Killing winds seep through ill-fitting sashes of this prestigious boarding school for girls, the setting for Zoe Keithley’s novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli (2014). In an affluent suburb outside of Chicago, extensive woods surround this four-story brick building, topped by a white cupola and cross. Beneath its veneer of elegance, however, lurks multifaceted violence. It is 1945.

Into this setting comes ten-year old Helene, motherless, aware of the jail-like atmosphere the moment she and her alcoholic father set foot inside the well-appointed parlor to await her admittance into the school. He fluffs off her fears, silences her protests. Of more importance is his six-month lecture tour in Italy‘s finest hospitals. Even the school’s repressive rules do not deter him from leaving her with these semi-cloistered teaching nuns, one of whom is the young Mother Adelli. And promises of a Christmas reunion in Rome do not work.

Over the next two months, Helene’s total dislocation from everything meaningful plunges her into destructive rages against this unfeeling world. Hatred oozes from every pore. Especially abhorrent is the no touching rule. Intuiting her damaged psyche, Mother Adelli knowingly bends some of the rules to afford the girl some breathing space, at the same time igniting the superior’s reprimands. “We have our reputation to maintain,” she insists.

This page-turner is enhanced by the effective opening and resolution, the crisp images, the dialog heightening the drama, the angst within Helene and Mother Adelli, the slow motion scenes leaded with detail and feeling, the chilly autumn/winter keeping the story on edge, and leit-motifs of death and funerals.

What surfaces from this read is a closed world, dominated by patriarchal values. Its unwary captives comply with strictures that eviscerate woman-spirit and damage receptors to the Sacred. Without extensive help, such women can only pretend to live, juiced by elegant wines.

I know. I used to be one.

 

 

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