The Book of Jotham
by Arthur Powers (Brazil 1969-73)
2012 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction - Novella
Tuscany Press, $16.95
Reviewed by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966-68)
A favorite Catholic prayer invoking the intercession of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, includes the words, “we…poor banished children of Eve…mourning and weeping in this vale of tears…” Jesus focused his ministry on those heavily weighed down by the burdens of life, those who mourn and weep in this vale of tears. In the Gospel stories we see Jesus encountering and embracing lepers, cripples, prostitutes, tax cheats, demoniacs, beggars, blind men, and heartbroken widows - those at the bottom and fringes of society of his times. And one could add women and children to that list.
The main character in Arthur Powers’ small and beautiful work, The Book of Jotham, adds a new face to those we meet in the Gospels, and shines a fresh light on Jesus and his new commandment of love and compassion.
Jotham is a profoundly mentally handicapped ‘man-child’ living in Judea in the time of Christ. He is able to speak only a few words; he is big and clumsy. His father considers Jotham a curse, “Lord, how have I sinned to have such a son?” But his mother responds that he is “from God,” and accepts and loves him just as he is. When his mother is near, Jotham is nourished by her light and warmth as he goes about his simple tasks.
Then his mother dies suddenly and the light goes out for him. His father is icy cold and dismissive, his sister Adina self-absorbed in her own grief. Jotham walks away from his home to the village, and there he waits, day after day. And then one morning, Jotham senses something new. An excited crowd swirls into the village, and Jotham sees an intense, warm light emanate from it. There he is, Jesus of Nazareth, the preacher. Jotham is compelled to follow and stay close to that light, regardless of the ridicule he endures as he follows the crowd, and becomes part of the entourage travelling with Jesus.
I took this book along on a family vacation to Ireland. On the flight home, I noticed a couple of families with young children four rows ahead of my husband and me. One little boy, about two years old, was struggling and crying. It seemed to me he showed signs of Down’s Syndrome. The other family had two little girls, busy with books and crayons. I watched from my quiet vantage point and thought, “How sad for the parents of the handicapped child.”
Then I opened The Book of Jotham and read it through. When I had finished, I reflected again on the tableaux of the two families sitting ahead of us, and I was ashamed of the way I thoughtlessly jumped to a conclusion, stereotyped the little boy, and minimized his human worth because I assumed he was mentally handicapped.
The men around Jesus - Peter, Thomas, Judas - respond to Jotham in a similar way. They saw this lumpish fellow who couldn’t speak or keep up with them on the road, and they wanted to leave him behind, they saw no worth in him. They were on a messianic journey with Jesus, the Rabbi. They had grand if perhaps confused ambitions, and someone like Jotham had nothing to offer, indeed, was a burden. They judged him, impulsively, based on how he looked and what he could contribute to the cause. Jesus, however, looks beyond appearances and apparent “handicaps” into Jotham’s heart, and there he sees the real person, the full person. He accepts him as he is, and respects his great worth.
Jotham is about to be baptized and Peter says, “How can we baptize him, Rabbi? He understands nothing.” Jesus responds, “Yet he knows more than most.” And he tells Peter not to look into his eyes, the eyes that seem dull, but to “Look in his heart.” There the truth of the person is found.
I’ve read The Book of Jotham several times now, and each time it brings something new to me, elicits a new understanding or insight. The book has caused me to reflect more deeply on how harmful, even deadly, it is to blithely categorize and judge others, based on appearances. Those judgments mean that we never get beyond the surface, the façade, of the other. We jump to conclusions based on our own fears and biases, and that is destructive to both the perceiver and the perceived.
The Gospel reading at a recent weekday Mass was Matthew 11:28-30, a reading that brought Jotham to mind: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Are we not all Jotham, all burdened and broken in some way?
The darkness of suffering is all around us. Among the neighbors on my short block I see: a noted journalist and radio personality who is slipping into the shadowlands of Alzheimer’s Disease, now totally dependent on his wife for ease of mind; a 16 year-old boy whose premature birth has left him with a personality that doesn’t enable him to ever really fit in; an elderly, childless widow who buried two husbands and now faces old age alone. Each Thursday night I pray and share my faith with inmates at our county jail. I remind myself to look beyond the lurid tattoos, the bizarre hairstyles, the posing…
I’ve concluded that the only way I can “look into the heart” of my neighbor with love and generosity - and be a source of light and not darkness - is by continually monitoring my own heart - my thoughts, motivations, intentions. It’s a constant challenge! It’s only with God’s grace, the presence of the Spirit within me, that I’m able to stumble along after that beautiful light, the Light that dispels darkness, suffering, and even death.
Reading and rereading The Book of Jotham has been very fruitful for me. I have recommended it to my parish as our Book Club selection for Lent, 2014, and I recommend it to you.
M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966-68) is retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She and her husband Hal live in Madison, WI, where she divides her time among family (children, grandchildren, the family farm), parish (committees, lead gardener, etc.), and community efforts. She is the coordinator of Catholic ministry at the Dane County Jail, in that capacity spending most Thursday evenings at the Jail Chapel.