I suppose it’s appropriate, when reviewing a book by a priest, to open with a confession. Here’s mine: The Search for Maggie Ward made me rethink my status as a confirmed agnostic.
Before, I had not encountered very much gentle Christianity.
I had not encountered clerics, much less a celibate cleric, who had anything to say about sex. Greeley not only had a lot to say about sex, what he had to say was also overwhelmingly positive.
Now keep in mind, I read this book in 1992. I was in my mid-twenties, five years out of college, still having flashbacks to the horrible excesses of the Moral Majority movement which had turned me against religion in my teens. (Little did I imagine that, when I was in my forties, the excesses of the Westboro Baptist Church would make me actually miss the days of more civilized prigs and hypocrites like Jerry Falwell and Tammy Faye Baker.) At the same time, I was becoming appalled by the horrible excesses of the left-wing political correctness that was taking hold in the present day. (I’ve since been told the PC movement began while I was in college. I didn’t notice, then, that it was a movement. I just thought some of the people I met were nuts.)
Morally, I was caught between a rock and a hard place. Everyone seemed harsh and judgmental. No one seemed friendly or forgiving. If God had created this mess, then I certainly wanted nothing to do with Him.
Andrew Greeley shook up my opinions by showing me the good side of religion and faith, how they could motivate a person to be better; to love, to forgive, to hope. His philosophy permeated all his books. “Maggie Ward” was the second one I’d read, and became my favorite of his works. (The first I’d read was Angel Fire, a weird little fantasy about Angels and, as I recall, nuclear physics? The plot has not stuck with me. It was a bit off-kilter, but it intrigued me enough to read another of his books.)
The story goes like this… (WARNING! SPOILERS… for a 23-year-old book, but still…)
It’s 1946 and Jerry Keenan is a World War II vet, just returned home, honorably discharged from the Navy as a Commander. He was an F-16 pilot, and apparently had a distinguished, if brief, career. Jerry plans to be a lawyer, as befits the son of a rich, Chicago family. He’s likable, if spoiled, having lived through the Great Depression without actually being touched by it.
Testifying to his privileged status, at a time when most of his fellow veterans were clamoring for jobs, Jerry is touring the Country just to get reconnected with being a civilian. At a railroad station in New Mexico, he encounters a waifish redhead named Andrea King. She looks lost and underfed, so he buys her breakfast and agrees to drive her to her destination, a hotel where she has a job waiting. On the way they’ll do some sightseeing.
Thus begins a whirlwind romance. Andrea, an 18-year-old widow who has lost a child (to SIDS) and a husband (no details given), is at once playful, seductive, angry, afraid and cruel. She has supernatural powers. When Jerry’s car stalls while en route to search for the Lost Dutchman Mine, Andrea says she doesn’t know anything about cars, but if he’ll clean out that funny little black thing, the car will start, although it needs to be replaced within a day. Indeed, removing and cleaning the distributor allows the car to start, and it does indeed fail outright within 24 hours.
Andrea also has night terrors, screaming out for someone named Andrew to “stop.” Finally, Andrea is convinced that she is damned. God has abandoned her because of her crimes, and only Hell awaits her. Jerry, who doesn’t believe in God, posits that anyone who could create someone like Andrea and not love her unconditionally is not worthy of worship. Andrea, despite her self-proclaimed damned status, seems especially concerned about the state of Jerry’s soul, leading him into theological arguments about the existence (or lack thereof) of a deity.
It’s hard to determine whether Greeley was characterizing Andrea as emotionally crippled because she’d been traumatized, or just as a capricious but typical redhead. (I’m allowed to say that. I used to be a redhead, and I fathered one who stayed a redhead. I know how we are. And no, it’s not true that we lack souls. I have lots of souls. I store them between the pages of my books. Wanna see them?)
At the Lost Dutchman Mine, which they find, they become, well, lost. In the cavern darkness, Jerry has visions of a great battle for Andrea’s soul, in which the spirit of Jacob Waltz, the “Dutchman” (a 19th-Century German immigrant) and the Archangel Michael are both combatants. When Jerry’s nightmare vision ends, Andrea is gone. End part one.
At this point, we’re 206 pages in, a little less than halfway through the novel. And now the search begins. Although, honestly, the search only lasts 144 pages, not even a third of the book.
Jerry uses his connections in the Catholic Church and the US Military (it’s not clear which is the dominant religion) to find records of both Andrea (whose real name is Mary Margaret “Maggie” Ward) and her husband, whom she called “John” (Andrew John Koenig, Koenig meaning “King.”) Along the way he meets some interesting characters in an old Philadelphia working-class neighborhood, as well as in his law school in Chicago.
Turns out that Mary Margaret Ward, who knew nothing about sex because she was raised by a puritan aunt and uncle who abused her, was raped (at least date-raped) by the thuggish Andrew John. When she was found to be pregnant, it being the 1940s, she had no choice but to marry her rapist. Andrew John was a drunk and a wife-beater. After the death of their daughter Andrea, he became especially cruel to his wife. This culminated, ultimately, in a physical fight in which, to defend herself, she shoved Andrew John out of a window and to his death in the street below their San Diego apartment.
And then she committed suicide. The Church is portrayed as having no sympathy for Maggie, not allowing her to be buried in consecrated ground with her daughter, while her drunken, wife-beating, rapist husband is fine to be in their cemetery. Greeley seems to be characterizing the Church as being especially ant-female, showing the nuns as cruel and as hating Maggie for being both beautiful and intelligent. Only an aged librarian nun is portrayed as having sympathy and affection for the girl. Of course, librarians are unusually perceptive and sympathetic.
So Jerry was sleeping with a ghost, which explains her supernatural powers. The priests Jerry goes to for confession (a practice he resumes after meeting the Archangel in the, um… ectoplasm?) have no trouble believing that he’s been visited by a ghost. They seem a superstitious and cowardly lot. But Jerry’s young brother Packy, a divinity student, who seems to represent a new, re-imagined Church, calls bullshit, and helps Jerry find a real, living Maggie. The suicide was a case of mistaken identity. She’s alive and working at a restaurant (conveniently) in Chicago.
So the plot is less a search than… um… a detour. The rest of the story, after Maggie is found, has her being more mercurial than ever, going to Christmas at the Keenan family home and then mysteriously telling Jerry she never wants to see him again. She’d rather date another “nice young man,” who turns out to be a murderer with a faked war record. (And I have to say, much as I love the story, that Maggie’s inability to see through this guy defies belief. He’s never characterized as anything but a sub-literate brute. I suppose the intent was to show that she was comfortable with what she’d grown up with, that it’s hard for someone from a rough background to break out of the pattern.)
From there it’s pure melodrama. The brute and his cronies beat Jerry and put him in the hospital. Jerry learns of his rival’s murderous past, and that he once almost killed a woman who tried to leave him. Maggie’s in danger, Jerry has to save her. Maggie realizes Jerry truly loves her and that she’s not damned…
And then her long-lost father shows up, his fortune intact, and tells Maggie he’s ready to sweep her away to Philly to live the privileged life to which she was born. And there’s no room in that life for Jerry. It’s an interesting twist in one way: it make Jerry know what it feels like to be looked down on by the upper crust. You see, Maggie’s father and mother were “Old Money,” from the East, not some vulgar pack of brats descended from mobsters like the Chicago Irish Keenans, for all their money.
My god, what will Maggie choose? I’ll leave you that bit of suspense. It’s maintained to the very last page of the book.
The story, I guess, is kind of a potboiler. (From Wikipedia: “A potboiler or pot-boiler is a low-quality novel, play, opera, film, or other creative work whose main purpose was to pay for the creator’s daily expenses—thus the imagery of ‘boil the pot’,which means ‘to provide one’s livelihood’.”) But two things really grabbed me about this novel, in 1992 and now:
1 – The history was not what I was accustomed to in World War II historicals. Bear in mind that my experience of World War II historicals consists of episodes of The Time Tunnel, the film White Christmas, Marvel’s The Invaders, and, of course, the adventures of Wonder Woman and her friends in the Justice Society of America. (And those aren’t historical fiction, since they were written at the time.) I learned quite a bit about life in the aftermath of the war. People expected the Great Depression to return any day. The OPA (Office of Price Administration) controlled the prices–and supply–of damned near everything, and the United States had a black market for everyday goods like automobiles, because the OPA kept the prices artificially low and thus abridged supply. I can see why Americans (mistakenly) thought they’d defeated socialism when that piece of silliness went away.
2 – Greeley, though a priest, was very, very critical of organized religion, and very, very much in favor of God. He envisioned God as a woman, and described her as our lover. Growing up Southern Baptist, and then rejecting Christianity, I’d never heard of such a thing. We’d been taught to fear God at worst, approach Him with respectful formality at best. We’d never think of Him as a Her, or be so presumptuous as to think of Her as a lover. God didn’t want to caress us, touch us, or see our junk. HE wanted our distant, respectful admiration. Greeley called bullshit on that idea, and called it very well.
It shows especially in his contrast of how Jerry and Maggie approach the sins of their past.
Jerry has also lost people–the men he commanded in the war. He also feels responsible for their deaths, but he doesn’t feel that he’s damned. Interesting that Greeley uses Jerry, a self-professed atheist, to represent hope, while Maggie, who fervently believes in God, represents despair. It’s a statement on how screwed up things have become in the Christian religion.
I’m not a believer in any particular anthropomorphic god. What I’ve learned since being exposed to Father Greeley’s works is that God (any god) is a wonderful metaphor for examining our place in the universe. It can be helpful to have a set of beliefs that serve as a frame of reference, whether you take them as gospel on faith, or simply say, “I choose to believe that the universe works something like this,” and use that chosen belief to help you sort out your moral quandaries.
But one thing that did begin to wear on me after reading a dozen or more of Greeley’s novels was his very self-conscious identity as a liberal Democrat from Chicago. Father Greeley and I don’t agree on a lot of points, and sometimes that can make me uncomfortable. I don’t recall noticing it strongly in 1992, even though I was probably at my most conservative then (after years spent as a bleeding heart liberal.) This time I noticed it.
Devoted Democrats are like mainstream Christians in a lot of ways, keeping the faith and pretending that it’s all about sweetness and love, never noticing, or just dismissing, the excesses of their fellows, like the Westboro Baptist Church for the Christians, and hatemongering demagogues like Andrea Dworkin for the Democrats. Both are right that there’s goodness and basic decency at the core of their philosophies, but it can be damned hard to find, especially when they try to force moral behavior on the rest of us “for our own good.”
And another thing that makes me uncomfortable herein is the cronyism. Jerry at one point gets the living snot beaten out of him by a rival for Maggie’s affections. The beating is so bad, and the fight so unfair, that I couldn’t help thinking that Jerry would have been within his rights to simply hunt these guys down and kill them later. They had no redeeming social value, and it’s never okay to use violence just to settle a romantic dispute. (Yes, I do think it’s okay to kill someone who poses an immediate threat to the lives of you or your family. No, propaganda about how their religion teaches them to hate you as an infidel is not enough.)
BUT, Jerry doesn’t have to hunt them down, because his Dad uses his (bleeding Christ!) Mafia ties and corrupt Police cronies to have two of them deported, and the other left unemployed and without a car. Greeley is too comfortable with corruption, too quick to find it charming as long as all the corrupt are registered Democrats, Irishmen and Catholics. It’s an attitude that American politics can do without, and it’s still, from where I sit, very, very prevalent in the higher echelons of the Democratic Party.
In another Greeley novel, Cardinal Virtues, his best, in my opinion, Jerry uses the same kinds of ties to save his son from false accusations of being a child molester. In both cases, I’m left wondering, “But what if this innocent person who was unfairly beaten / falsely accused were not a member of an influential family who rubs shoulders with powerful criminals?” Shouldn’t a moral tale save its hero using a technique that’s rooted in his moral qualities? Instead, both Jerry and his son are saved in a way that says, “Even if you were a blackest-souled crook on the streets, you’d still be okay, because you’re family.”
But I do love this book, and Cardinal Virtues.
And Maggie starts to wear on me the second time around. When Jerry comes to save her from his rival, who he has learned is a rapist who beats his girlfriends, a fight begins. Maggie’s reaction is, “You men aren’t going to fight in my apartment… I never want to see either of you again.” Really? When she knew her rival had beaten Jerry almost to death? Bitch, please. You don’t deserve any lover, with an attitude like that.
But I try to shut my jaded self up about that. Maggie is overall intelligent, sympathetic and adorable. Let’s go with that.
Final verdict: This book entertained me, and made me both think and feel. It opened my eyes to a way of looking at life that had never occur to me.
What more can a book do for you?