Ann Mary, Contraception and The Pope of Rome, a Novel of San Francisco

11 Jul

Murphy, Nancy Tefaro, Ann Mary, Contraception and the Pope of Rome: A Novel of San Francisco.
Green Isles Press, Pacific Grove CA, 2016, 191pp., pbk, $9.95
ISBN: 978-0-578-17273-6

Living in the Sunset during early post-war San Francisco, Ann Mary Mooney Kenny is the mother of two daughters, Virginia or Virgie and Teresa, and a 2-year old son, Freddy. She has had two miscarriages. As a dutiful Roman Catholic, Ann Mary is torn between her religious obligations and her all-too-human desire to prevent further births, though continuing to serve her conjugal duties to her husband, Henry, a Northern Irishman, one of five brothers but the only one immigrating to the United States.

We are introduced to the parish priest of St. Cyril’s, Father Capwell, a grower of potatoes, his housekeeper Mrs. Heafy, and a difficult parishioner’s visit by Ann Mary and Henry, the former seeking absolution from having to conceive, the husband truculent, crudely speaking of the Church’s doctrine. Before the audience, the reader becomes familiar with Father Capwell’s own youth, being one of eight children, his discomfort with slang terms for sexual organs, his rather hazy grasp of Church doctrine, his love of a potato patch in the sandy soil besides the rectory.

The reader meets Father Capwell’s checkers match with a bed-bound parishioner who invariably beats him, his on-going truce with his housekeeper over chipped bowls and a scarcely varying menu “Campbell soup (he sometimes got to pick one of two varieties), the meatloaf or roast tormented in her oven into grey slabs so hard on his gums, and Byrd’s Custard, sweet gruel. He could not force himself to be grateful.” He is, by the way, short and quite rotund.

Next comes a school morning scramble in the Kenny Household, mush, milk, hair brushing, father bellowing about the whereabouts of his slide rule…. “in any case, we began each day in an uproar.”

We next meet Teresa, the narrator, seated at her desk in the parochial school room of St. Cryil’s, which is adorned with various religious depictions of Saints. Teresa describes the two nuns who have the classroom power over her and her classmates and lists Mathematical Catholicism, an astonishing, comprehensive list of saints, practices and Roman Catholic beliefs.

As her mother also tries to master the calculations for the rhythm method, the reader is drawn into psyche of this beleaguered Irish-American woman desperately trying to survive Catholic doctrine regarding birth control, her desire to be a good Catholic and to avoid continual child bearing in the bleak Sunset rental home the five family member occupies. She crumples all too easily in the collective situation of the church parish social gatherings. There is a chapter devoted to the Mental Bulletin Board of Ann-Mary Moody Kenny, in reality her heart. Her author Murphy constructs with telling acuity the mixture of daily maternal admonitions, religious strictures, daily duties and minor pleasures and the accumulations of an individual life.

Nancy Tafaro Murphy possesses not only an intimate knowledge of Roman Catholic parochial training, the fallacies of limited parishioner exposure along with doctrinal demands, but an eye and an ear for familial dailiness, the uneven rhythms of affection, and the wear and tear of domestic existence in early post-war San Francisco. The portrait she conveys fascinates for its keenness and the acuity in language choices which propel the reader into Irish-American tempest in San Francisco’s Sunset.

In the interest of full disclosure, Nancy Tefaro Murphy shared parts of this novel with members of a writing group at The Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco, portions firing my interest, impatient to read the completed novel.

Ann-Mary, Contraception and The Pope of Rome is not kind to the Roman Catholic hierarchy; I am willing to wager it would find in Francis I a compassionate reader. It is an extraordinarily rich portrait of the struggles of the fated faithful. I recommend it for its skillful language and penetrating insights in the dilemma faced between faith and human life.

In the vernacular, it’s a great read.


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