‘Back to the Bright Before’ Is Great Summer Reading for Middle-Schoolers and Their Moms
In praise of one of the most charming books I’ve read in a long time by a home-schooling Catholic mom in Iowa.
Nuns feel like big news right now, but not the right kind of nuns. As nuns who so many of us know and love are being mocked in the most wicked of ways, there is a new middle-school book that beautifully reminds us of the precious and quiet presence of cloistered nuns. The real ones. The ones who quietly but completely dedicate their lives to serve God and neighbor.
The book, Back to the Bright Before, by Katherin Nolte, illustrated by Jen Bricking (Random House, 2023), is probably one of the most charming books I’ve read in a long time. I first heard about it on Charity Hill’s podcast about children’s books, Bright Wings. The author, Katherin Nolte, is a home-schooling Catholic mom in Iowa. I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical at first. I’ve read some other new children’s action and adventure books with Catholic authors and wondered what was happening as the story dropped into unrecognizably odd pagan fantasy. But immediately, there was something different about this book. I prayed with each turned page that it kept it up. I was not disappointed.
The story is quite simple. “Pet,” short for Perpetua, 11, and her family are struggling after her father, the main breadwinner, has had a terrible fall and is laid up with an injury that prevents him from working. Her mother takes over working double shifts at a restaurant. Pet cares for her 5-year-old brother, who has been so traumatized by his father’s accident that all he can say is “cheese,” the last words his father said before his fall. Money is scarce. And the money needed for her father’s surgery is nowhere on the horizon. Pet is determined to help the family out of this terribly dark spot.
The story takes on a beautiful richness with the abbey down the road, the 200-acre convent of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Pet found a friend in the newest novice, Sister Melanie, who teaches Pet Latin phrases, offers her wisdom, and is a solace in the family’s time of struggle.
Unsure of how to help her family, Pet finally hatches a plan. Legend has it that when the convent was founded long ago, one of the founders hid a priceless coin somewhere on the property. Brother Brendan died before he could tell anyone where it was. An old poem that accompanied the legend remains with clues to where it can be found. Pet is determined to find the coin, which is supposed to be the coin brought to Jesus when he told the Pharisees who were trying to trip him up to “Return unto Caesar” what is already his (Mark 12:13-17). Finding it will give her family enough money to help her father.
While technically a secular book, there is very little that is secular about it, from the lovely, loving nuns, the visit of angelic characters, and the strong embedded imagery of lambs, miracles and self-sacrifice. There was nothing saccharine about this book either. Evil is real, it is scary, and it hurts. But it does not triumph.
I read Back to the Bright Before with my 12-year-old daughter, and almost from the start, it touched us very deeply. It is the kind of book that elicits tears, but one isn’t really sure exactly what one is crying about. Sometimes it was the circumstances; other times, it was joy and beauty that choked us up and made reading aloud difficult; and sometimes it cut too close to those tender spots in souls of mothers and children (and fathers, too). We found ourselves having to stop for tissue breaks.
Without giving away too much of a spoiler, I was struck by the dignity, reverence, ingenuity and obedience portrayed in the nuns. They gave Pet a way to see with the eyes of faith. They were her sisters. It reminded me of the times I have spoken on the phone with a cloistered nun friend. She calls me “sister,” which always makes me smile, because, of course, that is what a nun who spends nearly every minute of her life speaking just with other sisters would call me. But it has a deeper meaning to me: a sense that she very much sees me as her sister in Our Lord. The feeling is very mutual and a tremendous gift. These are the women we want and need to have on our side.
I hope Nolte will keep writing. Back to the Bright Before is one of those books that sticks to the ribs, that stays with you, flickering in the moral imagination, offering hope, restoration, strength and courage. This is a lovely book for middle-school-age children, but I confess, I would have loved it if I had read it alone. I might just read it again.
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