National Catholic Register


A Novel Approach to Pro-Life Polemics

Weekly Book Pick

BY John Prizer

December 16-22, 2002 Issue | Posted 12/16/01 at 1:00 PM


The literary and media establishments don't like the pro-life movement. They delight in caricaturizing its supporters and its point of view. The damage goes deeper than intellectual bias. In novels, movies and plays, the people who oppose abortion are usually presented as extremists, often with some kind of psychological problem that explains their pro-life opinions.

This skewed vision has unfortunate consequences for our culture. A whole class of people is rarely seen in its full complexity. The humanity of pro-lifers is given second place to their usefulness as pawns in a larger ideological struggle.

Holy Innocents is a first-class mystery novel that takes some small steps to right these wrongs.We are plunged us into a small Midwestern community where practicing Catholics seem as normal as blueberry pie. “Some of the Irish workers who had built the rail line settled in the valley, bringing their wives, their children and their fervent Catholic faith,” Kassel writes. “The occasional, open-air Masses were a curiosity to local farm folk, mostly German Lutherans with a sprinkling of Baptists and Mennonites. But novelty turned to discomfort when the first stones were laid for the foundation of St. Mary's and the Catholic presence in the valley became highly visible and permanent.”

The novel's action is triggered by the discovery of an aborted fetus in the men's room of a closed Catholic school called Holy Innocents. The key questions that drive the narrative are: Who put it there? And why? As the reader puzzles over the possible answers, the issue of anti-Catholic prejudice rears its ugly head.

Kassel introduces us to a wide range of complex characters whose behavior and psychology define the times and the milieu. They're also closely interconnected because of the community's small size, and Kassel skillfully captures the way power and information flow in this compacted environment, and how the fallout from the incident threatens personal relationships.

The novel's moral center is the man who finds the fetus, Alan Kemp, music director of St. Mary's parish. A former Air Force criminal investigator, he's asked to uncover the truth behind this shocking occurrence by an old friend in the local bishop's office.

Like G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, Kemp must overcome obstacles to solve the mystery. His lifestyle contradicts the stereotypes of contemporary American fiction, which often depicts orthodox Catholics as emotionally repressed fuddy-duddies: Kemp also plays guitar in a local country band.

St. Mary's pastor is the elderly Father Karl Muller, who has a secret in his past that may affect his response to the incident. Working with him is Sister Elaine Ryden, a young, ecologically aware nun who appears to relish challenging the status quo.

The local evangelical Protestant congregation is run by Pastor Matt Pell. Although his flock is pro-family and pro-life, he has no history of making common cause with Catholics during crises. Tamar Kittredge, the director of the Interfaith Counseling Center, cooperates with Sister Elaine on specific projects, but her feminist attitudes suggest the possibility of conflict.

Kemp uncovers some disturbing views beneath the community's Norman Rockwell-like veneer. Teachers in the local public school fear that the diocese is going to re-open Holy Innocents and grab the education funds which they covet. This resurrects some submerged anti-Catholic feelings.

Although the climactic suspense scenes at times lack the appropriate menace, all the plot strands are tied together with some clever twists. Holy Innocents is unusual in its presentation of religious commitment as a positive motivating force. Catholics are shown to be intelligent and sophisticated, and their pro-life views have moral weight.

The most important criterion for judging a work of fiction is its ability to engross and entertain its readers. On that count, the book scores high marks indeed.

Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.