CHRISTMAS STAR, by Catherine Lanigan. Banbury Publishing.
317 pp. $16.95.
Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this
publication. She was raised in the Chicago area and graduated
from Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette. If the heroine
in this book were real, she’d probably have gone there, too,
the same years.
ONCE EVERY 30 YEARS or so, Venus aligns with
the moon to form a celestial event that may be what the magi
saw in the sky that first Christmas. Two lovers see this celestial
phenomenon on Christmas Eve and consider it a blessing on
This romance novel by Catherine Lanigan, author
of Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile,
starts in 1965 with young lovers attending Christmas Eve Mass
at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, and fornicating immediately
Susie and Tommy incur her parents’ disapproval just by dating
because he’s a steelworker’s son from Calumet City on scholarship
at Northwestern University and she’s a rich high school senior
from Kenilworth. She gets pregnant; he flunks out and enlists
in the Marines. When he gets leave from boot camp, they marry
in a quickie civil ceremony in San Francisco. After Susie
returns to Chicago, she’s thrown out of her parents’ house
for bringing scandal on them. Tommy’s sent to Vietnam by summer
1966, gets involved in covert ops and ends up listed as MIA.
And here’s where the story really begins: how
the families pull together, how Susie and Tommy survive, how
Tommy struggles to recover from amnesia and how Susie’s faith
in his eventual return never falters.
It’s an unbelievably corny story, but with the
same sentimental appeal as An Affair to Remember and
Sleepless in Seattle. Unlike those, it’s a 30-year
romp through history, in a Catholic milieu which includes
a kindly priest from a Catholic high school in Syracuse, who
informs Tommy he’s not the man whose identification papers
he carried as part of his covert-operations work.
Susie even lights vigil candles that are blue, “the color
of Mary’s robes”—though Tommy points out that traditional
artists could have been wrong about the color. “Silly,” she
answers him. “Don’t you think somewhere along the line even
one of those artists was inspired to tell the truth the way
it really was?”
The patriotism that made Tommy enlist is similarly
innocent—he gets goosebumps when he hears “America the Beautiful.”
That kind of charming innocence pervades this
book. It somehow managed to keep a curmudgeon like me up until
3 a.m. because I just had to know how the story came out.
But I think The Christmas Star needed a
better editor because it suffers from sloppy punctuation and
spelling, inconsistent indentation on paragraphs, and major
factual, continuity and believability problems.
This novel presumes Northwestern was on the semester
system, but in 1965 it used quarters—and still does. This
means exams would have been before Christmas, not in January.
How could a student go from the top of his class
to four D’s and one F in one grading period? Students in danger
of losing scholarships are usually given a warning and one
grading period to improve their performance.
In 1965, the bus system in Chicago (CTA) demanded
transfers in the Loop for those going from the South Side
to the North, and didn’t go into the suburb of Evanston, the
home of Northwestern.
How could Susie’s business of designing children’s
clothing take off so quickly? How could both Tommy and Susie
sail through college classes and, for him, law school? How
could he, too, be so successful in his career?
Most of all, given the fact that armed services’
personnel are fingerprinted, why wasn’t his true identity
discovered when this admitted amnesiac left the Marines or
applied for the New York Bar, which also requires fingerprints?
And the music of the ’60s did not have a “Mercy
Beat,” but a “Mersey beat,” a shorthand that uses the river
in Liverpool to sum up the Beatles and the rest of the British
Despite these aggravations, I found The Christmas
Star a fun read and a reaffirmation of the power of love
and faith. The book was awarded Book of the Year Gold Winner
for Romance Fiction at the 2003 Book Expo. I predict it too,
like others by this author, will end up as a movie.
You can order THE CHRISTMAS STAR from
St. Francis Bookshop.
LOVE: The Mary Jo Copeland Story, by Michelle Lynne Peterson.
Quixote Publications. 249 pp. $22.95.
Reviewed by EMILY McCORMACK, poet, author
and adult education teacher, who lives in Willowbrook, Illinois.
MARY JO COPELAND is a household name in Minnesota,
and her fame is spreading rapidly throughout America. She
has appeared on prime-time television with Tom Brokaw and
Peter Jennings, among others, and has received dozens of well-deserved
and prestigious awards. Jim Ramstad, U.S. congressman from
Minnesota, calls Copeland “America’s Mother Teresa.” Indeed,
in their love of the poor, Mother Teresa and Mary Jo Copeland
are soul sisters.
Michelle Peterson’s biography of Mary Jo Copeland is uplifting
and eminently readable. It is made to order for a wonderful
movie, especially now, when America is sorely in need of
an inspiring true story.
Life was never easy for Mary Jo. Her unusually
dysfunctional family caused her much pain as she grew up.
Her grandparents reared her during the first part of her life,
“shielding” her from outside influences such as childhood
friends. As a result, she was lonely and felt unloved. Later,
when she and Dick Copeland married, his parents never accepted
Dick and Mary Jo Copeland had a large family,
12 children in all. Added to the burden of this tremendous
responsibility were serious illnesses, continual money problems
and, at one time, even bankruptcy. Later, almost like a page
from the Book of Job, Mary Jo suffered a severe, deep depression
resulting in a serious addiction to painkillers. Biographer
Peterson does not whitewash any of the story.
Mary Jo’s greatest asset was the tremendous love
and ministrations of her husband, Dick, who guided her back
As the years progressed and her family grew to
adulthood, Mary Jo gained strength. More and more she became
aware of the sufferings of the poor, the downtrodden, the
dispossessed. Tapping into her own personal experience of
what it meant to be unwanted and unloved, Mary Jo felt a special
affinity toward those in need.
Mary Jo visited many homeless shelters and volunteered
on a part-time basis. She became impatient with the entrenched
bureaucracy she encountered. So Mary Jo started her own shelter.
Her love for the poor was infectious; “losers”
especially were drawn to her. She attracted volunteers who
were impressed by all that she was accomplishing and by the
way she welcomed each and every comer.
More and more, Mary Jo was realizing the enormity
of the needs of the poor. Their problems were awesome: drug
addiction, poor health, homelessness, physical abuse, despair.
But Mary Jo persevered. People began contributing to her
organization, which she named Sharing and Caring Hands. Philanthropists
were intrigued and fascinated by this woman, who actually
washed the feet of those who came to her in need.
Not all was sunshine and love, however. When Mary
Jo planned to expand her home for the poor, she met strong
“not in my backyard” resistance. She had to buck zoning laws,
politicians and naysayers. But she continues to be an active
friend to those in need. (Mary Jo and her organization were
featured in St. Anthony Messenger in December 1989.)
Michelle Lynne Peterson, in a stroke of genius,
titled this biography Great Love.
You can order GREAT LOVE: The Mary Jo Copeland Story from
St. Francis Bookshop.
CUSTOMS: A Fresh Look at Traditional Practices, by Regis
J. Flaherty. Servant Publications. 189 pp. $10.99.
Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST, a writer
who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary
in Alberta, Canada.
REGIS FLAHERTY, author of this comprehensive
survey of Catholic customs and practices, sets out to help
readers cultivate a deeper understanding of the Church’s spiritual
At least three audiences would benefit from reading
this book. The first would be veteran Catholics who have long
been part of the Church but consider themselves unfamiliar
with certain classic practices or are awkward in explaining
them. Catholic Customs provides understandable interpretations
to such matters as the value of praying the rosary or the
purpose of purgatory.
A second group that should appreciate this book
might be called “the new faithful.” Some modern studies indicate
that younger people have a growing interest in orthodox Christianity.
The author is unapologetically a traditional Catholic. He
suspects that many older Catholics like himself have failed
to communicate to the young a commitment to the essentials
of their religion.
Non-Catholics are the third constituency that
could find this book helpful. While the author concentrates
on Catholic themes, he is usually quite careful to suggest
why his beliefs and practices may differ from those of Orthodox
or Protestant Christians. Effective interchurch dialogue happens
only when those participating are aware of what separates
as well as what unites them.
There are four parts to the book. The first deals
with living the spiritual life through faithful engagement
with the Church’s seven sacraments.
The second accompanies the reader on a journey
through the seasons of the liturgical year.
The third part distinguishes between sacraments
and sacramentals. The former were instituted by Christ, the
latter by the Church. The author provides informed opinion
on a range of topics such as why families could benefit from
the devotional use of holy water in their homes, or the difference
between an icon and a statue, or about how experiencing the
Way of the Cross can enrich one’s faith journey.
A concluding chapter deals with prayer in its
many manifestations. Again, explanations are provided on issues
like the meaning of indulgences, the significance of the saints
and why it is still important to have a guardian angel.
Those seeking eternal verities will find them
here. Those longing for change in some of the ways the Church
understands and supports the Christian life might be helped
to see that adaptations can occur in form, but not in substance.
The author’s interpretations will satisfy some but not all
readers, since his tend to be the classic explanations.
In times such as ours, it is important that Christians
make the effort to understand their faith and its core values.
Flaherty believes that many long-standing Catholic customs
and practices have survived because Christ established or
inspired them. Religious fads come and go. The Tradition of
the Church, on the other hand, has staying power.
You can order CATHOLIC CUSTOMS: A Fresh Look at Traditional
Practices from St.
BEARCUB, written and illustrated by Strawberrie Donnelly.
McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. 20 pp. $13.95.
PRUDENCE, by Peter Harris. Illustrated by Deborah Allwright.
McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. 24 pp. $15.95.
JAM, written and illustrated by Jo Brown. McGraw-Hill
Children's Publishing. 24 pp. $15.95.
FIDGETY FEET, By Pat Posner. Illustrated by Philip Norman.
McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. 24 pp. $15.95.
DAY AT CAMP, written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer.
McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. 24 pp. $3.95.
Reviewed by SUSAN HINES-BRIGGER, an assistant
editor of this publication, and her daughter, Madison.
ONE OF MADISON’S and my favorite times together
is reading at bedtime. Whenever we come across some new books
to add to our rotation, it’s always exciting.
So when we were given these five books to review,
we jumped at the chance—and weren’t disappointed. All of the
books are published by McGraw-Hill Children’s Publishing,
and judging from the range of subjects and presentation, they
certainly know what they’re doing.
The thing that most impressed Madison about
the books was the artwork. At four, she’s devised her own
way of reading by simply explaining what she sees in the pictures.
These books, with their wonderful illustrations, provided
her ample opportunity to do just that.
One added bonus for both Mom and Madison was the
additional reading activities at the end of Mercer Mayer’s
A Day at Camp. The book is one of the Level Two books
(Grades K-1) of the First Readers series.
This mom also liked the fact that the books provided
stories and humor that she could also enjoy. The only downfall
I have found, so far, is that my daughter now dances around
the house proclaiming herself Princess Fidgety Feet. Even
that, however, is a good sign that these books have made an
I would highly recommend these books for reading
to your children or grandchildren, and look forward to future
offerings from these authors and this publisher.
You can order HUSHABYE BEARCUB, PERFECT PRUDENCE, PIRATE
JAM, PRINCESS FIDGETY FEET and A DAY AT CAMP from
St. Francis Bookshop.