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Posted: Thursday June 26, 2014
Clergymen as Characters: So Hot Right Now in CanLit

by Chloë Filson

Is it just me, or are men of the cloth all over CanLit right now?

Two of the five novels selected for the 2014 CBC Canada Reads competition featured major characters who were majorly priestly (The Orenda and The Year of the Flood – I’ll return to these shortly). This year’s Giller-winning collection of short stories, Hellgoing by Lynn Coady, includes a story called “Take This and Eat It” which mashes up anorexia and Communion (its protagonist is a nun who feels turned off by the priest’s mode of administering rites to a hospitalized girl). Alice Munro, the venerable Canadian author who last year won the Nobel Prize for Literature, also wrote about priests in many of her stories – see “Forgiveness in Families” (in Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You) or “The Albanian Virgin” (in Open Secrets) – and those stories are being read by new generations today. And let us not forget The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre (Random House Canada, 2009), which won the Giller (you can read a review of it in Canadian Literature online). [21/7/14 UPDATE: It has also come to my attention that the protagonist of André Alexis’s latest novel, Pastoral (Coach House Press, 2014), is also a priest.]

Historically, in Canadian literature, we poked fun at the clergy, and then we vilified them: in an early example of the former, Stephen Leacock painted clergymen (and everyone) as caricatures – stereotypes, naive people to poke fun at – in his iconic collection of short stories, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town; and an example of the latter is Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House, in which priests step into the personal lives of the characters to an extent that would not be acceptable today (although social services have taken on this vesture). Perhaps writing about the clergy in these ways was a necessary stage in Canada’s transition into secularism? Perhaps we had to break with religious authority in every mode of culture.

But it seems there has been a move in recent literature to humanize the clergy – or, at least, to present them again as “round” characters (E.M. Forster’s term for fictional characters who come off as “real” in that they have positive qualities as well as flaws, and they undergo development throughout a story). What I’m trying to say is: the clergymen of today’s CanLit are more sympathetic than they have ever been.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) – which won Canada Reads this year – was written from the perspectives of three characters: a young Haudenosaunee girl named Snow Falls, a Huron (Wendat) Chief named Bird, and a Jesuit missionary named Christophe (the Crow – arguably based on a real-life historical figure, Jean de Brebeuf). Christophe is determined to convert the heathens but comes across as forgivably hapless; no one, him included, could have predicted the demoralizing and long-lasting effects of colonization, and despite the fact that he sees his companions as “sauvages,” he expresses concerns when Samuel de Champlain dispatches him to Huronia for the purpose of trade and conquest rather than the “harvesting of souls.” His experiences of culture shock are understandable, and his intentions are, though misguided, about as good as they could have been.

The Canada Reads runner-up, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (Knopf, 2010), is framed by sermons given by the character Adam One as the narrative progresses. Adam One is the founder and leader of the “greenie” religious group God’s Gardeners, a commune of urban farmers who distance themselves from what they see as a society in collapse; prepare for the end of the world as they know it, in the form of pandemic (the “Waterless Flood”); and construct their belief system at the intersection of Christianity and modern science. While Adam One is not the main character of the book, his influence over the two protagonists, Toby and Ren, is increasingly evident as the stories of their lives unfold. (Plus, Adam One returns as a pivotal character in the follow-up novel, MaddAddam.)

By coincidence (and perhaps in line with the zeitgeist) – but surely not as part of any plan – many recent Talon titles cast clergymen as prominent characters as well. Browsing our list, I found at least five. Here they are, in no particular order.

In the drama category, a few stand out:

Drew Hayden Taylor’s latest play, God and the Indian (2014) brings the clergyman character to the forefront. His play follows just two characters as they confront one another, revisit memories and traumas, and attempt to reconcile: Assistant Bishop George King, a former residential-school teacher, and Johnny, a former residential-school student.

In the realm of fiction, the most mentionable is Maleficium by Martine Desjardins, which is a collection of confessions given to Vicar Jerome Savoie, a heretic priest in nineteenth-century Montreal. The reader doesn’t learn much about Savoie himself, except through the way his confessors speak to him, and in the framing texts which share the history of his manuscript. He is a good priest in that he listens to the confessions and does not insinuate himself into the stories or lives of others – but he is also the protagonist, in that the cumulative effects of the stories told by the confessors come to his doorstep and wreak havoc. Maleficium won the 2013 Sunburst Award for speculative fiction, and it is one Talon title we receive a lot of feedback about; readers love this book.

Despite the prominence of secularism in public and social policy, just under 70% of Canadians consider themselves to be religious. Most of that group is Christian (though religious pluralism is a vital part of our cultural mosaic). That said, religious affiliation is in decline; many Canadians who claim to believe in God also expressly reject affiliation with religious institutions. (See the most recent Canadian census for more data.) Religion has become for many Canadians a mostly private affair, but these statistics – and these books – show that there is still a need, on the national stage, to better understand the role and influence of organized religion and individual faith on our history as well as our future.

(Where, you might ask at this point, are the rabbis and the mullahs and the other non-Christian religious leaders of CanLit? They can be found if you look for them – Yann Martel’s wide selection of wise religionists in Life of Pi comes to mind – but there should and probably will be others to come, as the budding writers of Canada’s increasingly diverse younger generations assert themselves.)

So, for now: here’s to you, fictional priests of Canadian literature, for helping us as a society address our complicated and evolving relationships with authority figures, organized religion, and The Man in general.