Monthly Archives: March 2018

Book review: “Lilies of the Field” by William E. Barrett

Chances are, many of you have seen the movie version of this book, the 1963 film for which Sidney Poitier won the best actor award — the first African-American to win that Oscar. It’s a magnificent movie, one that you can’t stop watching if you happen upon it on TCM or another channel.

If you can’t stop watching it, part of that credit goes to William E. Barrett, who penned the novel upon which it is based. Recently I read the novel, and the movie is very true to Mr. Barrett’s subtly moving story of an itinerant worker coming upon a group of nuns in the American wilderness (Colorado in the novel, Arizona in the movie) who want to build a chapel. The nuns are German, having escaped communism at the end of World War II and learning of an inheritance for them in this wild land.

51IXowMk9hL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_Homer Smith — “Schmidt” to the German Mother Superior — eventually helps them build this “shapel” and it all comes to pass through a combination of grit, faith, and the belief that even the lilies of the field are tended to by a benevolent God.

The book is as straightforward as the movie — Homer Smith comes upon the nuns in need, their Mother Superior sees him as sent by God, and he eventually does respond to their need for reasons of his own.

In the book, those reasons are crystal clear — when he applies for a job with a construction company, the owner learns the nuns have asked him to build the chapel. When the owner discovers Homer is an African-American man, he scoffs at Homer’s ability to get the job done, something that sticks in Homer’s craw:

I expected a different type.” Then, another sentence, “I wanted to see you before I told her.” He’d let old Mother down merely by being black.

Of course, he didn’t let her down, and it had nothing to do with him being black, except in his desire to prove that construction company owner wrong. As he does so, he develops a bond with the stern Mother Superior and she with him.

The bell rang and he straightened. Old Mother never rang the bell for the nuns because they knew when to come for meals. That bell was for him.

If Homer has a bond with the Mother Superior, it isn’t one without irritation. He knows that the Mother Superior believes he was sent to her to use for her goals. This chafes.

She had never got it out of her head that God had given Homer Smith to her. If that was a fact, she’d be certain that he couldn’t wander off. He belonged to her. That was something Homer had never liked. The idea of belonging to someone stirred a racial antagonism in him. No Negro was ever going to belong to anybody again. Not ever! He was free.

You feel for Homer in this circumstance–even though he’s proud to be accomplishing something the white construction owner thought him incapable of, he still struggles against the notion the Mother Superior might hold, that he was sent to be her servant in this grand task of building a chapel. As an African-American man, he wanted to be no man’s servant.

While this theme is apparent in the movie, and particularly in Sidney Poitier’s brilliant portrayal of Homer, it is clearer in this simple novel.

Also clearer is the role of faith, and here is another, broader deviation from the film — the Catholic priest in the movie is a cynical soul; in the book, he is a true believer who counsels Homer on what that means  “If a man believes in an unreasonable thing, that is faith,” the padre tells Homer.

I ordered this book to see if it was as moving as the movie. I enjoyed it, and I think it would be a particularly good read for teens and young adults, those on the cusp of understanding greater truths, of learning about worlds and beliefs beyond their own.

And once you read it, of course you must watch the movie, a film that stays with you beyond the last note of the “Amen” that Homer cheerfully sings.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, Fall from Grace, has been hailed as a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book review.

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ER Ruined the ’90s

Through the miracle of cable television, the old TV series ER now shows up every day. I started watching it again after not having seen it since its original airing. And I have come to the conclusion that ER ruined the 1990s for me. I was a young mother, with three kids in grade school or starting grade school, prone to fret about them, and week after week, ER treated me and other viewers to a cavalcade of …gloom. No wonder I was a Nervous Nellie during that decade.

As I view the show now, I think of the fates of the major characters. Every single one faced some sort of catastrophe, with few or no rays of sunshine. Think about it:

Dr. Mark Greene: is mugged, faces malpractice suit, eventually dies of brain tumor

Dr. Peter Benton: talented surgeon whose son is diagnosed as deaf

Dr. Doug Ross: notorious womanizer, he finally settles into a relationship with the love of his life, nurse Carol Hathaway, and then he gets booted from his job just as he and Carol are on the right trajectory.

Nurse Hathaway: see above (oh, and in the pilot episode, she was a suicide attempt)

Dr. John Carter: Cousin suffers a massive drug overdose, and John himself is a stabbing victim when deranged patient kills…

Dr. Lucy Knight: Medical student Lucy Knight has a contentious relationship with Dr. Carter that seems to be improving until…deranged patient kills her and stabs him.

There’s more…most of these core characters left the series eventually to be replaced by others who had similar bad fates. Someone should post a warning in that hospital’s HR for job applicants: Only work here if you can accept personal heartache on a dizzying schedule.

ERTitleCardThese leads’ stories, of course, were interwoven with the many tales of characters on each episode, the ones who end up maimed, dead, infected, whatever. Yeah, there were bunches who were patched up just fine, but this ER was surely a circle in Dante’s Hell.

I know that ERs see a lot of bad stuff, and this was, after all, a drama. It was just relentless in its bad stuff. And, since it was also a top-notch drama — with consistent and well-acted characterizations, good plotting, riveting story lines — it stuck with you, as all good drama does, well beyond the last flicker of pixels on the screen.

That’s the problem — ER was so darned good at what it did that the shadows would stay with me long after I watched an episode. It ruined the 1990s for me, people!

Seriously, though, ER probably accurately portrayed the many awful challenges we face as humans. I can think of people in my circle of friends and acquaintances who’ve suffered horrible illnesses, terminal diagnoses, disability, tragedy. It’s part of life.

But also part of life is hope. Faith. Especially of the religious kind. Many of those I know who’ve suffered awful circumstances, some too heavy to contemplate bearing, have a grounding in religious faith. So their gloom is lightened by the brightness of promise, promise that the Lord is with them, that…the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Lord.

That was never a part of ER. I don’t remember many, if any, visits by chaplains or rabbis to those in distress…even though most hospitals do ask patients to list such affiliations if they have them.

There was never much sense of true happiness either. Even when tormented characters found some measure of peace, they still …suffered.

ER was fantastic television drama and deserved all the awards and praise and viewership it received. But re-viewing it now makes me realize that sometimes I need to step away from good dramas like this if they’re unrelentingly dark.

I’ll do that…after I catch up on the next episode.

UPDATE: After watching more episodes I must amend this post. There is a storyline involving Dr. Luka Kovac and a bishop, his patient. The bishop is a saintly man, yet very human. He senses Luka is troubled, and for good reason. It turns out Luka lost his wife and children in a mortar attack in Croatia, and Luka feels immense guilt over this, over not being able to save them. As the bishop is dying, he tells Luka there’s not much time and he needs to hear Luka’s confession. That’s when we hear Luka’s story, his immense guilt and remorse for allowing his family to stay in unsafe circumstances, for not being able to save them, for making poor choices. The bishop is able to “absolve” him of this guilt. It was a lovely moment. Wish it had lasted longer, been explored more.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called “a novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.




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Five-paragraph story: (She Loves Me) Like Jesus Does

by Libby Sternberg

Why should traveling tire you out when all you’re doing is sitting while someone else steers? He’d been on a plane for three hours, a train for two, and now was in the backseat of an Uber, and he felt like he’d put in a forty-eight hour shift at the hospital. He drummed his fingers on his knees, anxious to get there, afraid of what he’d find.

She’d understood the first time, he reminded himself. She’d checked him into a program and taken him back when he was done, even softly explaining how it wasn’t unusual for medical staff to be tempted, to cross that line into substance abuse. She knew other nurses who’d gone this way. Of course, she herself hadn’t.

She’d understood the second time, too, with encouragement and a disciplined lack of judgment. He’d actually seen her schooling her face so it registered none of her disappointment when she suspected he was using again. No rehab then, nor the time after, nor…how many more times had he slipped?

This last time…there was a coolness. A sense she was reevaluating. She’d found his stash and thrown it out, flushed it right down the toilet. He’d tried to joke with her about that not being the most environmentally friendly way to discard meds, but she’d looked at him as if if she’d given up — on herself. On trying to figure it out, figure out how to be supportive but not enabling. When he saw that look, he went to rehab on his own. Checked himself in. Pulled himself up. Prayed every day it would stick this time. Prayed she’d be there when he got out. So that he could at least say he was sorry. Just that — say he was sorry. Please…

Seventy times seven, he murmured to himself after he’d lugged his duffle from the car and stood in front of their tidy bungalow. Please, Lord, let her forgive me.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose latest book, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review. Five-paragraph-stories is an occasional series, sometimes inspired, as this one is, by popular songs. “She Loves Me Like Jesus Does” is a song by Eric Church. Video below.

Other stories in the five-paragraph series are:


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