This week’s other featured books, “Winter Light,” by Martha Engber and “Percivious Insomnia,” by J.J. and A.J. Cook, MD, can be found by scrolling down below this post, or by clicking the author’s name on our Authors page.
THE BOOK: Toward That Which Is Beautiful
THE AUTHOR: Marian O’Shea Wernicke
THE EDITOR: Brooke Warner
THE PUBLISHER: She Writes Press, an independent publishing company, and winner of the 2019 Best Independent Press Award.
SUMMARY: In June of 1964 in a small town in the highlands of Peru, Sister Mary Katherine, a young nun from St. Louis, Missouri, slips away from the convent with no money and no destination. Challenged by the harsh, austere climate at 12,000 feet, disoriented by a culture not her own, and afraid of her love for an Irish priest with whom she is working, she runs away. She spends eight days on a journey that leads to both friendly and dangerous encounters until she arrives at a startling destination.
THE BACK STORY: The great American writer Toni Morrison said, “Write the story you want to read.” I have very seldom read any novels that portray 20th century nuns in a realistic way. Having been a nun myself, and having served for three years in Lima, Peru, from 1968-1970, I was often asked by my students why I had become a nun, and why after eleven years, I decided to leave the religious life. So the story is my attempt to portray a normal, fun-loving American girl who becomes a teaching nun and volunteers to serve in a remote area like the Altiplano of Peru. The novel takes the reader on a journey into the heart of Peru and Bolivia in the early 60’s, a time when Latin Americans were increasingly questioning the social and economic injustice in their countries. This young woman begins to question her very presence there when several Peruvians challenge her about why she’s come to Peru when there are so many problems in her own country. I hope readers will enjoy being immersed in the beauty of Peru and Bolivia and also in the heart of Kate as she searches for her way in life.
THE TITLE: The title is taken from the word Achirana, the name of an ancient canal in Peru built by the Incas to bring fresh water from the highlands to the desert area around the city of Ica. The word Achirana means “that which flows cleanly toward that which is beautiful.” This phrase describes well the journey that Kate travels in the novel.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? The story is one that has not been told very often in a realistic way. Many books and films involving nuns portray them as either cold, frigid, kill-joys or naive, singing, childish fools. In contrast, this is a love story between two dedicated people who want to be faithful to their vows, but who find themselves falling deeply in love with each other. In addition, people who have traveled to Peru and Bolivia, or who would like to, will enjoy the breathtaking scenery of this part of the world.
Kirkus Review praised the novel as “a moving, emotionally resonant tale of one woman’s crisis of faith.”
Christine Bell, author of The Perez Family, says this novel is a “lyrical journey of faith and love. Wernicke’s writing is graceful and heart-rending. A most elegant novel.”
Herta Feely, author of Saving Phoebe Morrow, says, “Not since Bel Canto have I enjoyed a novel set in South America as much as Toward That Which is Beautiful. Once you start reading, you won’t be able to put it down.”
AUTHOR PROFILE: Marian O’Shea Wernicke is the author of a memoir about her father, Tom O’Shea: A Twentieth Century Man. She is also co-editor, with Herta Feely, of a collection of short stories and memoirs called Confessions: Fact of Fiction? She studied under poets Derek Walcott, Maxine Kumin, and Mark Jarman at the Sewanee Writers Conference. A professor of English for 25 years at Pensacola State College, Wernicke also served as department head of English/Communications at the college. As a nun for eleven years, Wernicke taught in St. Louis and in Lima, Peru for three years. Married and the mother of three grown children, she and her husband now live in Austin, Texas.
Thursday, June 25, 1964
At noon on a brilliant June day in the highlands of Peru, called the Altiplano, Sister Mary Katherine slips out the back door of the convent of Santa Catalina. She crosses the courtyard, gliding past fat little Tito playing in the shade of the eucalyptus tree near the convent wall. He looks up expectantly, but for once the tall nun does not return his grin. His mother Marta, the convent cook, comes to the door to check on her son, and, as she wipes her hands on her faded blue apron, watches in silence as Sister Mary Katherine pulls the large wooden gate open and disappears.
Sharp angles of sunlight fall on her black veil and white habit. She walks swiftly, inhaling the olive oil and garlic smells of noonday meals in the village, her footsteps echoing in the hushed streets. Not even a dog barks. She crosses the dirt road heading north of the parish, past the infirmary, shuttered now for the siesta, and enters the main street of Juliaca. The market stalls are still open, but only a handful of women and children squat in the shade, half-heartedly guarding their baskets of potatoes, onions, carrots, and mushrooms, their dogs huddling together for warmth in the early winter sun. A young girl in a green poncho greets her shyly, “Buenas tardes, madrecita.”
Soon Kate—for she has never stopped being Kate beneath the long white habit and black veil of the Dominicans—reaches the edge of town, where one rusting taxi is parked in the shade of the train station, the driver lounging in the shadows. She thinks briefly of buying a train ticket, but, smothering a laugh dangerously close to a sob, realizes that she has no money—and
even worse, that she has no destination. You have to buy a ticket to somewhere, after all. All she knows is that she is running away.
The nun walks at a steady pace down the dusty road winding through sparse fields. By late afternoon she realizes she is headed toward Lake Titicaca. Solitude hangs over the land like mist.
Kate has heard the Aymaras’ stories of the great hungry god of the lake. Once she and the other sisters went out on a Sunday afternoon in a balsa boat with a local guide. Raul was paddling gently around when the sky darkened and the wind picked up. In a determined voice, he announced that they were heading back to shore. Kate remembers how she protested, but that Magdalena, their Peruvian novice, shook her head and put her finger to her mouth.
“Don’t insist,” she whispered in English. “Raul says that storms are very bad here on the lake. If we capsize no one will come to rescue us, for the native Andean prople believe that the god of the lake gets hungry—and we’d be his lunch!” Her eyes laughed. She was from Lima, and the ways of the highland people were as foreign to her as they were to the
American nuns she had joined. But her face stayed serious as she nodded to Raul in assent. Despite the other sisters’ grumbling, Raul’s back remained straight beneath the wool of his poncho, and his slender hands gripped the oars firmly as he brought them safely to shore.
By now Kate’s feet hurt. Her sensible black oxfords were fine for everyday work in the parish, but they aren’t right for hiking; she wonders what she’ll do if she gets a blister. She finds a dry spot in the reeds encircling the lake and sits down to take off her shoes. She is thirsty and hungry, too. By now they would have missed her at the convent.
She gazes at the sun’s slanting red rays, glinting on the lake. Sister Josepha will be at Vespers now, trying to chant the psalms by herself. Kate murmurs the opening verse:
The morn had spread her crimson rays,
When rang the skies with shouts of praise,
Earth joined the joyful hymn to swell,
That brought despair to vanquished hell.
Despair. What’s happening to her? She lies back among the reeds—so tired, tired of fighting herself, of trying to live the life she had vowed, of trying not to love. Trying not to love.
Lying on her back, she sees a condor circling the lake in a wide leisurely arc. His white throat gleams in the dusk. He is a good omen, Kate thinks as she closes her eyes. He will watch over me.
Kate wakes, feeling the damp ground beneath her. Now it is night. How long has she slept? Her face and hands are freezing, and her feet in the cotton stockings are numb. She pulls on her shoes. She has to get up, to move. This is crazy, she knows, this panicked flight. Suddenly she thinks of Jane Eyre fleeing from Rochester. She finds the road again.
In the black sky, the stars shine icily remote and unfamiliar. She meant to study these constellations of the Southern Hemisphere ever since she came to South America, finding it so strange at night not to see the Big Dipper and Orion in their familiar spots. Tonight there is no wind, and above the distant peaks of the Andes, the moon is rising. She holds up her watch— eight thirty. It will get much colder, she knows, a twinge of panic tightening in her throat. Somewhere along this road is an old colonial Spanish house that the local manager of the train station refurbished. But the family moved out last year, and Kate doesn’t know if anyone lives there now.
Finally, off to the right, she sees a light flickering through some scrubby bushes. She follows the wooden fence up to the gate and reaches through to unlatch the iron bar within. She pauses for a moment, waiting for a dog’s bark, then makes her way quietly up the flagstone path that leads to a wide veranda. As she knocks on the door she thinks she can hear music. The door opens and the outline of a man is framed in lamplight.
Kate, surprised to hear a British accent, sticks out her hand.
“Sister Mary Katherine, from the Dominican Sisters at Santa Catalina,” she says in what she hopes is a firm voice.
The man steps aside to let her in; now she can see his dark hair, graying along the temples, the angular face. His eyes are shadowed in the dim hall. As Kate shakes his hand, his wool sweater scratches her arm.
“Come in, come in. I’m sorry this place is such a mess.” Confused, he looks around the room. Her glance follows his. On a table with two kerosene lamps burning are several notebooks piled neatly next to a typewriter. A fire flickers in the great stone fireplace across the room. Now the music is clearer—Mozart, Kate realizes as she notices the short-wave radio on a table in the corner. It is the familiar music that does her in, hearing it in this desolate foreign night. Her voice trembles.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that I’m so tired and cold. I fell asleep on the ground. My habit is damp.” She tries to keep her voice steady.
Her host, looking closely at her, seems to relax at the sight of her tears. “Okay, mysterious sister of the night, come in. I’m going to get you warm clothes. While you change, I’ll reheat some lovely soup that I have left from my supper. A hot toddy might be in order, too.”
The man leads her down the hall to a back bedroom, unused it seems, except for an open suitcase that lies, neatly packed, on a love seat. When he leaves the room, she walks over to the peeling gilt mirror above the dresser. It is a Peruvian mirror in the colonial style, made of mahogany, and framed by tiny irregular pieces of mirror inlaid in the dark wood. The pieces glitter in the lamplight and reflect her image in a thousand broken fragments. She stares, her face pale beneath the black veil, and the white scapular that hangs straight from her shoulders to the hem of her long skirt is smeared with dirt.
“These should do all right.” His voice is brisk, and he does not meet her eyes as he thrusts a pair of soft, faded flannel pajamas, a red checked bathrobe, and a pair of cotton socks into her arms. “Freshen up now. There’s a sink and a toilet in the courtyard off this room. I’ll have something hot ready in a moment.”
Kate walks back to the mirror. She unpins the black veil from the white cap covering her hair, folds it neatly in a square, and places it on a chair. Then she pulls off the tight cap and runs her fingers through short, curly brown hair. She takes off the wimple covering her neck, the scapular, and finally her skirt and blouse. The image staring back at her is almost boyish, a tall slim body in a white cotton T-shirt.
She grabs the towel he has left and pushes open the door to the courtyard. The thin crystalline air stings her as she hurries through her wash at the sink. She returns gratefully to the bedroom, which, although chilly, is well lit and comforting with its maple single bed, so much like her old bed at home in St. Louis. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she cinches the bathrobe tightly around her waist and pads back to the living room in the Englishman’s warm socks.
He is stooped over the stove, stirring the soup. “I forgot to introduce myself,” he says, not looking at her. “I’m Peter Grinnell, on loan from Cambridge University to study Andean history and culture. Actually, I’m leaving tomorrow. I’m off for a month or two of vacation in Surrey. Summer’s quite green and pleasant there.”
She is grateful for the easy way he chatters on. Somehow he’s sensed her deep embarrassment at appearing before him without her habit and veil.
He hands her a glass of amber liquid. “It’s whiskey and honey. There should be lemon too, but try finding lemons anywhere up here.”
Kate thinks of her father. A hot toddy was always his favorite cure for a cold or the flu, or even for the desolation of a windy February night. “Thanks. May I help?”
Unsure of protocol, Kate sits clutching her glass of whiskey. After a sip, she feels the warmth invade her empty stomach.
Peter serves the soup carefully and sits down across from her. He pushes his chair back from the table and lights a cigarette. “You don’t mind?”
“Of course not.” Kate knows she is devouring the soup greedily, but doesn’t care. There are biscuits, too, hard but filling.
“Well, Sister Mary Katherine, you frightened me a bit when I saw you all white and ghostly in the moonlight. I thought you were a spirit. The Aymara talk about the mountain gods who sometimes appear in the form of animals, birds, often the condor, but also as people—even as foreigners.”
Kate remembers the condor she’d seen over Lake Titicaca. She grins at him, relaxing for the first time that day. Fortunately, this cool, middle-aged Englishman doesn’t seem shocked by an American nun sitting by his fire in his pajamas, enjoying his whiskey and soup.
He squints through the cigarette smoke, and asks abruptly,
“How old are you?”
“Ah, a little young for the solitary life of the Altiplano, I suppose.”
Solitary? Since she’d left St. Louis she hadn’t been alone for a minute, and yet she realizes with a jolt that there is a deep core of loneliness inside. She answers slowly. “Well, I suppose I am still pretty green. I came to Peru from our Motherhouse in St. Louis a year ago. Then a month in Lima, followed by five months in Cochabamba at the Maryknoll Language Institute. I’ve been here in Juliaca since January.”
“Did you study Aymara in Coch?”
“Very little—most of the course was Spanish. I had about three weeks of Aymara.”
Peter gets up abruptly and paces across the room. “I must say, you Americans can be damned naive at times. Green, happy, middle-class innocents flocking in droves to do good—not understanding the people or the culture, putting up buildings, bringing in U.S. dollars and medicine.” He glances over to see if she is offended. “What do you do up here anyway? You’re a nurse, I suppose?”
“No, but I wish I had studied nursing.” Kate shoves her empty bowl away and takes another drink of whiskey. “At least then I could be sure I was really doing something useful. Of course, Sister Jeanne Marie—she’s our nurse—says that by the time she sees the patients it’s usually too late to do much—T.B., cholera, dysentery.” Kate knows she is rattling on but is unable to stop. Is it the whiskey? she wonders. “Anyway, my job is teaching the children to read in Spanish, and I give catechism classes to the women and teenagers, with an interpreter who translates my halting Spanish into Aymara. God knows what message comes out!” She falters, “Actually, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
She looks up to find his eyes on her; they are green, she sees, fringed by thick dark lashes, like a girl’s. “What made you want to be a nun in the first place?”
Kate stares into the fire for a few moments. “I felt called somehow.”
He laughs at this. “Okay. Second question: What are you doing wandering around the Altiplano alone at night?”
She looks up, catching his ironic stare. She looks away. Because I’m burning up with love, she wants to say. She thinks of St. Augustine’s Confessions: “Burning, burning, so I came to Carthage.” Would he recognize the quote? In the firelight she sees a face—Father Tom’s as he had appeared that morning in his gold and white vestments at Mass. His dark, unruly hair slicked back, his eyes closed as he raised the Host at the consecration. His hands had gripped the Host as if willing God’s presence into the damp old church. And she, a nun, drowning with love and desire for him.
Peter waits. The music rises and falls, a stream rushing out to the sea.
“I had to get away. I was suffocating.”
“Do the other nuns know where you are?”
“No.” She doesn’t even know where she is.
Kate watches him as he gets up and walks over to a table beside the front door. He picks up his keys. “I’ll take you back now, if you like.”
She begins to shiver. The warmth of the fire cannot reach the cold within. He walks over and stands in front of her. “Sister Katherine—whatever your name is—they’ll be worried about you.”
She rises to face him. She forces herself to speak calmly; he must not think she is crazy. “Peter, I’d be so grateful if I could stay here tonight.”
“Look, I have to leave in the morning. I’m going in to Arequipa to stock up on some film, get my mail, and see a few friends. Then on Saturday I go to Lima for the flight to London.”
“Do you think I could catch a ride with you to Arequipa?” Kate strives for a light tone—as if she were a college girl going away for the weekend.
Peter gazes into the fire, avoiding her eyes. “You really ought to go back to Santa Catalina, you know. They’ll be worried about you.”
“No, I can’t.” She tries to keep the edge out of her voice. “I just need to get away so I can think. I’ll let them know somehow that I’m all right. Please, Peter, you’ve been so kind.” She stops, afraid to say more.
He comes toward her. “All right. I’ll probably be arrested for abducting a nun. We’ll leave here in the morning at six thirty sharp, when the fog’s burned off. I want to make Arequipa by nightfall.” He reaches out as if to touch her hair, then drops his hand. “Good night, Sister,” he says with just a touch of mockery.
After the warmth of the fire, the guest room is freezing. Kate flings the bathrobe on the foot of the bed and slips between the sheets. She pulls the rough woolen blankets around her. They smell musty; Peter mustn’t have much company. In the dark, she starts to tremble. What is she doing? She has taken the coward’s way out, she knows. Running away from Santa Catalina isn’t helping her think straight. She is only worrying a lot of good people who have other, more important things to do than chase after a twenty-five-year-old nun who should know how to handle falling in love. Falling. Yes, fallen.
LOCAL OUTLETS: Book People, Austin, Texas; Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Missouri; Bodacious Books, Pensacola, Florida.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes&Noble
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: Facebook: Marian O’Shea Wernicke.