A nostalgia novel naturally refers back to someone’s past, and thus easily elides into the coming-of-age genre. It is the perennial, universal human story of growing up - set against the specifics of a particular time and place. Such is certainly the case with the book I have just finished reading for this month’s “Great Catholic Fiction” discussion. That book is The Last Catholic in America - John R. Powers’ story of the joys and sorrows, the mysteries and challenges of childhood and adolescence, as experienced in the historically specific setting of the post-World War II American urban Catholic “ghetto.”
Not everyone growing up in that era was an Eddie Ryan, but most of us who grew up in that world would certainly recognize Eddie Ryan and the other kids in the story. Likewise each of us would also likely recognize at least parts of his or her own personal story in theirs. That’s what gives such stories their special charm, their nostalgic appeal. (The final chapter on the roller-skating rink is a masterpiece). If there is some exaggeration in the portrayal of Eddie, et al. - even some caricaturing in the way Eddie and his contemporaries are characterized – that’s all part of telling a good story. Certainly, those of us who really lived through similar experiences can sort that out.
But what about someone who didn’t live in that world, who also went through the universal human experiences of childhood and adolescence - but at a later date, in a very different society, and in a changed Church? Would someone with no first-hand experience of American Catholic life between 1945 and 1965 really understand that world and the people who inhabited it after reading this book?
One could, of course, ask the same question of someone whose only acquaintance with post-war American Catholic life was Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. There was an authentic experience captured in those movies, which Catholics from that era can readily recognize. To someone without that experience, however, the sugary sentimentality of such portrayals provides at best a partial picture.
And that is what this novel ultimately may do - although in this case (unlike those movies) the caricature thus created may more negatively portray the real people whose experience it purports to recall.
To its credit, the novel presents one sister – Sister Edna – appreciatively and sympathetically. The overall image of sisters, however, as so often happens with this genre, finally fails to do justice the legions of religious women who taught in Catholic schools (and staffed Catholic hospitals and other charitable institutions). For the record, it is simply false to say, for example, that “the vow of obedience simply meant that the nuns had to worship the ground the priests walked on.” Not only is that a caricature that seriously misrepresents religious obedience, it flies in the face of the real role sisters played in American Catholic life.
In an era when secular society significantly limited women’s opportunities for autonomy and leadership, Catholic women religious lived their own lives according to the rules of their particular communities, energetically carried out the missions for which their communities were founded, and ran their institutions effectively and successfully. In US history, the career accomplishments of, for example, Elizabeth Seton, Frances Cabrini, Katherine Drexel, and Rose Hawthorne certainly stand up to comparison with any comparably influential secular women.
Of my 8 elementary school teachers, 4 were sisters and 4 were laywomen. My best teacher was probably a sister, but all were adequate, and the sisters were on average neither better nor worse than the lay teachers. It was a very different world then, in which parents, teachers, students, indeed everyone had very different expectations and standards. The sisters who taught in Catholic schools lived and worked according to those standards and deserve not to be judged by the standards of a very different society. If some sisters were undoubtedly not up to the task, overwhelmingly most of them more than lived up to the expectations of their contemporaries. If nothing else, the subsequent socio-economic success of the generation that attended Catholic schools between 1945 and 1965 eloquently attests to the effectiveness of those schools and the dedicated teachers who staffed them.
The Last Catholic in America is a well written, sympathetic portrayal of the wonders and woes of a Catholic childhood and adolescence. Those who know little or nothing about the era, however, will need to look elsewhere for a fuller and fairer picture of a time and the real people who lived in it.