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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