memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

Another book right up my alley! Funny story about A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel (Fig Tree Books, 2018). So my library opened up this week to start doing curbside pickups. Cool, cool. (They also, after four years of arguing with our local park district, made the move to purchase an empty grocery store downtown and will be building an entirely new library, but that’s beside the point- but can you FEEL my excitement?!?!?!!????) They have a really great selection of ebooks, including early chapter books for kids (like The Magic Tree House series and the Junie B. Jones series) so we’re managing okay, and thus I figured I’d leave the curbside pickup services to people who don’t have the privilege of checking out ebooks. But on the very first day of curbside pickup, I received an email letting me know that this book, which I’d placed on hold via interlibrary loan in MARCH, was waiting for me (and had been this whole time, but the library had been closed). Woot! Even with their reduced hours, I was able to run over and grab it that day. This is the first paper book I’ve read since the end of March or early April!

Angela Himsel was raised in the basically-a-cult Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International), a bizarre fundamentalist sect which forbade celebrating birthdays and Christian holidays (which they considered pagan) and instead celebrated appropriated versions of Jewish holidays, including observing the Sabbath on Saturdays. The church’s focus on the End Times eclipsed most everything else, and Angela grew up pondering some of the more esoteric points of the Bible, such as which of her ten siblings her parents would eat in the end of days. She believed in the religion of her childhood so fervently; this, coupled with growing up in a very small, very white town in southern Indiana, very much stunted her views on what the rest of the world looked like.

A meeting with her high school guidance counselor put her on the path to college; a single glimpse of a study abroad brochure had her making plans to study in Jerusalem. Once there, Angela fell in love with Israel, but the more she searched, the more difficult it became to find the answers to her many questions about the religion she grew up with. And in Israel, she made the surprising discovery that Jews- those Hebrews of the Bible that had so fascinated her- still existed! (Ahhh, growing up in small Midwestern towns. I so understand this.) Her faith struggles continued well after moving back to the US and setting up a life in New York City, but getting involved with a man raised as the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi set her on the path to an eventual conversion and finding a new home for her soul.

There are some content warnings for this book, including the death of a child and a few other deaths (though these occur later on in life), and a few brief mentions of sexual assault and abuse.

Reading about Ms. Himsel’s childhood and about how she didn’t know about the seedy underbelly of her church (including financial scandals, sexual abuse, and more) until long after she reached adulthood made me so, so grateful for the flood of information that is the internet. It’s so much easier these days to check into an organization, and anything we want, a luxury that Ms. Himsel and her family didn’t have during the days before the internet’s existence. I can’t help but wonder how much heartache has been saved simply because people can now look into religious groups before committing their time, their money, and their lives. Ms. Himsel’s parents remained in their whole lives, most likely due to the sunk-cost fallacy or escalation of commitment, essentially doubling down after terrible outcomes instead of admitting one’s losses were for nothing. And their losses here were sizable and painful.

I so enjoy these kinds of memoirs, learning what once drew the author to a certain religion or religious group and what eventually pulled them away, but my one beef is that generally, if/when the author does find a religious home in which he or she is comfortable, that section is usually more rushed and lacks as much depth as the beginning. That’s not just a criticism of this book; most memoirs of this genre seem to follow that same path, so this feels more like a general editing decision for all books of this type, and I wish editors would reevaluate this. I’d love to hear more about what draws the authors down their new paths (if there is one), what appeals to them about their new practices and why. Ms. Himsel’s Orthodox conversion only covered a very small amount of pages in this book, and I would have loved to read more- more about why this was the right decision for her, more about what she loved about living a Jewish life, more about what she found surprising or difficult or especially wonderful (if anything) after her conversion.

I’m counting this book as my choice for the Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt of a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack thereof) that is not your own. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with this challenge (this year has been so weird and reading is so different right now that I’m thinking about completing the PopSugar Challenge and calling it good!), but this book was on my TBR and so I’m thrilled to finally have read it!

A River Could Be a Tree is deeply fascinating. While I wish it would have gone deeper into her conversion and post-conversion life, Ms. Himsel’s story so intrigued me that I flew through this book in two days. If you enjoy religious exit memoirs (seriously, is there a better term for this genre???) the way that I do, this shouldn’t be missed.

Visit Angela Himsel’s website here.

nonfiction · religion

Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares- Kristin Ohlson

Another one bites the dust!

Another book that’s had a longtime place on my TBR list, that is. Fitting right in with my fascination with cults and closed groups is a fascination with nuns. I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic grade school. We were taught by regular teachers, but our school librarian was, until she retired after my third grade year, a nun (Sister Grace!), whom I loved- I even wrote her a goodbye letter and cried a little when she left. She was a dear, sweet lady. The only other nun we had at school worked in what I think was the religious education office, and she was…not so sweet. I was never, ever interested in becoming a nun, but as an adult, I’ve definitely been interested in their lives, and thus Stalking the Divine by Kristin Ohlson (Plume Books, 2003) ended up on my TBR list (and, uh, stayed there, for far too long).

One Christmas, when her children were visiting their father, Kristin Ohlson finds herself longing for…something. Something she can’t quite name. A lapsed Catholic, she decides to attend Christmas mass and ends up at St. Paul’s in downtown Cleveland, home of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, an order of cloistered nuns whose mission it is to pray around the clock. She develops a deep fascination with the sisters, and though it takes some time, she’s able to gain access in order to write a newspaper magazine article on them, which becomes the basis of this book,

One by one, Ms. Ohlson interviews the aging sisters, whose order is shrinking. The sisters have faith, though; the Poor Clares have seen tough times before, and they know they’ll bounce back. Alongside her interview and writing, Ms. Ohlson involves herself in the life of St. Paul’s, attending mass, volunteering for different events and happenings in the parish, and contemplating her own faith- or lack thereof- the whole time. Ms. Ohlson isn’t quite a believer: she’s trying, and she hopes that her involvement with the sisters will help. Although she never quite reaches the level of true believer, the message from the sisters rings loud and clear to her: sometimes, you just have to keep showing up, even when the faith isn’t there.

Boy, this was captivating. It’s been a while since I read anything about nuns, and though I was a little nervous at the beginning about this being the right book at the right time (have you ever just not been able to read a book you really wanted to read, and it sent you into a reading slump? My brain’s been a little wonky lately, so I’ve been living in fear of this), but Ms. Ohlson’s light, yet informative style was exactly what I needed. Being able to slip behind the grates and listen to what life is like as a cloistered sister, living communally with vows of poverty and chastity, hearing about their struggles, their crises of faith, their difficulties living with one another, how they spend the majority of their days in silence, all of this had me absolutely riveted, and I blew through the book in less than two days.

Ms. Ohlson is honest about her struggles to believe; as someone who is fascinated by and drawn to religion as a whole without fully believing either, I found this refreshing and honest. She comes to a slightly different conclusion than I have in regards to the practice of faith (so far, that is; who knows what the future will bring?), but I enjoyed reading her journey and how she reached this place. I don’t have to share someone’s faith journey to appreciate and respect what they believe and how they come to believe it; reading about different beliefs never fails to keep me in a state of awe at what a wondrous place the world is. 🙂

If you’re interested in closed-off groups, this is a great read, and along these same lines, I highly recommend Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns by Cheryl L. Reed. This book covers many different orders of nuns, from the ones so service-oriented that they hardly find time to sleep or eat, to those who are so cloistered that they can barely manage to refuse an interview. I read this book back in…somewhere around 2005 and still think of it often.

Are you interested in closed-off, secretive groups? Do nuns fit into that category for you? As a child, I wouldn’t have believed that this would be a subject of interest for me as an adult, but, well, here I am. 🙂

Visit Kristin Ohlson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.