There are burdens we cannot be expected to bear alone. This is a theme in so much of young adult literature, and after more than twenty years of teaching teenagers, it is a cardinal truth I recognize about life. For far too many young people, the burden remains unshared, either because they feel they have no one in their lives to trust, or their guilt and shame is such that they are afraid to speak, or in the case of many males, they are culturally conditioned to believe stoically bearing burdens is what men do.
April is Sexual Abuse Awareness Month, and one important part of such awareness is that sexual abuse is not just a “woman’s issue.” It is a human issue, and thus it is a “guys” issue as well. Writing for Book Riot, Kelly Jensen recently listed young adult titles that dealt with sexual abuse. (You can—and should—find that list here: Book Riot List) On that list was The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely, which, serendipitously, I had just finished reading and was planning to review anyway, before I even realized that April was Sexual Abuse Awareness Month.
I find myself in the same quandary Jensen spoke of on Book Riot regarding spoilers, as just by mentioning The Gospel of Winter in the opening I have, to some degree, spoiled some of the plot. So if you cannot abide by any degree of spoilage, put the rest of this review in the refrigerator, go read the novel, and then please come back and read the rest of the review. If you can abide a certain amount of spoilage, suffice it to say that The Gospel of Winter is the first young adult novel I have read that addresses the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, and it does so through the eyes of one of the abused, our teenage narrator Aidan.
At first we think Aidan is just another neglected rich teenager, masking his loneliness with drugs. But we eventually realize that Aidan’s burden is much greater (and Kiely does a superb job pulling the curtain back slowly, revealing the truth indirectly). And Aidan faces the dilemma I spoke of earlier: He knows, despite his attempts to convince himself otherwise, that he is falling apart, but with whom can he share his secret burden? When the first trusted adult you sought solace in violates that trust and violates you, how do you find the courage to trust anyone again? Aidan’s father is, figuratively and literally, too distant; and his mother, though figuratively and literally closer to him, is too caught up in her failing marriage and trying to rebuild her own life. His new friends, Mark and Sophie and especially Josie? Maybe, but will honesty drive them away? Aidan tries with Elena, a family servant and the closest thing to a parental figure in his life, but she struggles between her love for Aidan and her belief in the very Church that has betrayed him.
The Gospel of Winter is a story full of hurt, but sometimes stories that hurt are stories that need to be told. This is one of those stories. Stories can save us. There are many who should read The Gospel of Winter, for it is a beautifully written and gimlet-eyed story of love and loss and redemption. But there are some who must read The Gospel of Winter, to know that they are not alone, and to know that their burden can and should be shared, and that together they can, like Aidan, find the courage to face “the furious stammering of tomorrow.”