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BY Robert Kennedy
Danger to the State by Philip Trower
The spectacular success of several large national booksellers is a sure sign that Americans are reading more than they once did. Oddly enough, though, in one of the most religious nations on earth, very few contemporary novels (or films or plays, for that matter) draw inspiration from the life of faith. Some of these few novels or films explore religious matters from the outside looking in, as if the authors are fascinated yet puzzled by persons of faith. Others are tales of survival, describing how the characters escape from the suffocating embrace of religion to the freedom of an enlightened secularism. Hardly any portray an authentic and sympathetic appreciation of a living faith.
This may be changing, however slowly, and as it changes Catholics may discover the pleasure of reading well-written novels that enhance their understanding of what it means to be a Catholic, rather than challenge it. In recent years, Ignatius Press has been bold enough to begin offering Catholic novels in this vein, where other publishers have been careful to avoid contemporary religious literature. Philip Trower's Danger to the State is one of these new novels.
Danger is an historical novel set principally in Spain and Paraguay in the 1760s. Its general focus is on the events leading to the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain in 1767 and the subsequent suppression of the order by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. The story is told from the perspective of the de Vallecas, an important (but fictional) aristocratic family whose head, Don Maurice, occupies a position of some influence at the court of King Charles III. The novel begins as the family sends one of its sons off to Paraguay as a Jesuit missionary. The Jesuits had by this time already been expelled from France and Portugal, and forces bent on their destruction were gathering to oppose them in Spain as well.
This hostility to the Jesuits sprang from several sources. One was anxiety over their growing power and influence in European life. Another was their purported wealth, which could be redistributed were the order to be suppressed (a tactic employed ruthlessly by England's Henry VIII two centuries earlier). Finally, the Jesuits were particularly detested by some in Spain and Portugal for their missionary activities in South America. There they had established orderly, self-sufficient communities (called reductions) around the countryside, converting native people to Christianity, teaching them agriculture and crafts, and wisely governing them.
Their success in managing these communities — some survived for nearly 150 years — and their tenacity in protecting the natives from European predation, created numerous enemies for the Jesuits. In time, these enemies realized that, if the Jesuits could be restrained or suppressed, the natives could be put to work doing more “useful” things and their lands could be explored (and exploited) for the gold that must lie hidden in them. Trower shifts back and forth from events unfolding in Spain to the growth and vitality of life in these communities. In doing so he paints a compelling, though perhaps overly romantic, picture of what that life may have been like.
For Father Alfonso de Valleca, the day after he arrived in the reduction that was to be his new home “was a beautiful morning. The sun was just looking over the tops of the trees, while the cloud that had formed in the night had broken up into countless pieces, now slowly becoming diaphanous, which lay against the blue of the sky like small white islands against the blue of the sea on a map. Birds sped through the air like colored darts or hopped on the ground in search of insects. Children shouted, chased each other, and tumbled about. In the distance, the women's dresses gleamed against the shadows under the verandahs. It was as though during the night the earth's face had been washed with a sponge.” Trower presents the reduction as an opportunity to rebuild human communities in a sort of second Paradise.
In the meantime, forces in Spain are gathering strength and turning the king against the order. The de Valleca family soon finds itself marginalized at court and caught between conflicting personal loyalties, keenly portrayed in their daughter, who is torn between two suitors promoting different sides of the issue. Their steadfastness has a price and as the novel unfolds we are carried irresistibly toward the tragic effects of first the expulsion and finally the suppression of the order.
The injustice of these actions meets with remarkably little resistance. At one point Father Alfonso, out of concern for his congregation, is inclined to refuse to obey the order to leave. He is admonished by his superior, “Do you think you love them more than Christ loved his apostles? Yet when the time came for him to die, he has to leave them at the mercy of his enemies. History is not something straightforward, not something men will ever be able fully to understand or control. It is the unfolding, the working out of the mystery of evil, grace, and free will. We shall be helping the forces of evil if we try to take our own way, rather than God's, through this labyrinth.”
Trower does a fine job of involving his readers in the setting and the historical events. Like other good novels of this kind, Danger intersperses fictional characters (such as the de Vallecas) with authentic personalities. His sense of detail and period ring true and add a pleasing texture to his story. He might be faulted for being a bit too sentimental and one-sided in his presentation of events, but for all that the novel still reads well. Catholic readers will find it a refreshing alternative to today's standard fare, and should hope to see more of the same from Trower and other Catholic writers.
Robert Kennedy is a professor in the management department at the St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota.