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The Storm ()

I'm not sure how I'd missed out on reading Frederick Buechner before, but Aaron Kishbaugh recommended him and I liked at least this book very much.  In addition to being the author of over 30 books, Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister and his writing is suffused with a kind of quiet religiosity.  The characters seem to be searching for moral guidance and inner peace. They approach the world prepared for the miraculous to occur and, open to the possibility, they tend to perceive such miracles in the circumstances of every day life.

The central character in this story is Kenzie Maxwell, who like Buechner is an author in later life.  Twenty years earlier, at a time when he sensed an emptiness in his life, he began attending church and volunteering in the community.  While working in a shelter for runaways (on whose Board his attorney brother served), Kenzie fell in love with a graffiti-tagging teenage girl named Kia.  Unbeknownst to him, Kia died giving birth to their child in her tenement apartment.  But when Kia's grandmother approached the shelter for help with the child, scandal exploded.   Kenzie and his brother Dalton became estranged and Kenzie has spent the intervening years seeking absolution and providing for the care and raising of Bree, his daughter with Kia, who has become a professional dancer.  Now he lives on an island with his wealthy wife Willow and, among other things, continues to attend church, volunteers with the elderly and works on writing a combination journal/apology to Kia.  Therein, he describes his current life:

    I will continue to do penance, that's what I will do.  I will continue to live off of my wife's money.
    I will continue to attend the eight o'clock service Sundays in my hooded blue sweatshirt and try to
    hear the voices of the saints through the Frog Bishop's amiable bromides.  In short, I will go on
    playing, as I have for years, the feckless has-been they take me for with my unmentionable past and
    queer ways.  That is my sackcloth and ashes.  I will also, of course, continue to bring what succor
    I can to the very old because I'm not to be trusted ever, ever again with the very young.  I never
    even trusted myself.

As the passage demonstrates, he has accepted the harsh societal judgment about his relationship with Kia, even though the book makes it clear that they shared a mutual and nonexploitative love.  Moreover, the daughter that they produced holds a special place in Kenzie's heart.  One night in bed Willow asked him if he believed in miracles:

    ...his answer, mumbled drowsily through his mustache, was, 'Bree is a miracle.'

    He reached out one arm to turn off the light and then , lying there on his back with his eyes open,
    he tried to tell her what he meant.  What he meant was that out of the forlorn and unnecessary
    death in the cold-water flat with only the hysterical grandmother in attendance, there had come life.
    It was as if Kia had managed to spray up her name in the most impossible of all places and in colors
    so fast that, with luck, it would be yeas before the weather or the passage of time effaced it.  Bree
    herself was that name, the long-legged girl with her hair in a bun who smoked cigarettes to his
    horror and whom he longed above all things to keep safe not only from the weather and the passage
    of time but also from anything in herself that might threaten her.  As she leapt off the
    practice-room floor in her black leotards or was raised  like the Host at St, Mary's by some boy
    with his hands at her waist--as she did her entrechats and plies and pas de chat with a dancer's
    imperturbable smile--he thought of her as inscribing the name that she embodied again and again
    through the stuffy air until Kia, Kia, was everywhere.  It might so easily have gotten lost in the
    shadows, but it hadn't.  That was the miracle, that and the knowledge that he of all people--in his
    own eyes so sybaritic and self-centered, so studiously unserious about almost everything the world
    took seriously--would at the drop of a hat give whatever was left of his life to save her from harm.
    He could tell from the sound of Willow's breathing that she had fallen asleep, but he continued to
    think about miracles as he watched the moon rise over the water.

The plot of the book centers around the gathering of Kenzie's pretty non-nuclear family on the island for his 70th birthday.  Even his estranged brother arrives, having been invited down by the bitter old woman who owns and developed the island and resents Kenzie for the whiff of scandal he carries.  Each of the characters has his or her own burdens to bear, although each seems to also be a fundamentally good person whose worst critic is him or her self.  As they all come together a huge sudden and viscious storm blows up (the whole novel is loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest) and leaves in its wake a group of people who are much changed from when first we met them.

In a world where so many people care so little about morality in general and the quality of their own actions in specific, the denizens of Buechner's world are heartsick at the thought that their behavior does not measure up to the standards they believe in.  At times we long for them to ease up on themselves a little, but at the same time, it may be precisely this type of self-judgment and regulation that makes them such essentially decent people.

Their decency, their idiosyncrasies and the beauty of Buechner's storytelling make this a delightful novel.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Frederick Buechner (2 books reviewed)
General Literature
Frederick Buechner Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Frederick Buechner
    -INTERVIEW: Interview with Frederick Buechner (Shirley Nelson, Rudy Nelson and Frederick Buechner, Christianity and Literature Vol. 32, No. 1, SPECIAL ISSUE ON Contemporary Critical Theory, FALL 1982)
    -VIDEO ARCHIVES: Frederick Buechner (YouTube)
    -PROFILE: Frederick Buechner, the Reverend of Oz: At 70, Frederick Buechner looks back on his ministry in letters. (From 1997) (PHILIP YANCEY, 1997, Christianity Today)
    -OBIT: Frederick Buechner, popular Christian ‘writer’s writer’ and ‘minister’s minister,’ dies at 96 (Emily McFarlan Miller, 8/15/22, RNS)
    -OBIT: Frederick Buechner, prolific novelist and theologian, dies at 96 (Emily Langer, 8/17/22, The Washington Post)
    -TRIBUTE: A funhouse mirror of the soul: Belated thoughts on Frederick Buechner’s saints (Lucas Thompson, 5 Sep 2022, ABC REligion & Ethics)
    -TRIBUTE: A Shelf Called Remember: How Frederick Buechner Built Up My Faith: The late writer’s books upended the way I think about almost everything. (RUSSELL MOORE, AUGUST 15, 2022, Christianity Today)
    -BOOK LIST: Five Books for Frederick Buechner Beginners: Chosen by Jeffrey Munroe, author of “Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher” (InterVarsity Press). (JEFFREY MUNROE, DECEMBER 18, 2019, Christianity Today)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Frederick Buechner Page
    -The church of holy love, an unofficial site, dedicated to exploring the literature of Frederick Buechner
    -BIO: (Collections concerning Religious and Social Issues currently available in the Wheaton College Special Collections)
    -PROFILE: The Reverend of Oz (Part 1)  At 70, Frederick Buechner looks back on his ministry in letters  (Philip Yancey, Books and Culture)
    -ESSAY: Jesus Who Was and Who Is (Frederick Buechner, Living Pulpit)
    -ESSAY: Preaching on Hope (Frederick Buechner, Living Pulpit)
    -ESSAY: Listening to Your Life: Five days of meditations (Frederick Buechner, Spirituality & Health)
    -ARTICLE: A Faith to Life and Die With: The stories and words of Frederick Buechner (W. Dale Brown, Sojourners Magazine)
    -REVIEW: THE STORM By Frederick Buechner (Ruth Coughlin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Books: Bigtime Christian fiction (World Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of ON THE ROAD WITH THE ARCHANGEL By Frederick Buechner (Alfred Corn, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of THE SON OF LAUGHTER By Frederick Buechner (Lore Dickstein, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of BRENDAN By Frederick Buechner (Julia O'Faolain, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of THE SACRED JOURNEY By Frederick Buechner (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: Thomas R. Edwards: People in Trouble
                         The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton
                         Open Heart by Frederick Buechner
                         Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer

    -Wabash Center Internet Guide: Religion and Literature