Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: The Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett

Title: The Lilies of the Field
Author: William E. Barrett
Genre: Literary
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
First published: 1962
Pages: 128

Rating: 3 out of 10 stars

Though I hadn't heard of it before, I came across this small book in the classics section at my library. Based on the fact that obviously someone felt it deserved classic status, I took it home to read. And let me just say that I certainly am not in the same opinion as whoever labeled this book "classic."

The Lilies of the Field is about a man named Homer Smith, a former GI, who now lives doing odd jobs and enjoying the freedom of the road and sleeping in his station wagon. However, all of this changes when he meets a group of German nuns. They give Homer a few jobs, and they strike up an odd sort of friendship with him. Homer soon discovers, however, that the nuns have plans for him. They want a chapel, and they prayed for a means to get one, and Homer showed up. Naturally, he will build their chapel. Homer resists at first, but somehow the nuns convince him. As the chapel grows, Homer gains a sense of pride in his work. The building of the chapel is revered by the town as a miracle.

This book isn't exactly my type of reading. It's the type of storyline that I am highly unlikely to ever enjoy. And so, due to my predisposed and entirely expected disliking for this book, I feel obliged to highlight some good points first.

At some rare moments, the writing of this book was pretty. It was simple and spare, as if the author was trying to use as few words as possible. Everything was stated in a factual sort of way, and once in awhile the frankness of the wording was enjoyable. I can see how some readers may find it charming, or even beautiful.

I also liked the nuns, especially Mother Maria Marthe, the leader of the band of sisters. Like the rest of the nuns, she speaks barely any English, so her character is left to be filled in by mostly actions, tones of voice, and facial expressions. She was a commanding, slightly grumpy, bossy old woman who was endearing in how stuffy she was. The scene where she tells Homer certain Bible verses to look up, in an effort to speak to him, was funny, and actually quite a creative idea on her part. I found it comical that she steers him toward the verses about about "not storing up earthly treasures" when he asks for payment early on in the story. It seemed presumptive and unfair on her part, but I don't believe that she did it with any malice.

So now that I have come up with some things I liked about the book... I have to say that I couldn't possibly think of any other good points.

The character of Homer was extremely irritating, in my opinion. He was not all that bright, and his feelings were often muted by the story. Rather than have much of a character at all, he seems a mouthpiece for the story itself. The author obviously expects (or rather, hopes) that the reader has a similar mindset to his main character: reluctant in the beginning, and inspired by the end.

Something about this book that bothered me was the nun's attitude. When Homer does some jobs for them in the beginning (mending fences and such), they practically refuse to pay him. Yes, they are poor, but shouldn't they have made it clear to Homer that he was working for free beforehand? Perhaps their English wasn't good enough for that, but after the matter of payment was made clear by Homer, shouldn't they have shown some regret, or apologies? The author doesn't seem to think it a very big deal, but it was practically stealing.
Homer also works tirelessly on the nun's chapel after this. He is their answer to prayer, and they can work him as hard as they like, for no pay.
I got this sense through-out the story, and it was not a comforting one.