Thursday, March 26, 2020

"River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey" - Helen Prejean



As a longtime admirer of Helen Prejean's work, I tried desperately to get into the flow of "River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey." I had high hopes that this would be a 5-star experience, though as I started reading I lowered my hopes to the 4-star arena.

In the end, I honestly struggled to even finish it. I struggled with the writing style and the first-person approach and present-tense utilized in each chapter. There were a couple chapters, in particular, where I found the approach really made the approach less effective for me.

The first thing I'd note, and I don't believe this to be a spoiler, is that if you're expecting this to resemble a spiritual autobiography you're likely to be disappointed. In superhero lingo, I'd consider this to be more of a spiritual origins story. Prejean essentially stops right as her interest in social justice is starting and never really goes into life after her interest in social justice began. She notes that she wrote about that in another book (I'm sort of assuming "Dead Man Walking," though this is the first book of hers I've read and I'm not sure). Thus, this book is essentially the beginning ofr her spiritual journey.

While I found pieces of "River of Fire" truly engaging, the book feels very piecemeal to me. It's essentially little stories that have served as a cornerstone of her spirituality. There will be many who will resonate with it. The book delves quite a bit into Vatican II and its impact on the structure of the Catholic Church - while this is fine, I found it distracting as it's more about the church and less about Prejean. While it undeniably influenced Prejean's life, I just didn't find her writing about that influence to be particularly involving.

There are other chapters, and I won't go into details here as it would be more of a spoiler, that I felt like were negatively impacted by Prejean's decision to write from a present-tense including one that involved an obviously unhealthy, potentially abusive, relationship. Because it's written in present-tense, it possesses a sort of creepiness that impacted the feeling I received from the book.

"River of Fire" is far from an awful book. It certainly possesses some insights into a woman that many, myself included, deeply respect. However, I simply find it to be inadequate for the way it's described and advertised. It promises more than it delivers.

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