Sky Bridge, by Laura Pritchett

Miguel worries about ilegales crossing the desert—not his cousins and girlfriend, who are still waiting at the border, but others—the anonymous, but not anonymous to themselves, since this is, after all, their one life. (Libby in monologue)

In her novel, Sky Bridge, Laura Pritchett dips into the anonymous stew of struggling rural small-town humanity and shows us one life in fine detail: the life of Libby, the narrator, a young woman who became a mother in deed if not in fact when she was a child herself and took responsibility for her little sister, Tess. Now, in the time present of the story, Libby does not want pregnant Tess to have an abortion and promises to raise the child herself. And she does not want Tess to leave after the Amber’s birth, but Tess does.

And the rest is the story. And a compelling, fresh story it is.

Libby carries many voices in her head: Kay, Libby’s mom, telling her she’s a disappointment, not up to taking care of baby Amber. Derek, Libby’s boyfriend, telling her she is not beautiful. Miguel, husband of Libby’s best friend, telling her the two of them have been left behind, and now it’s too late for them to get out of Lamar, Colorado. Frank, her employer, telling her that where they live is “the last fine place to be.” Baxter, her mom’s employer, telling her “If you can suffer and not be bitter it will change you into a real human. A soft human.” Arlene, a coworker, telling her she’s a beautiful kid, though Libby feels this can’t possibly be true. Libby’s own narrative voice is so intimate the reader can’t help embracing her and hers as they each live “their one life.” Like Libby, we learn not to pay much attention to Kay’s soliloquies of rage and bitterness because we know that ultimately Kay, like almost everybody, will step up and do a version of the right thing. Exception: Tess’s associate, Clark.

Pritchett shows us the universal in the particular. Bad people do good things. Good people do bad things. Sometimes bad is good. Sometimes good is bad. Libby and Tess’s profligate and violent dad (bad) is still remembered for staying with the body of Frank’s fiancé (good) when she was killed in an auto accident. Miguel (good) grows pot (bad—at least in 2005) to pay for the coyotes (good, unless breaking the law is bad). Eventually, pretty much everybody gives a hand to the ilegales—some do it for money, but most do it out of kindness. Ed, the post-hippie beekeeping environmentalist, an outsider in an orange VW van, becomes a sort of guardian who posts his bee hives strategically so he can keep a protective eye on Libby and Amber (good) and his pot (arguably bad). Who strategically dumps a dog (in principle, bad), which Libby is sure to take in and be protected by (good).

Sometimes the bad things feel banal: Libby’s stealing beer from her employer. Arlene’s clipping unredeemed coupons and sending them in. Simon’s family deciding to take Amber from Libby because they can “raise it right”—banal because of the cliched assumption that a churchy couple will be better parents than an unmarried, unmoored young aunt.

But sometimes the bad things feel far from banal. They feel evil. Clark’s rape of Libby as entitled revenge on Tess, for example. His jacking up the price on the ilegales at the end of the trip. Yet even he gives Libby good advice when he tells her to learn to let go of certain people, which she eventually does.

 As the novel progresses, caring for a newborn wears Libby down, down, down beyond exhaustion. She comes to understand why moms sometimes do bad things to their kids, and she also comes to understand her strength and the strength of the community to do the fundamentally good thing: see other people.

See people, I want to tell her. See them, and especially see them if at first you don’t think they’re worth noticing. (Libby in monologue near the end, speaking of Tess)

Eventually the little row of marigolds in the yard begins to thrive, the bathroom gets cleaned, the house gets painted, even tough, cynical Kay pitches in to help the ilegales.Tess does the paperwork to make baby Amber legal. Libby lets Tess go. Amber wiggles with joy when she catches sight of Libby, her mom. A measure of contentment reigns, but it’s a dynamic contentment.

I keep seeing how everybody is pushing ahead, looking for a place with enough space for our dreams. The ilegales. Tess. Derek. Me. Moving forward, trying to cross those invisible boundaries so we can find the place where we’re most free and the most full.

Perhaps that place is the sky bridge—that special state of being where one can reach up and touch the blue sky.

Ed tells Libby, “Art is what gets us beyond what is real. It makes reality more real. It also shortens the distance we gotta travel to see how connected we are.” A good summation of this lovely novel.

— Sharelle Moranville

Take This Bread, by Sara Miles

Books about the mystery of the Eucharist are rarely page turners. Exception: Take this Bread—Sara Miles’s spiritual memoir of food and faith.

Her story covers a big colorful canvas of time and place and is populated with a large cast of fascinating mixed-bag characters (rich, old, destitute, schizophrenic, young, trans, gay, stuffy, edgy, old) who are colorful, imperfect, and sympathetic. Miles makes us feel their hunger to be fed and their hunger to feed—to see the divine on the face of the grubby and smelly, the rich and corporate.

There’s really no way to explain the magic she finds in “eating Jesus.” It can only be shown. And Miles shows it over and over in compelling and convincing ways as she struggles with faith in a messed-up world.

“Wait,” Paul said. “You’ve got to taste this.” He wiped his hands on a dishrag and went over to the refrigerator. “Open your mouth.”

“Oh, my God,” I said swallowing. It was grainy and cold and melting and milky and rich and sweet. “Oh, my God, what is that?”

Paul tried to keep a straight face. “Just a light little something,” he said. “Tres leches: you separate the eggs, make a cake, soak it in heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk . . .”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s like, I don’t know, being breast-fed by the Wisdom of God.”

Paul raised his hand and bowed his head. “All glory.”

What better way to show us everyday glory than by pressing together the images of dirty hands; a mouthful of grainy, cold, rich stuff; a face breaking with laughter; and the sort of shocking notion of being breast-fed by the Wisdom God. Then throw in a playful allusion to the Trinity in that tres leches cake and Voila! We get it. Easy as cake.

By narrating her unique faith journey so engagingly, she prompts us to think about our own journey. How have hunger and the urge to feed others affected our choices?  She helps readers understand that our failures and doubts are vital to our faith. That paradoxes are ever present. That hypocrisy lurks in the shadows. Yet the magic of the Eucharist is always happening, all around us.

Near the end of the memoir, when Miles’s old friend Millie is dying of cancer, Millie’s son visits. He does not believe in God, but admits:

“. . . sometimes when I’m up in the mountains above tree line, it’s like whoa, you know: There’s a big, big love.”

“I know,” I said.

Christianity wasn’t an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn’t a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow.

I was loved by a big love. In the midst of suffering, of hunger, even of death. Alleluia. What was, finally, so hard about accepting that?

As we swallow the bread, we swallow the mystery. Why is that so hard to understand?

— Sharelle Moranville

Walk in a Relaxed Manner, by Joyce Rupp

I know Joyce Rupp a little because we’re both part of casual, ever-changing local writers’ group. She is a keen world traveler; I’m a stubbornly reluctant traveler. Once at a writer’s gathering, she took me aside to give me quiet advice about packing for a trip to Italy. I would describe her as elegant, yet sturdy. Reserved, yet kind and willing to share.

The fact that she did not plan to share her experience of walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but meant it to be a very private pilgrimage for her own spiritual growth, is perhaps what makes the book feel so authentic and accessible. If she had walked all of September and most of October over five hundred miles of northern Spain knowing she was going to write a book at the end, surely she would have been shaping and filtering as she went. She would have been taking photos and making notes. Documenting. Planning. Instead, she kept a small, private, journal.

In her introduction she shares how her determination to keep her Camino experience private changed. In a moment of synchronicity after her return, right after she had expressed once again her determination not to write about it, she was confronted with Joseph Campbell’s—whom she admires—conviction that the returning pilgrim (hero) has an obligation to gift the community with an account of the journey.

And so she did.

In the Contents, she lists 25 life lessons she learned from the Camino: Go Prepared, Live in the Now, Experience Homelessness, etc. These lessons are learned from the cacophony of snores of fellow pilgrims, the beauty of the Pyrenees, and vineyards heavy with purple and green grapes. From blisters wrapped in duct tape, bathroom noises, poetry, and puddles of vomit. From a fox running through the chestnut trees and a cockroach swimming in the hot chocolate. From sharing scarce food, taking the time to watch ants, and finding fellow pilgrims who also love Barbara Kingsolver books.

From her privations and blessings, she feels what it means to be food insecure, to be suspected of being a shoplifter, to live without being clean as the homeless sometimes must do. From her exhaustion comes clarity. From a September 15 journal entry: Today I realized it has taken me many days of walking to finally reach a clearness inside that is allowing me to contemplate all I see. It was gradual—beginning with the magnificent grapes in the vineyards. Now I can look at this old bench I sit on, rusted green, bird poop, highway noise nearby, and I can be still inside. I can look at the shape of the bench, the holes, the patches of corrosion and “see” it with my “special eyes.” I need to “see” people’s faces more, to read the sacredness there, too.

Over the years, I’ve recommended and/or loaned this book to several people who are neither particularly spiritual nor adventurous, and it has been valued by all as a good and important read. As a reluctant traveler, I will never walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. But echoing Thoreau 😄 : I have travelled much in West Des Moines because of wonderful books like this. I’ve come to know we are all pilgrims, every day. And it is good to Embrace Beauty, Live in the Now, and Walk in a Relaxed Manner.

— Sharelle Moranville