Michael O’Brien’s Strangers and Sojourners spans the lifetime of a lady named Anne Delaney during the twentieth century. As you might expect, it is a long book, a tome of 546 pages, but it was well worth the time to read, even though it took me a few months to finish.
The story is built around Anne’s emigration from a highly educated, refined life in England to live as a frontier schoolteacher in a bush town in Canada. She eventually marries a reclusive backwoodsman farmer, a man of deep faith, while Anne battles intensely with doubt and self-recrimination. She faces the narrowing of her abilities into one small sphere, keeping her home. She senses the death of her personal grandiose dreams as she cooks the porridge and weeds the kitchen garden. Her children grow strong and stand upright, mostly unaware of the lifeblood their mother is pouring out for them. Her husband remains a bit of an enigma to her, a man who has great respect for dung and dirt, “Out of it comes the garden and the pasture and our lives.” But Anne hates it and the fact that their life is far from clean and neat. She wishes only to be able to cleanse away every trace of repulsive stink, despite the gentle reminder that Jesus was born where the smells were not polite.
Eventually Anne does get to pursue some of her dreams, among them editing a provincial newspaper. She continues to be haunted with questions as to the meaning of life and all man’s striving. Toward the end of her own life, when cancer is eating away at her vitals, it all narrows down to what really mattered all along. At death’s door, Anne receives clarity and grace. The struggle and fear are replaced with triumphant courage. She sees that God was at work all along, making something out of her nothing. As her husband sits beside her bed, watching her life drain slowly away, he sees…
“…that she had already laid down a large portion of her life long ago. Piece by piece she had given it away as she wrestled with existence, as her self was absorbed as nourishment into his life and the life of the children and the community. And laid down most piercingly, as she abandoned, one by one, the shapes of the dreams she had planned. Only to take them up in other forms.”
(excerpt from page 546)
O’Brien wrote this book in the third person omniscient point of view, giving us details from the heart of each main character, their thoughts and intents. While this can be tedious, he does it well, illustrating how attitudes and actions can affect an entire life, an entire family, even an entire community. I was inspired by Anne’s life, encouraged that the things I do today are long term investments. Though they may be small things, such as deboning a chicken or folding some towels, the world is nurtured through the countless small kindnesses of those who are willing to lay down their lives for others.