Take Wing by Jean Little

I’ve been talking to several families who are trying to teach their children, mostly girls, about friendship—how to make friends, how to deal with “mean girls”, how to forgive, how to take the initiative to make and heal friendships. It’s hard stuff for adults sometimes, much harder for six to fourteen year olds who are apt to misinterpret nonverbal communication, take offense easily, become shy and inhibited, or on the opposite end, be inconsiderate and even rude to one another.

Take Wing is an older book, published in 1968, for middle grade readers by Canadian author Jean Little. It’s primarily about ten year old Laurel Ross and her eight year old brother James. Laurel realizes, even though no one else in the family agrees, that James is different, slow to learn and immature for his age. Then when Mrs. Ross breaks her hip and has to stay in the hospital for months, everyone in the family, including Aunt Jessica and cousin Elspeth, must come to terms with James’s problems and try to find out what to do to help him. So James and his “mental retardation” (the term used in the book which would need to be discussed and reinterpreted in today’s terminology) are the main issues in the story.

However, the book is also about friendship and how to make friends and how to resolve differences and misunderstandings. Laurel and her cousin Elspeth start to become friends when Aunt Jessica and Elspeth move into the Ross’s house to help out while Mom is in the hospital. But it’s a false start, marred by a series of missteps and crossed wires. Finally, Elspeth and Laurel learn to communicate with one another and restart their friendship. The same kind of misunderstanding and hurt feelings has been holding Laurel back from being friends with the girl down the street. The road to mending this friendship also takes communication and some courage on the part of both girls.

I would really like to hand this book to a couple of eight to twelve year olds I know. It’s a quiet, gentle story, but I think it might be good bibliotherapy for some sensitive, insecure, and easily discouraged young ladies who need an extra push to “take wing.”

This poem by Jean Little, who “has been partially blind since birth as a result of scars on her cornea and is frequently accompanied by a guide dog,” is featured in the book. From the poem and the book and Mrs. Little’s other novels, I would guess that Jean Little knew what it was like to be different and a bit diffident when she was growing up. And perhaps she can teach some of us, adult, teen or chlid, to “endure through the (friendship) journey’s stress.”

A friendship is a fragile thing
Like the dust of the moon on a butterfly’s wing
Presuming on it is like trying
To keep a butterfly from flying
You cup your hands, try not to clutch
But it is crippled by your touch
By all the self-involved demands
Implicit in your closing hands
Yet, deep in love, there also lies,
The bravery of butterflies.
Butterflies go through nights of storm
Migrating to a land that’s warm.
They drift in brilliant frailty,
Testaments to mortality,
And all the while, they own the strength
To mount the wind and come at length
Home again, their loveliness
Enduring through the journey’s stress.
A treasured friendship also can
Survive the blundering of man.
Although it is a fragile thing,
It has the courage to take wing,
Dare to ride the dark, and come
Bravely home.

Arcady’s Goal by Eugene Yelchin

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the essay “Live Not By Lies” in 1974, just before he was arrested by the Soviet police and exiled from his country. My Saturday Review friend Glynn led me to the essay in a review he wrote.

Arcady’s Goal is the story of a boy in Stalinist Russia who has been raised on lies. Arcady lives in an orphanage. The director of the orphanage lies about how the boys are treated and skims the provisions from the government, meant for the orphans, to feather his own nest. The inspectors of orphanages go along with the lies. Everyone is complicit, even the boys themselves, who show off their soccer skills to earn a bit of favored treatment. When Ivan Ivanych comes to the orphanage, disguised as an inspector, but really a bereft father looking for an orphan to adopt, Arcady makes an impression. But can Arcady and Ivan break through all the lies, the ones they have been told by the government, the ones they have told to survive, and even the lies they have told themselves, to make a real family built on trust?

Born and educated in Russia, author Eugene Yeltsin left the former Soviet Union when he was twenty-seven years old. His other children’s novel set in Communist Soviet Union, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, won a Newbery Honor. His writing style in this book is stark and unadorned, like the subject. The descriptions, like the illustrations, are gray and without much hope, although Arcady’s courage and tenacity shine through even in the soccer games he plays so well. And yet the book has an almost implausible happy ending as Arcady and his adoptive father do manage to form a connection.

Perhaps I am a pessimist, but I don’t know if I can believe that it so easy to change from believing and participating in The Lie to confronting lies with the truth. Easy or not, I do believe that I and especially my children are going to find out very soon what it is like to live in a culture permeated and ultimately ruled by lies and half-truths. In fact, we are already faced with the choice of whether to participate in the lies our society is telling or to stand up and declare the truth. There will be a cost for the latter decision, and there may not be a happy ending in this life.

“And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me. . . . So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.”

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The Island by Gary Paulsen

Book #1 for the 48-hour Book Challenge
202 pages, 2.5 hours

I’ve never read Gary Paulsen’s Newbery Honor young adult novel, Hatchet, although I have read a lot about it and seen it recommended frequently. It’s a survival story, about a boy who grows into manhood by surviving in a harsh natural environment. According to Wikipedia this “coming of age by surviving in the wilderness” theme is a frequently repeated one in Paulsen’s more than 200 novels:

“Much of Paulsen’s work features the outdoors and highlights the importance of nature. He often uses “coming of age” themes in his novels, where a character masters the art of survival in isolation as a rite of passage to manhood and maturity.”

The Island tells the story of Wil, a teen who, with his parents, moves to a rural area of northern Wisconsin near a lake, Sucker Lake, with an unnamed island in the center of the lake. Wil sees the island while riding his bike, and he also finds a small rowboat conveniently abandoned on the shore so that he is able to row out to the island by himself. On the island, Wil discovers something about himself and about the world that he tries to put into writing, or into drawings of wildlife on the island, or into words of explanation for his parents and for his new friend, Susan. He is somewhat successful in his writing and drawing, less so in his verbal explanations.

The Island is an odd little book. I can see myself recommending it to teens who are adventure and nature lovers and also quite thoughtful, even philosophical. I’m not sure how often that combination of characteristics coincides. Not much happens in the novel; there’s a lot of description of the natural environment and quite a bit of philosophical musing. I would think the pace of the story would be a bit slow for many young adult readers. There’s a hint of romance, but it’s not really developed. The characters themselves, Wil and Susan, nip any budding of romance, in the bud so to speak, since Wil is on a quest of sorts to know and understand the natural world and himself. He doesn’t really have time for romance.

I enjoyed reading about Wil and his search for understanding and enlightenment. The spirituality or philosophy in the book felt rather like Buddhism or nature worship, even though religion is never mentioned nor is any deity invoked. I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone, but for discerning readers there might even be some nuggets of truth. The natural world is given to us to point us to the Creator. Wil doesn’t have any experience of God, but he does begin to understand himself and his place in the world of The Island. Perhaps that’s a start.

Footnote: My mass market paperback copy of The Island is autographed by Gary Paulsen “for Kelli”, and the book itself is dedicated to Mike Printz, the librarian whose name adorns the Printz Award for Young Adult Literature.

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The Collapse by Mary Elise Sarotte

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte.

World Magazine just published its annual issue on books, and one of the books chosen as a runner-up for book of the year in the history/biography category was The Collapse. Coincidentally, I had already heard of the book and requested it from the library and had it in my stack of TBR books in the cradle next to my bed. (Since I have passed the years of child-bearing and baby-rocking, my handmade wooden cradle now serves as a books-to-be-read repository as it awaits the advent of grandchildren.)

I can see why The Collapse made World‘s shortlist of best books. It is a stunning account of a moment in history, a moment that changed history. And, as the author points out over and over, it could easily have not happened or have happened very differently. Inexorable violence, intimidation, and renewed repression could have been the operative words to describe the events of October and early November 1989 in Berlin and in greater Germany; instead, Ms. Sarotte uses the adjectives “coincidental” and “unexpected” and “improbable” and even, blessedly, “peaceful”.

In her book, Ms. Sarotte tries to explain how these many, many serendipitous events combined to allow or even produce the opening of the Berlin Wall and eventually the reunification of East and West Germany. The “why” is beyond the scope of the narrative and perhaps beyond the understanding of mere authors and readers. Sarotte does reiterate many times that the collapse of the Wall was not inevitable.

“The Wall’s opening was not a gift from political elites, East German or otherwise, and was in no way predetermined. It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events—and not a little courage on the part of some of the individuals directly involved—that came together in a precise but entirely unplanned sequence. And the larger, successful peaceful revolution surrounding the opening was a truly rare event, one to be considered carefully, not discounted. The history of 1989 shows just how many things have to go right for such a revolution to succeed.”

I am left with some questions of my own, questions that will never be answered this side of eternity, but that are nevertheless interesting to me from a Christian perspective:

The dissident movement in East Germany was birthed and nurtured in the churches of Leipzig and Berlin. Many of the dissidents were not believers, but were nevertheless willing and thankful to use the churches and their “peace prayer” meetings as a shelter and a staging area for demonstrations and peaceful protests against the East German government. Could the peaceful success of the revolution and the reordering of Germany’s culture and government be credited in part (or even in whole) to its genesis as a prayer movement? Perhaps God answered those repeated prayers for peace and justice?

What do historians and politicians mean when they talk about being “on the right side of history”? In the book Soviet leader Chernyaev says of Gorbachev: “He sensed the path of history and helped it to follow its natural path.” Impersonal History nevertheless has a will and a flow? How can this be? (It’s the same way that evolutionists talk about Nature doing this or that. How did Nature become a Force with a will and purpose? And do we humans discern that purpose?)

In a bigger way, could all of those fortuitous events of people being in the right place at the right time or absent from the right place at the right time or able to communicate or unable to communicate, all of those things that had to go right, could they have been orchestrated, not by politicians or revolutionaries, but rather by God himself? Maybe the lesson here is that the “remarkable constellation” was not “entirely unplanned”—just unplanned by man? Man proposes; God disposes.

The Collapse is not a book about God, just as the book of Esther in the Bible hardly mentions God—unless you have eyes to see the hand of God in all of history. I think it much more likely and believable that God is working His purposes out in the course of history than that History itself has an undefined will and an inscrutable purpose.

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Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M.M. Blume

Ms. Blume writes “odd and quirky”, and this one definitely fits that description. It’s funny at times, but the underlying situation, the 1960’s and a child deserted by her hippie druggie mother, is way too serious for a humorous novel. Throw in a voodoo queen in New Orleans, bullies in a fancy elite school for girls, naked people in Greenwich Village in NYC and in Haight-Asbury in San Francisco, an odd ranch with all-Chinese cowboys in Texas, an ever-present Brownie camera, and a bewildered aunt/guardian, and it’s a fun road trip sort of story, but fairly unbelievable and sort of sad in places.

I also kept thinking the story was ending, and then there would be one more episode, and yet another, and another. It felt as if the author didn’t know where to stop. Or maybe I just didn’t want to know as much as I did. The novel is all about finding home and making a family, but it took Julia and her aunt an awfully long time to get to that end, even though the book itself is not that long, only 180 pages.

Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed any of Lesley M.M. Bloom’s other novels for children, such as Tennyson or The Rising Star of Rusty Nail, you might also enjoy this odd and quirky entry. I thought it was OK, but nothing to write home about.

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Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge

I am so enjoying my discovery and exploration of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels. In February I read The Dean’s Watch, and I wrote that it might the best book I read this year. I read The Rosemary Tree last summer–and relished the author’s insight into human psychology. I also read Gentian Hill in 2014, and I put it on my list of ten best adult fiction books I read last year. Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library has recommended Valley of Song to me, and many, many readers have recommended Ms. Goudge’s children’s fantasy The Little White Horse. I think Goudge is the sort of author that I’m going to enjoy stretching out and reading in a leisurely manner, two or three of her books per year, spaced out over the course of the year.

That said, Pilgrim’s Inn was lovely, and it made me crave more Goudgian writing. I’m trying to think what actually happens in the story. A family buys an old inn and moves to the country. One character struggles with a “mental breakdown” in the aftermath of World War II. Various characters struggle with their own secret sins and temptations. One married couple falls in love with each other all over again, and another man and woman learn to love each other in spite of the difficulties and impediments to their union. Children act like children and do very childlike things, but the insight into child psychology and children’s thought lives is amazing. Altogether, it’s not at all a plot-driven novel, and I can see how today’s readers, trained by television and movies, would find it slow and somewhat sentimental, perhaps becoming restless and even bored. I had to consciously slow myself down and appreciate the unhurried pace of the story and of life in the English countryside with people who are still trying to build new lives after the hour of the war.

The inn itself is a sort of a magical place, and several encounters and chance meetings in the woods nearby produce healing and psychological breakthroughs. The air and atmosphere of the novel is Christian without the spiritual underpinnings becoming intrusive or didactic. The characters grow and learn and make surprising decisions and revelations, just as people do in real life.

I can’t imagine a more enjoyable summer reading book than Pilgrim’s Inn. Slow down and enjoy a sojourn in post-war England with some really intriguing people living in a wonder-filled place. Oh, I forgot that there’s a matriarch in the story who begs to played in a movie version by Maggie Smith. They had better hurry up and make the movie because I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. Do you ever cast the characters in your favorite books?

“As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.” ~Elizabeth Goudge

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The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

The Family Romanov: Murder Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming.

Were the Romanov family a Christian family, persecuted by the evil Communist revolutionaries and ultimately martyrs to their (Orthodox) faith?

“Alix (Alexandra) . . . spent hours a day on her knees in prayer.” (p.28)

“God’s will must always be accepted without complaint. After all, everything that happened in life was the result of God’s will, so it was pointless to question the meaning of events. ‘God knows what is good for us,’ Nicholas often reminded himself. ‘We must bow down our heads and repeat the sacred words, ‘Thy will be done.”” (p.43)

“Typically Nicholas believed Alexei’s illness was God’s will, and so he accepted it passively. ‘My own fate and that of my family are in the hands of Almighty God.'” (p.55)

“Alexandra believed Rasputin’s healing powers were a gift from God, the answer to all her long hours of prayer.” (p.87)

“Alexandra wanted to do more. So she enrolled in nursing courses, and she took nineteen-year-old Olga and seventeen-year-old Tatiana with her. . . Working in the wards, the students washed, cleaned, and bandaged maimed bodies, mangled faces, blinded eyes.” (p.138)

“‘It is necessary to look more calmly on everything,’ she (Alexandra) said three months after her husband’s abdication. ‘What is to be done? God has sent us trials, evidently he thinks we are prepared for it. It is a sort of examination—to prove we are ready for His grace.'” (p.185)

“Their mornings began and evenings ended with prayers.” “Marie offered to read aloud from the family’s favorite collection of sermons.” (p.228)

Or was Nicholas an evil, violent man and was Alexandra blinded by her near-idolatry for Rasputin and for her icons to which she turned in faith that they would make her son well?

“They (the police) shared Nicholas’s view that ‘the Yids,’ as he derisively called his Jewish subjects, ‘must be kept in their place.'” (p.69)

“Nicholas decided to crack down on all of his subjects. Now, he declared, they would ‘feel the whip.’ Perhaps then they would think twice before rebelling.” (p.79)

“Their work (the pogroms) delighted Nicholas. Once, after reading a particularly gruesome report of hangings and beatings, he turned to an aide. ‘This really tickles me,’ he said. ‘It really does.'” (p.80)

“Alexandra firmly believed Rasputin was God’s messenger, sent to guide them through the war. ‘I fully trust in Our Friend’s wisdom endowed by God to counsel what is right for you and our country,’ she wrote Nicholas.” (p.148-9)

Both, I think, however contradictory that may be. The book is certainly a warning to those of us who are Christians: we may be blinded by our own prejudices and those of our culture into believing things that are contrary to the gospel of Christ and into acting upon those erroneous beliefs. We must always compare our actions and beliefs with the yardstick of Scripture and ask for specific guidance from the Holy Spirit. I believe that if Nicholas and Alexandra had done so in regard to the Jews and to Rasputin, that guidance would have been granted to them.

Ms. Fleming does a good job of presenting a balanced and intriguing picture of the Romanovs, and I recommend the book.

A Train in Winter by Carolyn Moorehead

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Carolyn Moorehead.

This book tells the harrowing story of 230 French resistance fighters, women, who were sent first to Auschwitz in 1943 and then to to Ravensbruck in 1944. By April 1945 after twenty-nine months of torture, imprisonment, and starvation, when Ravensbruck was liberated, only 49 of the 230 French women who had left Paris for Auschwitz survived.

Unfortunately, I had trouble keeping up with the various women’s names and backgrounds and feel it would have been better for the author to have concentrated her narrative on just a few of the women, those she was able to interview and get more information about. Nevertheless, the story of what these women endured at the hands of their Nazi captors was painful and appalling even to read about, and I was reminded again of just how cruel and sadistic we humans can be.

At the same time I was reading this book about these mostly Communist and atheist female resistance workers in France (only a few of the women professed to be practicing Catholics), I was also reading aloud The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom to my two youngest daughters. Corrie and her sister Betsie lived in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, and there their family ran an underground resistance network that mostly hid Jewish people and smuggled them to safe houses in the country or out of the country. In February 1944 Corrie and Betsie were arrested and sent to Ravensbruck, the same camp where the French women had already been transferred.

In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom describes much the same horrific conditions that the author of A Train in Winter tells about as she relates the experiences of the French prisoners. They all experienced the same fleas, lice, nakedness, cold, hunger, violence, and brutality. Betsie Ten Boom died after spending about six months in Ravensbruck. Corrie Ten Boom was freed about a week after her sister’s death and sent home to Holland, her release due to a “clerical error.”

The contrast between the Ten Boom sisters and the French resistors was not so much in their circumstances, except that the French women spent much longer in prison, but rather in how they responded to and saw those circumstances. Nor were the French women any more or less courageous or perseverant than Corrie and her sister Betsie. Upon their return, however, the surviving French women “shared the same sense of alienation, loss, and loneliness. . . . There was no innocence left in any of them, and they would not find it again.” These women with their faith in country and in the Communist ideal “returned to families that had been broken up, houses that had been bombed or ransacked, children who no longer knew them. Many had husbands and lovers who had been shot by the Germans. Few, very few, found the life of happiness they had dreamt about.”

Corrie Ten Boom also returned from Ravensbruck traumatized and bereft. She had lost not only Betsie, but also her elderly father, Casper Ten Boom, who died in prison not long after the family was arrested. Other members of her family had been arrested and were believed dead. Her country, Holland, was in ruins. And yet, God turned Corrie Ten Boom’s life into a life of joy and forgiveness and ministry. Corrie wrote that it was those who were able, by God’s grace and mercy, to forgive, who were able to heal from the trauma and the suffering of the war. She went to live for another almost 40 years after her release from Ravensbruck, traveling all over the world and preaching the mercy and forgiveness of God for sinners.

The contrast between The Hiding Place and A Train in Winter shows the inadequacy of a philosophy based on the communist brotherhood of men. What happens when that philosophy is shown to be a farce in the face of true evil? Where does a survivor of such atrocious evil get the power and the trust to forgive, move past bitterness, and go on to live in community with other human beings?

Events and Inventions: 1944

January 27, 1944. The Red Army (Russian) relieves the German siege of Leningrad, pushing the Germans back beyond artillery range. Leningrad has been under German guns for 900 days, and over one million people have died of hunger, cold, starvation, disease or from direct warfare.

January 22, 1944. Allied troops land on the beaches of Anzio in southern Italy.

March 18, 1944. Mt. Vesuvius erupts for last time in modern times.

June 4, 1944. The U.S. Fifth Army under the command of General Mark Clark enters Rome, freeing the city from German occupation.

June 6, 1944. Allied troops storm Normandy in northern France. Operation Overlord brings over 100,000 U.S., British, and Canadian troops to the beaches of Normandy under the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied troops in Europe. See the movie, The Longest Day, for a dramatization of the invasion of Normandy.

June 13, 1944. Hitler unleashes Germany’s flying bomb, the V-1, on southern England. The deadly V-1’s are launched from catapult ramps at Pas de Calais in northern France, and they have already made direct hits on several buildings, including a convent, and hospital, and a church.

June 20, 1944. An attempt by German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler fails. See the movie, Valkyrie, for a dramatization of this event, with Tom Cruise playing Colonel von Stauffenberg, the main conspirator and assassin. Hitler takes his survival as a sign that fate has intervened to preserve his life for the further glory of the German people.

August 25, 1944. Paris is liberated by Allied troops, led by the Free French. General de Gaulle marches in triumph through the crowds down the Champs Elysees.

October 26, 1944. General Douglas MacArthur and the American Navy return to the Philippines after the Japanese are defeated in a three-day battle off the coast of the island of Leyte.

December, 1944. Civil war breaks out in Greece in the aftermath of the country’s liberation from Nazi occupation. British troops fire on a demonstration organized by the EAM, made up of Communists and other leftists. The People’s Liberation Army (Communist) seizes part of Athens, but they are defeated and dispersed for now.

Mission at Nuremberg by Tim Townsend

Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis by Tim Townsend.

Townsend, Formerly the religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is a veteran on the “God beat”, having written for several U.S. newspapers and other publications. In this book, he has given readers interested in World War II and its aftermath an insightful look at a quiet and unassuming hero, Lutheran pastor and chaplain Henry Gerecke. Pastor Gerecke was fifty years old when he enlisted in the Army Chaplain Corps in 1943. He was at the upper limit of the acceptable age range for the chaplaincy, but the army was in desperate need of more chaplains to meet the spiritual needs of the men in the U.S. Army who were fighting both in Europe and in the Pacific.

This book was especially poignant for me for a couple of reasons: one, my father-in-law, John Early, was an army chaplain during World War II. Although he served stateside for his entire war, he could easily have been sent to Europe and then to Germany to minister in some of the same circumstances that Gerecke served in. In fact, Gerecke’s personality, background, and ministry reminded me of my father-in-law quite a bit. Both men came from rural homes and ministered in small, lowly places before the war. Both men were humble evangelical preachers who longed to see men (and women) come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Both attended chaplain school at Harvard University, and both worked hard with the help of a much appreciated chaplain’s assistant to counsel, preach, lecture, file paperwork, write letters of condolence, and do many more services to the soldiers under their care. My father-in-law spoke often and fondly of his assistant, Donald.

The second reason that the book spoke to me had to do with Chaplain Gerecke’s particular assignment, after the surrender of Germany, to attend the trial at Nuremberg and minister to the high-ranking Nazis who were on trial there. According to the Geneva Conventions and U.S. army regulations, the United States was responsible to provide spiritual comfort to the Nazi prisoners. having a German chaplain did not seem advisable since the prisoners were being held in strict confinement and their captors were concerned that they might be the object of attempts to help them escape or commit suicide. Because he could speak German and because he was recommended by colleagues as a dedicated Lutheran minister, Gerecke was asked to extend his service in the army and come to Nuremberg to minister to such notorious criminals as Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, and Hermann Goering, head of the German Air Force and Hitler’s designated successor. Gerecke found himself preaching and eventually administering communion to some of the world’s worst criminals, men who were responsible for the torture, rape, and death of millions. What an amazing story of courage, spiritual discernment, and grace!

There are aspects of this story that Townsend discusses thoroughly and then leaves as open questions. Should Gerecke have given communion, a sacrament in Lutheran theology, to men who may have only been “jailhouse converts”? On the other hand, should he have honored the request of one of the Nazis to commune, even though the man made it clear that he did not believe in or put his trust in Christ, but simply wanted to receive communion as a sort of insurance? (Gerecke refused communion to the man under those circumstances.) Can or should a Christian minister promise forgiveness to men who sinned against so many, a great number of whom were Jews whose understanding of forgiveness might be much different from a Christian understanding and who might very well resent the offering of forgiveness on their behalf without their consent? What was Gerecke’s role as a minister of the gospel in the face of such evil men? Does the gospel, the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness, extend to such perpetrators of such horrible crimes? I appreciated Townsend’s discussion of such thorny and difficult moral and theological dilemmas and his leaving it to the reader to decide for himself what the answers to those questions might be.

“Those chaplains believed that God loves all human beings, including perpetrators, and so their decision was more about how to minister to the Nazis, not whether they should. The process of ministering to those who have committed evil involves returning the wrongdoer to goodness, a difficult challenge when faced with a leader of the Third Reich. For Gerecke and O’Connor (the Catholic chaplain at Nuremberg) that challenge meant using what they had learned about each defendant to spiritually lead him back from the place where he’d fallen to a place of restoration.
. . . A middle-aged American preacher . . . was attempting to bring what he believed was God’s light into a dark heart. The Nuremberg chaplains were not judging the members of their flocks, nor were they forgiving their crimes against humanity. They were trying to lead those Nazis who were willing to follow toward a deeper insight into what they had done. They were attempting to give Hitler’s henchmen new standing a human beings before their impending executions.”

Excellent thoughtful, challenging nonfiction about a humble but steadfast pastor who served God in the darkest of prisons.

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