I've long wanted to write a post for W4 about Michael D. O'Brien's A Cry of Stone, which I re-read not too long ago. Yet I have found it surprisingly difficult to know what, exactly, to say about it. This may be simply a result of the fact that, for a few months after re-reading it, I went about loaning it to other people and trying to get them to read it (sometimes successfully), so that now the vividness of memory that might have told me what to say has faded somewhat.
But I think under any circumstances it would be difficult to know how to explain this book. A Cry of Stone is, in my opinion, O'Brien's masterpiece. (I've now read all but one of his published novels.) Its central premise is fairly simple: Rose Wabos is a Canadian Indian woman born around 1940 in an impoverished Indian settlement in Ontario. She is innately a gifted visual artist, and God's plan for her life is that she have nothing, that she continually lose anything that she seems to have gained, for the good of both her own soul and the souls of others. She is hunchbacked from her youth upwards and continually in pain; this, too, is part of the offering way that is asked of her. She is a small, improbable saint. Or maybe not so improbable, if one knows anything about saints, who, it seems, are often asked by God to have nothing.
God sustains Rose in the many sufferings he sends her by a frequent and overwhelming sense of his presence and sometimes even by dreams and visions. No doubt some of us have wished that God would give us guidance more directly, but which of us would be willing to live Rose's life in exchange? I cannot say that I would. Even the spiritual comforts are withdrawn from time to time, when Rose must walk her weary way in the darkness and in what seems to her utter isolation.
A Cry of Stone is painful and challenging. I guarantee that if you are a Christian and read the book with an open heart and mind, you will gain from it. This is as true for Protestants as for Catholics, though Protestants should realize going in that the book is very Catholic, suffused throughout with that specially Catholic concept of "offering up" one's pain and loss for the good of others.
But though the book is painful, it is also for the most part (with one exception) gentle. I've recently read O'Brien's Island of the World, whose main character suffers horribly under the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Island of the World, unfortunately, is graphically violent in several places. O'Brien is always delicate regarding sexual matters, handling them with a sense of reverence and care. It is my opinion that he needs in his most recent novels to be a good deal more delicate about things like slaughter and torture.
A Cry of Stone is very largely free of that drawback. The one instance of terrible mistreatment, amounting to torture, of a character (not Rose) is not directly portrayed when it is happening. Rose has a spiritual gift that at times amounts to a type of ESP, and she "sees" what happened and briefly describes it to the other character. Of course the book is not appropriate for children nor even for those who are not up for something fairly intense, but it is not brutal.
The book is by no means without its flaws, however. There are too many purely theoretical discussions of art, though the reader may be prepared to forgive these in view of the fact that they are carried out by a wonderful pair of characters, an elderly Jewish couple, both painters, who take Rose into their home and treat her as both a protege and a daughter.
There is one entire section where Rose visits England that could well have been left out. While it provides a somewhat idyllic break from the sadness of Rose's usual life, for that very reason it seems disconnected from the rest of the book.
Rose is sometimes too naive. Her childlikeness is part of her character, which is generally extremely well-done, but occasionally O'Brien carries Rose's childlike nature too far as a device for bringing about a new cycle of loss and gain in her pilgrimage. But real saints are not childish, and those places are faults in the book.
Much more satisfactory is the one place where Rose, with perspicacity and a surprising amount of spunk, faces down a sharkish art dealer.
The central insight of A Cry of Stone is that our success, in itself, does not matter. Not even our success in the work to which we believe God has called us. This is a hard truth. Many of us Christians believe that God expects sacrifice of us, but we expect that sacrifice to be called for in the course of accomplishing some work for God. O'Brien presses us to admit the harder conclusion: God may ask of us that we be willing to see everything apparently lost, including the work that we have done for him, to see all of it apparently go for naught, to see no gain, to be, as far as we can tell, small, unsuccessful, and unimportant, and to have faith that God measures with a different yardstick.
"Poor? Even if what you say is true, Rose, it does not matter, for in your failure you may bring about a greater harvest for souls than if your work is praised throughout your nation and beyond. Perhaps the failure is a necessary sacrifice. Will there be a soul one day, I wonder, who happens to stop before a painting of yours and is struck a gentle blow in his heart? Will the Holy Spirit then speak to him, because of the word you have made flesh for his eyes to see? Will he perhaps turn to God and consider the impossible question?"
"What question, ma Mere?"
"Is God, after all, what he says he is? If he does ask this, God will answer him. This I believe. You must not doubt it. You may never see it; you may never know for certain; it may occur far from where you live or long after your death. But, because you existed, it will occur. You came into being, and you stood firm in the cold dark places of the world, you continued to walk through the forest in winter even when all bearings seemed lost."
In this book as in others, O'Brien tells us over and over again: A life is a word. We speak this word to the world and do not know what its results will be, but visible results do not matter. Rose paints because she cannot do otherwise, because it is the thing asked of her, because her life is a word, and painting is her way of speaking that word.
Rose returned home with a feeling of intense purpose, went straight to her studio and stared at the piles of pine cones, maple keys, wasp nests, and other treasures she had retrieved from the parks throughout the city. The pine cones spiraled inviolate on their stems. Some of the weed wings were broken, and the hive was ripped a little. Each life is like this, she said to herself. Some are burned and some are blind, and some see, and some do not see, but all are part of the texture, and the texture is beloved, for it is part of the form that the Beating Heart has made.
Then she inscribed on the canvas a drawing of the blind girl and her friend. And on another canvas the burned boy who had only eyes. She worked all night, alternating between both...
O'Brien himself paints on a large novelistic canvas. The plot covers Rose's entire life (though she dies in her early thirties) and quite a bit of space. Rose touches the lives of people in her own village, in the nuns' boarding school where she is raised in her teens, in Toronto, Ottowa, Montreal, and even Europe. It would be too much to try to list, much less describe, the many people she meets and the many whom she loves. O'Brien has a gift in all of his books for memorable character sketches. But I will name one: A recommendation of A Cry of Stone would be incomplete without a mention of the Indian Jack Tobac, who appears only in its final pages. (But don't look ahead.) Jack Tobac is a character in only two of O'Brien's novels, the other being Strangers and Sojourners. He is one of those people whose existence seems to justify the human race, a man of kindness and insight who is never afraid to give. Here he appears quite unexpectedly as a passing stranger to help Rose and give her a place to live when she is very ill. When he and his wife Mari-Kahenta take Rose in, the scene is like light on the page.
A review like this cannot do justice to A Cry of Stone, and I am sure that there are other passages, probably better ones, that I could have quoted to attract readers to the book. Read this book. It will stretch you and force you to look at Jesus Christ, at the world, and at yourself. It will draw you deep under the waters. It will make you see.