Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Vision Saints Series Part 1

The Vision book series is a series of short biographies of Catholic saints and holy men and women. They were written for children, aged nine to twelve, and published in the 1950's. Because each book is written by a different author, the quality and style of writing varies. Some books are about well known saints like Thomas Aquinas or St. Theresa of Lisieux, while others are about lesser known saints such as Mother Cabrini and Father Damien. With the passage of time some of the books about men and women who led exemplary lives are dated in terms of the person's status in the church. For example, Father Damien de Veuster's cause is now complete and he is a saint whose feast day is May 10th.

Saint Pius X: The Farm Boy Who Became Pope by Walter Diethelm, tells the story of Guiseppe Sarto who became Pope Pius X. Bepi as he was affectionately known, was a poor farm boy who grew up in the village of Riese. This account stresses Bepi's life of holy poverty. As a priest, bishop, cardinal and even as the archbishop of Venice, Sarto gave away everything he had to help the poor.

Guiseppi Sarto was not just concerned about the material needs of people but also about their spiritual needs. While the spiritual director of the seminary in Treviso, Father Sarto diligently instructed his seminarians, leading them in prayer and doing all he could to ensure they would become faithful priests.

As Pope Pius X, he continued his support of the poor, giving away vast sums of money to support orphans and to help educate children. Pius X is most noted for changing the rules regarding the reception of Holy Communion for children. Before his pontificate, children did not make their First Holy Communion until they were eleven or twelve years of age. He was responsible for changing the rules to allow children as young as seven to receive the sacrament as long as they understood what the sacrament involved. Pius X was deeply distraught over World War I which was just beginning in 1914. He died before the war grew to involve most countries in Europe, desolate at the thought that so many would loose their lives.

In St. Helena and the True Cross, Catholic author Louis de Wohl traces Helena's transformation from the ambitious pagan wife of Legate Constantius to the devote Christian mother of her son, Emperor Constantine. Helena is believed to have been a royal princess of the Trinovants and the daughter of King Coel.

The story begins with Legate Constantius tricked into leaving his command in the province of Southern Britain to travel to Rome. Believing the request to come from the new emperor, Maximian, Constantius arrives in Rome to learn this was not the case. His two month journey has allowed a rebellion  led  Carausius and his Roman soldiers to succeed.

Back in Britain, Helena and her thirteen-year-old son Constantine flee north along with Centurion Marcus Favonius to escape the troops of Admiral Carausius who quickly takes control of the province of Britain.

Seven years later, Constantine, now twenty-years-old and his mother Helena are living in hiding in Verulam and still waiting for Rome to reclaim Britain. Carausius has been murdered and replaced by the traitorous Allectus. Then suddenly news arrives that Rome has returned to reclaim Britain. From a stolen report Helena learns that Constantius is leading a large force that has already reclaimed certain areas. She decides to return to their villa in the south.

However, things are not what Helena and Constantine expect. Helena and Constantine learn from Constantius's aide-de-camp, Legate Curio, that Constantius is now emperor over the West (Occident) while Galerius rules over the Orient (the East). Both Diocletian and Maximian ordered Constantius and Galerius to divorce their wives and remarry. Constantius is now married to Emperor Maximian's daughter, Princess Theodora.

A devastated Helena, returns to their house in Verulam with Constantine and Favonius. It is during this period of suffering over the abandonment by her husband that Helena first learns of the Christian faith through a slave. Out of curiosity she decides to see Albanus, a Christian priest who explains the beginnings of the faith to her. Although skeptical at first, Helena eventually comes to respect the Christians and advocate for them when they are persecuted. She begins to find the cruelty of the Romans towards slaves and Christians offensive.

When her son, Constantine eventually becomes Emperor, defeating Maxentius and capturing Rome, Christianity is made the state religion and the old Roman gods are abolished.  Through a series of visions, Constantine comes to believe that the God of the Christians is on his side. Soon after, Helena becomes a Christian. But the ambitious Helena, now elderly woman, is determined to find the one true cross of Christ. To that end, she travels to the Holy city of Jerusalem and begins her search.

In De Wohl's novel, Helena is portrayed as a dynamic character, regal, ambitious and open minded. Her suffering as a result of the abandonment of herself and her son by her husband Constantius opens her to the possibilities offered by the Christian faith. But Helena's conversion is gradual and takes place over many years.

Helena's discovery of the Christ's Holy Cross is also portrayed in this novel. Tradition holds that St. Helena discovered the true cross during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326 A.D. Christians, now free to practice their religion were able to travel to the Holy Land and Helena undertook this journey with the intent of finding these holy relics. Helena traveled to Mount Calvary where she found a temple to the goddess Venus built by the pagan Romans to prevent Christians from worshipping at the place of Christ's crucifixion. Helen was able to locate three crosses as well as nails and the inscription placed on Jesus's cross. She was able to determine the true cross by having a very ill woman in Jerusalem touch all three crosses. Only one cross, the true cross healed her. In de Wohl's novel, a young boy is cured of a withered arm.

In Father Damien And The Bells, authors Arthur and Elizabeth Sheehan have written an engaging account of Damien de Veuster's journey to sainthood. Damien, who was born Joseph de Veuster, grew up in Tremelo, in Flanders, Belgium. His father was a farmer. Joseph or Jef as he was called, was the youngest in the family and was responsible for tending the sheep.

August and Jef loved to hear their mother read stories from The Lives of the Holy Martyrs and Hermits. After four years of study at the Werchter village school Joseph stayed home to help his father on the family farm. He was a strong young man who loved physical labour. However his father, Francis de Veuster worried about Joseph and believed that he was different and destined for something else. So he arranged for his son to attend the academy in Braine-le-Comte, located in Hainault, southern Belgium so that Joseph could learn French. After that he would learn the grain business to help the family farm.

Meanwhile Joseph's brother Auguste entered the seminary of the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts, taking the name Pamphile.

At Braine-le-Comte, Joseph soon endeared himself to his classmates. But he was a deeply spiritual young man, often spending his nights in prayer. He was beginning to feel the call to a priestly vocation. At this time his sister Pauline entered the Ursiline Sisters in Holland. When his letter to his parents suggesting his vocation was not immediately answered, Joseph mentioned his intentions to Pamphile during one of his visits. His brother suggested he join the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts and eventually that is what came to happen. Upon his entry he took the name of Damien.

In the seminary of the Picpus Fathers in Louvain, Damien's unusual physical strength and good health did not go unnoticed. He practiced many denials, often sleeping on the floor and giving up his portion of meat at meals. In July of 1863, Pamphile learned he was to sail to the missions in Honolulu, Hawaii in October. But it was not to be. Pamphile became ill in October, during the typhus epidemic of 1863 and was unable to travel. Determined to take his brother's place, Damien wrote the Father General asking permission to travel to Hawaii. His request was granted.

This was to set Damien on the path as a missionary in Hawaii and ultimately his life's work with the lepers on Molokai. Father Damien's love of hard work, his unusual physical strength and his compassion for those suffering from what was in his time an incurable disease were to mark his ministry.


Overall the quality of these three Vision novels is good. Each writer succeeds in giving readers a sense of what life was like in the time the saint lived. Each book manages to identify for young readers,  the virtues that these holy men and women practiced, and which ultimately led them to lead sainthood.

In the case of St. Pius X, it was his practice of prayer and poverty at an early age that set him on the path to sainthood. He routinely gave everything away he had, including his money, food and even his coat. St. Helena, is remembered for  her work for the church and for the poor and for her determination to find the relics of Christ's crucifixion. In the case of St. Damien, young readers will get a definite sense of how the practice of the Catholic faith was a part of daily life for Dutch Catholics. This holy family produced four religious vocations: his older sisters Pauline and Eugenie became nuns and his older brother Augustus became a priest.

For all three saints the path to holiness took a lifetime. For St. Pius X and St. Damien their faith was nurtured within the family where it was taken seriously and a part of everyday life. For St. Helena her conversion occurred gradually over the course of her life, nurtured by the example of the Christian community. De Wohl suggests that the kindness of Christians towards her situation led Helena to consider the faith, as her gods offered her nothing. She was resistant to conversion because as a Roman citizen she struggled with the manner of Christ's death - his crucifixion. "How could she believe in a God who allowed himself to be crucified, who died the most shameful death, hanging between two criminals?" For Helena, the cross was a barrier to her conversion. Albanus tells her that the cross is the obstacle to most Christians but that unlike the pagan gods, the Christian God has suffered both with us and for us. In de Wohl's account, it is her discussion with Albanus, who relates how trees are central to many pagan religions, that plants within Helena the seed of a desire to find the true cross.

Helena was a woman who did nothing by halves. From Butler's Lives of the Saints we read, "It appears from Eusebius, that St. Helen was not converted to the faith with her son, till after his miraculous victory; but so perfect was her conversion, that she embraced all the heroic practices of Christian perfection, especially the virtues of piety and almsdeeds...."

Many of the Vision books have been republished by Ignatius Press in the last 20 years with refreshed covers that are appealing to modern readers. Excellent for children and teens interested in learning more about specific saints. Suitable also for adults.

Book Details:

St. Pius X: The Farm Boy Who Became Pope by Walter Diethelm, O.S.B.
San Francisco: Ignatius Press   1994
163 pp.

St. Helena and the True Cross by Louis de Wohl
San Francisco: Ignatius Press   2012
158 pp.

Father Damien and the Bells by Arthur and Elizabeth Sheehan
San Francisco: Ignatius Press    2004
168 pp.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

What Makes A Van Gogh A Van Gogh by Robert Muhlberger

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Series of What Makes A.... A...." introduces young readers to a series of famous artists. For this post I will review one of the books in this series, What Makes A Van Gogh A Van Gogh?.

Each book in the series follows a similar format, beginning with an introduction to the artist. This introduction provides some background information about the artist's early life.

In What Makes A Van Gogh, readers learn that Vincent Van Gogh was a person who "inherited a deep respect for humanity" from his minister father, while his passion for art and nature came from his mother. Van Gogh was a hard-working student who studied a number of languages. But school was not his forte and he quit when he was sixteen. Van Gogh worked in an art gallery, as a school teachers and then a minister. But eventually Van Gogh came to believe that he was called to be an artist.

What Makes A Van Gogh follows Vincent's artistic journey from its beginnings in 1885 when he painted his first masterpiece. This painting was of a group of peasants eating their dinner of potatoes.  He used his friends, the DeGroots making many sketches before finally paint the larger portrait. From Holland, Van Gogh traveled to Antwerp and then on to Paris where his brother Theo lived. One of the first people Van Gogh met in Paris was the owner of an art supply shop, Julien Tanguy. Their friendship was to prove an important influence on Van Gogh and his art. It was probably due to the Through Tanguy, Van Gogh formed a friendship with fellow artist Paul Signac, who painted with bright colours and used a new technique called pointillism. Although Van Gogh never really adopted pointillism, he did begin to use brighter colours. He painted more than twenty self-portraits during his time in Paris.

In 1888, Van Gogh moved to the town Arles in southern France. This was to be the most productive time of his life, a period where he painted his famous sunflower canvases.  What Makes A Van Gogh explores the influences on Van Gogh's art and technique, which scenes and subjects attracted his interest, and some of the different techniques he used to create his beautiful paintings. Muhlberger devotes a few pages to Van Gogh's famous painting, Starry Night, exploring the some of the features of the painting.

Like the other books in the series, this book ends with a section that uses the title of the book to summarize the special attributes of Van Gogh's art and technique. Although these books are out of print now, they are worth obtaining from your local library or through interlibrary loan. They provide young readers with many interesting facts about the artist, their techniques and paintings.

Book Details:

What Makes A Van Gogh A Van Gogh by Robert Muhlberger
New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Viking Press    1993
49 pp.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

The Hiding Place is a moving account of a Dutch family's work in the underground to save Jews during the Holocaust. It is considered a classic in Christian literature today.

Cornelia Ten Boom was the youngest daughter of Casper ten Boom and Cornelia Johanna Arnolda Luitingh. Corrie as she came to be called, was born on April 15, 1892. The ten Boom family was comprised of three older surviving children; Elizabeth who was called Betsie, Willem, and Arnolda Johanna known as Nollie. The ten Boom family belonged to the Dutch Reformed church and were very devout.

Strongly believing that the world should know the story of what happened in Holland, Corrie wrote about her family's experiences in The Hiding Place. In the book, the story begins with her family's party celebrating the 100th anniversary or their watchmaking and repair shop located in Haarlem. The shop had been started by her grandfather Willem ten Boom. It is 1937, only a few years before the horror that will soon consume Europe and come to be known as the Holocaust. Corrie is forty-five years old, her older sister Betsie is fifty-two.

In celebration of their anniversary, the shop and family home begins filling with bouquets of flowers from friends and patrons. In addition to Nollie and Willem, both of whom now have their own homes, attending the party, the family is visited by many people including the mayor of Haarlem, the postman and policemen.

Soon talk at the party turns to the worsening situation in Germany with the arrival of Willem who is accompanied by a dazed and injured young Jewish man. Willem, who runs a home for elderly Jews in Hilversum tells Corrie and her family that the man, Herr Gutlieber whose lower face is badly burned was set on fire by boys in Munich. He managed to flee Germany on a milk truck, arriving this morning in Hilversum.

Corrie remembers that Willem had been studying what was going on in Germany for years. In 1927 he wrote about the unprecedented "contempt for human life" that was growing in the country. He noted the German clockmakers who were suddenly and mysteriously no longer open for business and that they were all Jewish.

There are more signs that things in Germany are deteriorating when Corrie's father hires a young German apprentice named Otto to work at the shop. A member of the Hitler Youth, Otto comes only once to listen to Corrie's family's nightly reading of the scriptures. The Old Testament, according to Otto, "as the Jews' 'Book of Lies' ". Soon the ten Booms learn of other disturbing events. Otto's landlady discovered a large knife in his bed. But it is Otto's cruel treatment of Christoffels that move Corrie's father to fire him. Willem reveals that Germany is teaching its young people not to value the elderly who they consider to "have no value to the state."

War comes to Holland in 1940 with the invasion of the country by Germany. For five days the country's army attempts to fight off the Nazis but eventually they are overwhelmed and surrender, with the Queen fleeing to England.

At first life in occupied Holland is little changed except for the late curfew, the presence of German soldiers, and the takeover of the Dutch press which prints German propaganda. At night Corrie and her family listen to the aerial dogfights between the English and German planes, as Germany uses Holland as a launching point for the bombing of England.

But gradually the true horror of the occupation begins to creep into daily life. Minor attacks on Dutch Jews grow into bolder attacks and outright discrimination. Parks, libraries, restaurants and theatres all ban Jews who are now required to wear the six point Jewish star on their clothing. People begin to disappear, as evidenced by the unclaimed watches in the ten Boom shop.

Corrie and Betsie and their father begin to discuss how they might have to help their Jewish neighbours. That chance comes much sooner than expected, in November of 1941. One day Corrie and Betsie watch as German soldiers ransack Weil's Furriers, ordering Mr. Weil out of his store at gunpoint, ransacking their apartment and stealing their furs. Needing to find a safe place for Mr. Weil and make sure his wife knows not to return home from Amsterday, Corrie takes the train to Willem in Hilversum. With the help of Willem's son Kik, they find a safe place for the Weils.

As the situation for Dutch Jews worsens, Corrie and her family become increasingly involved in helping them. It is work that Corrie feels especially called to do. Soon the ten Booms are working with the Dutch underground to help as many as possible. As Corrie and her family eventually discover, this dangerous work will cost some their lives. Their faith in God and his providence


The Hiding Place is much more than just a recounting of one family's experiences during the Nazi occupation of Holland. It is much more than a memoir of Dutch resistance. It is a testament to Christian faith acted upon in a time of great evil. Corrie and Betsie were determined to follow God's will in everything in their lives, sometimes at great cost to themselves and those they loved.

Corrie became an integral part of the Dutch underground, obtaining ration cards, helping Jews to safe houses and even allowing the Beje to undergo renovations creating a secret room. Willem was involved in hiding Jews, along with his son Kik. There was never any question in Corrie and her family's minds as to whether they would help their Jewish neighbours. Service was already an integral part of their lives. It was only a matter of how. Their Christian faith demanded nothing less.

The ten Boom family's life was framed and informed entirely by their Christian faith. Casper ten Boom read scripture to the family at 8:30 in the morning before beginning his work in the watch shop and at night before bed, asking "God's blessing on us through the night." Their mother visited the sick and the poor, "cooking and sewing for the needy in the neighborhood...". Every event in their lives was informed by their Dutch Reformed Protestant faith. For example,  Corrie accompanied her mother who was visiting a young mother whose newborn baby had just died. This experience of death haunted Corrie and she became so distraught that latter at home she was unable to eat dinner. Her fear was for the death of her father, Mama and her sister Betsie. Her father uses this moment to impart some of his faith and wisdom, reminding Corrie that he gives her the train ticket just before boarding, when travelling to Amsterdam. "...And our wise Father in heaven knows when we're going to need things, too. Don't run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need -- just in time."

L to R: Nollie, Corrie, Casper, Cornelia, Willem and Betsie
Life was lived in service to others in the ten Boom household and Corrie's mother and aunts were exemplary in that regard. Corrie mentions the numerous ways her mother and aunts served their friends and neighbours. Her mother is described as having knit "caps and baby dresses", "composing cheery messages for shutins" When Tante Jans is diagnosed with diabetes, then a terminal illness, she decides to spend what time is left for her, organizing a center for the soldiers, writing and fund raising. When her disease progresses and she has only weeks left, Tante Jans is distraught because she believes she has not done enough in her life to merit salvation. Her worry shows how important service to others was in the ten Boom family and had been for generations.

Perhaps Corrie's birth on Good Friday, April 15, 1892 was a sign of what was to come. She was not expected to survive but she did and grew up to be a woman with strong Christian principles. During an aerial battle over their city, Corrie experienced a premonition in the form of a vision about her family.

While praying for their country as the invasion begins, Corrie experienced this following terrifying vision. "Then as I watched, a kind of odd, old farm wagon -- old fashioned and out of place in the middle of a city -- came lumbering across the square pulled by four enormous black horses. To my surprise I saw that I myself was sitting in the wagon. And Father too! And Betsie! There were many others, some strangers, some friends. I recognized Pickwick and Toos, Willem and young Peter. All together we were slowly being drawn across the square behind those horses. We couldn't get off the wagon, that was the terrible thing. It was taking us away -- far away, I felt -- but we didn't want to go...." At the time Corrie had no idea what the vision could possibly mean, but years later, when she, her sister Betsie, Peter, Nollie, Pickwick and her father are taken away after a raid on her house, Corrie remembers the dream. It was a warning, perhaps to help her prepare for what was to come.

As the occupation continued, Corrie was deeply conflicted as to how they would work in the underground given the rumours about the types of resistance involved. "The rumors tended to get more spectacular with each repetition. But always they featured things we believed were wrong in the sight of God. Stealing, lying, murder. Was this what God wanted in times like these? How should a Christian act when evil was in power?"

It is something that Corrie and her family struggled with as the months went by. After a search by German soldiers for young men for forced work, the family argued over whether it was permissible to lie to protect someone. While Nollie believed that "God honors truth-telling with perfect protection!" as her daughter Corky had just done. But Corrie is not so certain.

The title of Corrie's autobiography is more than just a reference to the secret room in the Beje. It is also a spiritual reference, one Corrie did not realize until she was in prison. Watching ants hiding in the wall of her cell Corrie understands the significance of having a special safe place in Christ. "And suddenly I realized that this too was a message, ...For I too had a hiding place when things were bad. Jesus was this place, the Rock cleft for me..." Later on while suffering from edema in the hospital at Ravensbruck, Corrie wonders what if....and then remembers, "There are no 'ifs' in God's kingdom. I could hear her soft voice saying it. His timing is perfect. His will is our hiding place. Lord Jesus, keep me in your will...."

This touching account is well worth reading, not only for the heroic efforts of the ten Booms, but more for the remarkable spiritual gems contained within.

If you would like to know more about the ten Boom family The Corrie ten Boom House website has many interesting details.

ten Book family image: https://renovare.org/articles/this-too-is-in-his-hands

Book Details:

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
Crossing Classics
228 pp.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Boy Called Slow by Joseph Bruchac

Joseph Bruchac's A Boy Called Slow tells the story of how the legendary Lakota warrior, Sitting Bull came to be named.

A baby boy was born in the winter of 1831 to the family of Lakota warrior named Returns Again. This family was part of the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota Sioux tribe. Children were usually named according to a dominant trait or the way they behaved.

Returns Again's son was given the name Slow because everything he did took a long time. It was a name the boy did not like. A Lakota boy could change his name only by doing a brave deed. And so that is just what Slow decided to do!


Accomplished Native American author Joseph Bruchac has written a simple picture book that introduces children to the early life of Lakota Sioux warrior Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull was the son of the warrior Returns-Again. He was born in 1831. During his lifetime he would live to see the loss of his traditional lands and the destruction of  his people's way of life because of the westward expansion of white settlers.

Although he eventually became a great warrior, as a young child Sitting Bull seemed to lack the necessary attributes of one. He took forever to do anything and so earned the name Slow. However, this changed as he grew older. He killed his first buffalo at the age of ten, and led a raid on a rival tribe at the age of fourteen. This earned him the new Lakota name of Tatanka-Iyotanka or Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down.

It was when American white settlers began moving into the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples that Sitting Bull began to act to protect his people and their way of life. The American and Canadian governments had enacted policies designed to strip the Indigenous peoples in both countries of their land, their food source which was the buffalo and their culture, so that the land could be re-settled by white European immigrants. Sitting Bull became the leader of the resistance to this settler expansion and cultural genocide. He led his people in several key battles including the Battle of Killdeer Mountain in 1863, and in an attack on Fort Rice in 1865. By 1868, Sitting Bull was the leader of the Lakota nation.

Tensions between the Sioux Nation and white settlers dramatically increased when gold was discovered in the early 1870's in the Black Hills of South Dakota. These lands were traditional Sioux lands, granted to them by a treaty with the American government.  Unfortunately, the government refused to honour the treaty and instead insisted the Sioux move to reservations. The Sioux nation under Sitting Bull's leadership refused these terms and decided to fight the Americans. Sitting Bull fought against the U.S. troops and in what was his most famous battle, on June 25, 1876 defeating General George Armstrong Custer. Over two hundred soldiers died along with Custer. Fearing retaliation, many Sioux began moving north into Canada, first into Saskatchewan and then into the Northwest Territories. Sitting Bull came to Canada in 1877.

However, Canada like the United States, did not act honourably in dealing with Sitting Bull. The Canadian government refused Custer sanctuary and food, while the Americans set fires along the U.S.-Canada border, preventing the buffalo from moving north. Facing starvation and with no land to live on, the Sioux began returning to the United States, as did Sitting Bull who moved to the Standing Rock Reserve in North Dakota.  Sitting Bull  continued to urge his people to not relinquish their traditional lands.

In 1889 Native Americans again began to resist the takeover of their traditional lands. When Sitting Bull became involved, the American government, considering him important to the Native Americans' continued resistance, attempted to arrest him at his home. Sitting Bull was killed during the ensuing gunfight.

While Bruchac's picture book only focuses on the Sitting Bull's very early life, it can be used as an introduction to Sitting Bull and the actions of both the United States and Canadian governments towards Indigenous peoples in North America, including the systematic attempt to destroy their culture and way of life. What is missing from this picture book is a simple biography at the back with pictures of Sitting Bull, Custer, buffalo and other relevant topics.

Nevertheless, Sitting Bull's early life is told not just through Bruchac's simple text but also with the beautiful artwork of Rocco Baviera who travelled to the land of the Sioux, the Dakotas. Baviera was able to meet Sitting Bull's great-great-grandson, Isaac Dog Eagle. His paintings have captured the majesty of the Native American culture and the pivotal events of Sitting Bull's childhood.
Highly recommended.

Sitting Bull image: https://www.biography.com/political-figure/sitting-bull

Book Details:

A Boy Called Slow by Joseph Bruchac
New York: Philomel Books     1994

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Black Fox of Lorne by Marguerite De Angeli

Black Fox of Lorne tells the story of twin boys, Jan and Brus who travel from their home in Norway to start a new life in England and their adventures after they are shipwrecked.

Jan and Brus are thirteen-year-old twins who live with their father Harald Redbeard and their mother Ragnhild who is a Dane.  Their farm is located above a fiord in Norway on the southern coast. The twins have been trained by their father in many skills including the art of poetry, carving letters on rune sticks, learning the laws of their people so they can participate in decisions, how to handle weapons and care for animals. They also know how to sail, repair boats and shoot with a long bow. 

Their father, Harald Redbeard decides he must travel to a new land to make his living. He is the foster son, having been adopted at the age of ten, after his parents were lost at sea. As a foster son, he cannot inherit land unless agreed to by the sons of his foster father. However his elder foster brothers have inherited all their father's land, leaving none for Harald.  He has already sent his two older sons, Hardi and Bran with Gudmond the Bold to search out a new place but having never returned, they are believed lost.

Now Harald decides he will journey to England because his wife's countryman, Heming the Dane has settled there and will welcome them. At dinner that night, Harald tells them they will sail to England in three ships.Harald's own ship, Raven of the Wind will carry Harald, Jan, Brus and their warriors. The Hawk will carry Ragnhild, their nurse Catriona and the women and children. The third ship, Sea Wolf will carry the horses, cows, geese, hounds as well as hay and fodder for the animals.

In exchange for giving his foster brother Agnar his cattle, land and houses, Harald was given money for the boats and an ancient brooch, booty from the Franks two hundred years earlier. This brooch is believed to protect from evil and head wounds. Harald also warns the twins that their trick of switching places, pretending to be the other can be used to their advantage. Although the two boys are identical, they are very different; Brus loves hunting, hawking and caring for animals while Jan is the poet.

When summer begins, the three ships set said. Their second day at sea is stormy and Harald decides to said for the Okneys. While they are able to find safe harbour, they have lost sight of the two other ships. The next day they sail out in the hopes of finding the lost ships however another storm blows. For three days the Raven struggles to stay afloat but the storm subsides on the fourth day. Although the Raven has some damage, they are safe and Harald believes they are near the Western Isles. Once more the sea becomes rough but this time the Raven is tossed onto the rocks and sunk. Harald Redbeard, his sons Jan and Brus and fourteen men are all who survive, swept onto the shore.

When Jan goes to get water, he is set upon and captured by a group of thirty clansmen and ordered to take them to his father's camp.Harald and the warriors hear the Scots coming, and he orders Brus to hide. A tall Scotsman, introduces himself to Harald as Began Mor, Thane of Skye, the Winged Isle. He asks Harald why he has come to Began's land and invites him to celebrate the betrothal of his daughter Nineag to Gavin Dhu, the Laird of Lorne.

In Began Mor's keep, Harald is set beside Began, while each one of Harald's men is set between two of Began's men. Brus has followed them and now watches over the hill into the courtyard. The soothsayer tells of the history of the land and how Gavin Dhu known as Gavin the Black will wed Nineag the White at the Christ Mass. The monk tells the gathering the story of Christ, his birth, death and resurrection. Afterwards they all make the sign of the cross. The story causes Brus to wonder since his father Harald had not been one to accept the Christian religion.

However the feast quickly turns into a battle after one of Harald's warriors attacks Began Mor's men. The entire party of Norse warriors is slain and thrown over the walls onto the rocks. Jan is spared and taken prisoner. However, Brus who witnesses everything discovers that his father is still alive and carries him to a cave to care for him. While out to get water, Brus returns to the cave and discovers his father has been murdered and the brooch stolen. He is determined to avenge his father's murder and recover the family's talisman.

When a column of horses led by Gavin of Lorne and his men leave the castle, Brus follows knowing that Jan is a prisoner. The two boys eventually find a way to meet and Brus tells Jan the fate of their father. Over the next few days, because they are identical twins, Brus and Jan find ways to switch places. As the boys travel through Scotland, they meet many Christians who teach them about their faith and urge them to not be so quick to avenge their father's murder. As they build allies among the simple workers who have seen their lives destroyed by Gavin, Black Fox of Lorne and the cruel Began Mor, the twins also uncover a treacherous plot that threatens the very king of Scotland!


De Angeli has crafted a story that offers young readers a fascinating picture of tenth century Scotland.This is a story with the themes of vengeance and betrayal countered by forgiveness and faith.

As the twins travel through Scotland to Gavin's keep, they meet several Scots who teach them about Christianity. The twins know about Christianity because in their country, the father Harald refused to convert as ordered by the Norse king. However, once in Scotland they begin to learn about the Christian faith through the various people they meet on their journey. It is a journey that will test their intelligence and resourcefulness, but also their very beliefs.

Jan first encounters the story of Christ from Donald a shepherd who feeds him. Jan tells Donald what has befallen his family and that he intends to avenge his father's murder. But Donald tells him, "Vengeance is the Lord's. Beware lest ye find that for which ye seek! It can be an evil thing! The Lord says, 'Forgive them as I forgive you.' "  He then tells Jan the story of Christ's birth, death and resurrection as well the miracles of St. Andrew in converting the Scots. Jan who is perhaps the gentler of the twins is open to the message. "Jan listened with all his heart. This was a wondrous tale indeed. The shepherd's tale had eased the burden of grief in him. He must tell Brus."

Brus first encounters the Christ story from Morag, a crofter's wife who gives him shelter. When he tells her of his plan to avenge his father's murder, she says, "The Lord will take care of our enemies...if we trust Him and bide His time." But Brus is not open to this advice, stating, "No son leaves his father's death unavenged. And who is this God? We have many gods." Even though Morag explains Christmas to Brus, he is not ready for it insisting, "It is for his sons to avenge him."

Jan who is renamed Ian by the Scots struggles with his anger whenever he sees Gavin wearing his father's brooch. However, Murdoch Gow, a smithy who is also a prisoner and whose wife and children were murdered by Gavin teaches Ian that "God's ways are not our ways. We must have faith, for even when all seems against us, we later find that all was for the best." Ian questions Murdoch as to why Gavin makes the sign of the cross when he is cruel and a traitor. Ian knows his father Harald would never give a sign of peace and then kill innocent people as Black Gavin has done. Murdoch explains that some "...make the sign of the cross, those who speak the name of the Christ, the Holy One, in lip service only..." Ian gradually comes to a better understanding of the Catholic faith through the people he meets in Black Gavin's castle.

A young boy his own age, Alan MacDugal, is the son of Dugal who was also murdered by Black Gavin. His mother has been imprisoned elsewhere and their lands have been stolen by Gavin who has set himself up as Thane of Lorne. This means Ian and Alan have a common enemy in Gavin. Seeing Alan praying in the castle for his imprisoned mother's safety further intrigues Ian, "Could he, Ian, make a prayer to Alan's God, for the safety of his own mother?" He wonders, "Who is this God? What is the spell made by crossing the breast and touch the forehead, whispering words?"

Brus again encounters Christianity in the cottage of the shepherd, Gregory, his wife Una and their little son Tomas. He learns more about the saints and disciples who came after Christ. It is Gregory who suggests to Brus that maybe he was sent to Scotland for a reason not yet known. Brus's aversion to the new faith is seen when he finally meets up with Ian in the castle and hears his twin brother calling on God's help. Brus questions him, "With God's help? What mean you with this talk?" said Brus angrily. "What of the gods of our fathers? Are you gone soft, or simple?"

Both boys have the chance to exact revenge on Black Gavin for their father's murder. Ian has the chance to kill Gavin when they stop to drink from a stream but he hesitates because he has been taught that to kill an enemy from the back is the way of a coward. Brus too has the chance when he is accompanying Gavin on horseback. Gavin is pitched from his horse and hits his head on a stone, falling headfirst into a stream. With Gavin's head underwater, Brus has the chance to do nothing and simply leave him to drown but he does not. Instead, like his twin brother, Brus remembers his father's teaching to "...be just to all men.' But was it 'just' to save the life of an enemy? ' Yes,' Murdoch Gow said. 'Love thine enemy, hate him not, but hate the thing he does.' Was he, then becoming soft like Ian? He must watch lest he forget his purpose."

But when Brus travels to the priory with Gavin he is impressed by the crucifix in the chapel. "The broken figure hanging from the rood above the altar held Brus's gaze. This, then, was that Christ of whom he heard so much, who had given His life for His friends. He had been a noble warrior."

De Angeli populates her story with both good and bad characters in Christian Scotland, making the story realistic. It is the simple folk who live out their Christian faith, who have the most impact on Brus and Ian. Their imparting of some of the basic beliefs of Christianity to the twins, add to the code of honour they have learned from their father Harald. While their desire for revenge remains strong, they remain true to their warrior code of honour, resisting revenge in a way that is dishonourable. Eventually, justice is meted out to those guilty, in circumstances that protect the boys. Impressed by the sacrificial Christian God, Christ resonates with the two boys, and it is their mother's acceptance of Christianity that finally pushes them to accept the Christian faith.

Black Fox of Lorne is an exciting tale of betrayal, murder and political intrigue, but also one of justice, faith and forgiveness. Readers will be interested in the details the author incorporates into her story about life in tenth century Scotland. De Angeli's exquisite pencil sketches portray some of the events in the story.

Book Details:

Black Fox of Lorne by Marguerite De Angeli
Garden City, New York: Doubleday    1956
91 pp.