Catholic, Reluctantly by Christian M. Frank is the first in the new John Paul 2 High series edited by Regina Doman and published by Sophia Institute Press.
Imagio Catholic Fiction seeks to counter the despair, cynicism, and amorality of today’s youth fiction with stories for young readers that feed faith and build virtue.
Our books are not disguised sermons but compelling stories told in a contemporary voice: entertaining young readers while at the same time presenting to them a moral universe in which God is real and active, and in which religion, family, and friendship are goods to be reverenced.
Slightly reminiscent of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austen series; but with a focus on school rather than family. The novel follows two students, George and Allie who have just started at JP2 high. It is a tiny school—only 7 students!—founded by a group of Catholic parents after one of the parents was fired from the local Catholic high school for teaching Humanae Vitae.
As advertised, the novel does not read like a sermon. It had characters I could identify with, real people not plaster saints. For example, when a practical joke sends a group of the students to evangelize the local public school, they are all uncomfortable at being put on the spot and the only guy to pass out the leaflets was using them to chat up cute girls. I’m shy and hate being put on the spot and would definitely not do well in a similar situation. It was reassuring that the students were likewise ill at ease. I couldn’t have related to the happy missionary type.
Both George and Allie struggle with their parents’ decisions to pull them out of their former schools (George from a local Catholic high school, Allie from a public school.) as well as with fitting in at their new school and trying to come to terms with their Catholic identity. Also each of them faces a series of moral dilemmas, the major conflict centering around the wrestling team at the local public high school that George and fellow JP2er, Brian, join.
Allie has been pulled from public school because she was the victim of a violent attack. She doesn’t know much of anything about her faith, though she is nominally Catholic. Allie’s boyfriend is the wrestling team captain and of course in the course of the book she faces a choice between her new friends at JP2 High and her boyfriend and old circle of friends at the public school.
I liked that the Catholic kids at JP2 are self-aware about their faith but also about how they must seem to the outsider, Allie. “we must seem really weird to you,” Celia, the principal’s daughter says on the first day of classes. And later, when Allie asks, “Can’t you guys look at anything without thinking of Mary, or Jesus, or something?” Celia and George pretend to be zombies, joking, “We… can’t….help it,” and, “we’re…Catholic.”
The novel is very up to date, with the characters text messaging back and forth (which might make it soon dated as technology advances). At times it rides the line, seeming a little too earnest to be relevant. But every time it started to seem like too much, it pulled back just enough.
One touch I really liked, that actually won me over, was a poem by David Craig that is introduced on the first day of class that personifies Truth as a sort of jokester:
If it’s there, it will stick a foot out
as you pass; he will hold his side laughing
as you fall…
It will be more than you expected.
But then, of course, you must decide
what you’re going to do with him.
He might start to follow you around—
You can just picture him
down on the corner with the boys
trying to fit in—your friends will hate him
you won’t be able to take him anywhere.
The poem starts to haunt Allie; “The Truth Guy” becomes her developing conscience. It’s really the theme of the novel, I suppose. Truth is that uncomfortable tag-along that you don’t want to introduce to your friends, that eventually makes you decide between him and your friends. Anyhow, I like the image and I liked the way the novel picked it up and ran with it, making the truth almost a character.
A while back Dom received a review copy of a book from a Catholic author and passed it on to me to read and review because it wasn’t really his sort of book. Well, I didn’t really like it. It felt forced, the kind of overtly Catholic book in which the author’s message gets in the way of the storytelling. The character spent too much time thinking about being Catholic, thinking about moral issues, in a way that didn’t seem at all necessary to the story and felt forced onto him from without rather than arising in an organic way. The novel also had some structural issues and I just didn’t click with the characters or the plot. I couldn’t find a nice way of saying any of this and I didn’t want to trash the book after the author had given it to me for free, so I dropped it and said nothing. Today, I might be better able to articulate the issues without sounding negative, but at the time I really couldn’t.
Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that the issues that book had, the kinds of issues that generally make me leery of overtly Catholic fiction, don’t exist in Catholic, Reluctantly. Or at least the Catholic stuff doesn’t get in the way of my enjoying the story.
One thing that actually helps Catholic, Reluctantly in that regard is, in fact, the genre. As a school story, it necessarily has a certain sort of structure and that framework guides the story and gives a reason for the overt Catholicity in the problems the characters face. Because the novel is set in a small, parent-run Catholic school, the conflicts are natural to that setting and don’t feel forced upon the characters. The Catholic school setting determines the plot, I suppose the school itself is a sort of character, and thus the Catholic teens seem entirely natural as they wrestle with moral issues and with their Catholic identity for they are doing what all teens do, trying to assert or perhaps to discover their identities and the forum in which they do so shapes the process.
If you don’t like the genre, this won’t be a book for you. But I think it’s pretty good at not being preachy or sentimental. My one caveat would be that it might be a little dark for some younger readers as it deals with issues of bullying and pornography.