The Cape Ann
by Faith Sullivan
The Cape Ann begins as an innocent coming of age story about a young girl, Lark Ann Erhardt, preparing to make her First Holy Communion and planning with her mother, Arlene, to build a house based on floor plans called The Cape Ann. The story is set during the Great Depression, and the family has been living in makeshift quarters in the train depot since Lark was a baby. Lark is still sleeping in her crib in her parents’ room. Their plans are complicated by Lark’s father’s gambling the savings away as well as her aunt’s money and love problems. Along the way towards their dream, Lark and Arlene interact with their community of Harvester, Minnesota, and Lark learns much about humans and human nature, especially compassion and the lack of it.
The Cape Ann uses the Catholic culture of the Depression years as the background for the tale. Part of the humor in the book comes from Lark’s misunderstandings about theology. For the most part that is the role Catholicism takes in the book. However, complicating Lark’s Catholicism is the fact that Lark’s mother is a convert, so she is a device for analyzing the outsider living within a community – half-in, half-out.
Most of the characters know little more about Catholic theology than Lark and also suffer from misunderstandings, from either ignorance or expedience. They also have a pre-Vatican II view of many theological issues – such as whether a suicide can be buried from the church and on consecrated ground. Catholics with an understanding of our own history can see these discrepancies, but I always wonder about how non-Catholics or uneducated Catholics read literary portrayals of these ideas. Do they know what theological issues have changed? Do they know that Catholics often don’t understand their own faith? But that’s not the fault of the book. And probably not it’s responsibility either. A careful and educated reader will see through the flaws of the characters to find a study of strong women struggling to grow within the confines of their place and time.
I do think it would be fun if some author wrote of growing up as a Catholic in my childhood – what we like to call “the felt on burlap” era. Changes from Vatican II were just beginning to settle in – most of the fighting and bitterness were over. It was an odd time – a time of somewhat loose theology and odd liturgical proceedings. Most of the music was bad and most of the churches were ugly. Vestments were dominated by butterflies and rainbows. But it was certainly a time of great enthusiasm and joy and involvement. As an early teen I was conflicted by my annoyance at the tackiness and my appreciation of the relevancy to my contemporary way of life. I was conflicted by an enthusiasm for belting out “And They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love” at the top of my lungs and a longing for the quiet beauty of “Panis Angelicus.” It’s a great era for a coming of age tale. I challenge someone to write it.