ghows-CA-210209984-493bf1d1.jpg

"An Act of God"

“An Act of God,” by Robert Y. Ellis. Paperback, available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. $20.99.

When Father Ignatius Costello sets off to play some golf with Sister Mary on a bright sunny day near New York City, he has no idea that his favorite pastime is about to trigger round after round of doubt and consternation. Every facet of life as he knows it is suddenly riddled with fault lines.

Iggy, as his friends call him, says “damn” one too many times on the golf course. Sister Mary is not happy. Out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning flung from that pristine sky strikes Sister Mary dead in her tracks. Iggy gets singed and shocked himself. He is sure the lightning was meant for him. He is just as sure it was God’s doing. But He missed and killed Sister Mary instead. Guilt. Ambiguity. A crisis of faith. And a criminal trial. The 33-year-old priest spends a miserable year working his way through one personal crisis after another.

This delightful novel - full of humor, love and camaraderie - by author Robert Y. Ellis is Iggy’s fraught coming of age story. Perhaps this is what happens when one’s destiny is assumed at birth. The 15th of 15 children born to devout Roman Catholic parents, Iggy joined the priesthood without question. He did what was expected of him.

“This book starts out with what is a very funny joke that stayed with me,” says Ellis. “I thought, well, I’m going to sit down and figure out what would have happened to that priest if the joke were true. So I started out writing about the experience on the golf course without knowing where things would go. ‘Act of God’ was never a struggle for me. It just worked.”

Ellis reported for the Christian Science Monitor. His memoir, “A Collision of Truths: A Life in Conflict with A Cherished Faith,” also takes up matters of faith. While Iggy’s personal crisis is triggered by lightning, Ellis’s questioning took a slower and more considered path. He studied economics at Swarthmore College and got his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the Army and was Executive Secretary of the U.S. Figure Skating Association. He owned a floor covering company and a country inn. He’s a member of three choral organizations and board member of the Cape Ann Symphony.

Ellis loved the early years he spent growing up in Riverdale, in New York City. He especially valued the diversity, the neighborhoods and the friendliness. All of those characteristics are evident in “Act of God.” The book is brimming with warmth and wry humor even though Iggy spends considerable time in a state of abject worry. The good people around him stand by him during his multiple crises beginning with the stunning charge of murder in the second degree. It seems Sister Mary may not have died of a lightning strike but from a blow to the head with an object. Iggy’s putting iron was found at the ninth hole, bent suspiciously. He doesn’t remember much of anything that afternoon due to his own lightning-induced injuries.

While this is a work of pure fiction, says Ellis, it is rooted in what he knows. “I kind of knew Jacob Rothschild,” he says of the compassionate lawyer who defends him at his trial.

“Many of my friends were Roman Catholic,” says Ellis. “I dated a Catholic girl in college. She had 14 brothers and sisters. She took me home one time to meet her parents. I remember standing in the living room. Her brother came down the stairs, looking at me with a fair degree of hostility. Then her mother came out of the kitchen holding a baby in her arms. She was pregnant and another baby came crawling out from under a chair. The woman I was dating was a nurse running a floor in the hospital.” Iggy’s family was fashioned after this one, with lots of siblings, a good deal of loyalty to each other and heady aspirations to make good in this country.

Without giving too much away, Iggy struggles not just with his calling but with all the adjacent supports surrounding his work in the priesthood. Iggy becomes increasingly interested in science because of that random lightning strike. It turns out such strikes do occur. As Iggy’s guilt begins to disturb his sleep and his peace of mind, he is advised to see a therapist. Further cracks in the supports around him become evident. He is not just a priest. He is a man.

Robert Ellis’s sequel should be coming along, though he says it hasn’t been as easy to write as “Act of God.” The book, independently published, deserves a place on readers’ bookshelves. It may not be exactly what the traditional publisher is looking for, but readers everywhere, religious or not, will enjoy the time they spend with “Act of God.”

Rae Padilla Francoeur, journalist and author, can be reached at rae@raefrancoeur.com.

This article originally appeared on Taft Midway Driller: Book Notes column: Ellis tells the tale of death on the golf course in ‘An Act of God’