October 2002

Catholic Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook.  By Mary R. Reichardt. Greenwood Press. 424 pages. $100.

The definition of a “Catholic” writer in this resource book is quite broad, which proves to be both a strength and a weakness. It is a definition that includes those who are baptized and remain within the faith over a lifetime. But it also includes those who never embrace the faith but who write with a sympathy for the tradition, and even those whose main relationship to the Church is that of a truculent child, aggrieved and rebellious.

The term “writer” is also rather loosely applied. We find such saints and mystics as Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), whose teachings were transcribed from memory by her disciples, as well as prolific and gifted storytellers such as Rumer Godden and Flannery O’Connor. Even Theresa Hak Kyung Cha has an entry, although she worked chiefly in film until her tragic murder in 1982 at age 31.

The volume’s one real commonality is that each subject is a woman. Each has an awareness of the reality and importance of the spiritual and the transcendent, whether in fiction, poetry, or expository writing. Some have struggled with the need for orthodoxy when it seemingly conflicted with imaginative writing, but none is merely a purveyor of information — not even Dorothy Day, even though she regarded herself as a journalist.

The selections are global, with a solid representation of South and Central American authors, including the now somewhat discredited Nobel Winner Rigoberta Menchu. The time span is also sweeping, taking us from Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) to the ubiquitous Mary Gordon of our own time. The volume’s many entries are not entirely free of secular feminist jargon. But each account, consisting of a brief biographical sketch, a short analysis of literary output, and a listing of works by and about the author, includes commentary on the author’s relation to Catholicism.

As an introductory reference book, with its 64 entries, it succeeds as a survey, especially by introducing several authors, such as Sophie Rostopchine (1799-1874), whose works are no longer widely read but who at one time enjoyed enormous popularity as a children’s fiction writer. The cost of this edition, however, limits its usefulness as a sourcebook for the home library.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink



Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life.  By Fran Grace. Indiana University Press. 281 pages. $35.

Carry Nation was an American anti-alcohol activist who lived from 1846 to 1911. She gained fame in 1900 when she began wielding a hatchet to destroy saloons in Kansas, where alcohol sales were illegal. Carry believed she was divinely inspired to carry out this mission; in fact, she viewed herself as the reincarnation of the Old Testament judge, Deborah. Carry continued her crusade in a number of American cities, and was arrested some 30 times. Though most temperance organizations did not outwardly support her, Carry helped to galvanize the nation’s public attention on the cause of prohibition and helped to create a public mood favorable to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

As a child Carry was often sick, and spent a great deal of time reading the Bible. Later, as a young woman, she fell madly in love with a physician, Charles Gloyd. They married and Carry bore a daughter, Charlien, who subsequently became ill. Carry blamed the illness on Gloyd’s drinking, and left Gloyd because of his drinking and his failure to make a successful living. He died shortly thereafter, and some time later Carry married another “failure,” minister David Nation. After years of complaints, David Nation filed for divorce on grounds of desertion and cruelty.

Carry died in 1911, essentially of a broken heart, after her long-suffering daughter, Charlien, was recommitted to an asylum by her ex-husband. However, Carry’s name and cause live on. The prohibition of alcohol, her lifelong goal, was to move well beyond Kansas to become federal law.

This book gives the impression that Carry was a mixed bag. Was she sincere? Undoubtedly. Did she carry out righteous actions in breaking up illegal saloons? Maybe. Yes, the saloons were illegal, but alcoholic beverages have been imbibed for centuries. Even Jesus Christ turned water into wine at a wedding feast. We’re certainly not talking about the level of evil of, say, abortion mills, which are legal in today’s society. Was she insane, as some claimed? Carry had feared being labeled insane by those who disagreed with her, for she was vulnerable to the charge: Her mother and daughter both ended up in institutions. But Carry was not insane.

Carry was a brave woman. And her violent saloon-busting resulted in much abuse — she was beaten many times, and spent many a lonely night in a dank jail, where she was sometimes harassed by jailkeepers and police. She appeared to love her enemies, and won some over with kindness.

The author leaves out many clues about Carry’s personality which reveal that her real fight was against the weak men who surrounded her, not liquor. Carry’s first love and first husband, Charles Gloyd, was an alcoholic. He was emotionally weak, too, at one point communicating to Carry that he was “blank” without her. But the truth is, alcohol has no power of its own; having an addictive personality — a character weakness — makes someone an alcoholic in the first place. Blaming the alcohol misses the point.

Another glaring clue that the real target of Carry’s anger was not alcohol, but weak men, was the contempt she showed for her weak husband, David. David and Carry were both preachers, and while David was preaching in Holton, Kansas, Carry was known to coach him from the audience, “never hesitating to seize the pulpit, slam David’s Bible shut, and decree the service over.” What kind of man would allow his wife to even think about trying this? The book is filled with countless examples of this type of behavior.

Carry believed that God placed a yoke on women in Genesis 3:15, which states that a man shall rule over his wife. She believed that “the fall of humanity had brought the curse of male domination but the Son of God had smashed it.” I’d sure like to know from which book in the New Testament she derived this.

It would be dishonest to heap too much blame on Carry for her reactive behavior toward weak men. After all, her wishy-washy husbands allowed her to roam out of control, and apparently many of the drunks she met were pathetic excuses for men. Their weaknesses were more blameworthy than her excesses, for it is a man’s God-given duty to protect and to lead.

- Patrick Rooney





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