strict veracity of Ishmael’s account, I’m inclined to believe him. I also believe, however, that an adolescent, with absolutely no intent to deceive, going through incredibly traumatic experiences one after another may not be able to recall every detail of his life over three years in chronological order with complete accuracy. Regardless, his story is representative of the reportedly 300,000 child soldiers fighting in conflicts around the world, and one that absolutely needs to be told and heard.
We’ll wrap up biographies and memoirs in the next column with the story of two opera-loving sisters who saved Jews from the Holocaust, a children’s author’s autobiography, and compare/contrast study of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.
Well, what did you think? Have you read any of these books? What’s your favorite biography or memoir? Are you looking for books on a particular topic? Suggestions, comments, and feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.