Book Review: Father Meme

3 min read
Shepherd of Sin
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The rampant history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is heartrending. The record of these despicable incidents in modern times—at the hands of priests whose duty it was to shepherd the often helpless and fragile—is enough to make even the most reverent faithful doubt the presence of God among the priestly caste.

While these crimes against humanity are heinous in all parishes where they took place, perhaps no locale seems more vulnerable than the chilling world depicted in the novel Father Meme.

Told in a short, complex narrative that relies on the second person, Father Meme tells the story of three Native youths who suffered and survived abuse at the hands of a priest. The book was written by Gerald Vizenor, a distinguished professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico.

Living on an isolated reservation in Northern Minnesota, Father Meme—so nicknamed for his flaming red hair, as “meme” is the Anishinaabe term for red-headed woodpecker—believes he can perpetrate his unholy actions without detection. Early in the work, the narrator describes the priest as “a winter cannibal, a wiindigoo monster.” Employing the second person voice, Vizenor fosters a sense of narrative intimacy—“You would be uneasy too, because the monster eats bits and pieces in the winter.”

It’s no accident that the main action of the book takes place in the dark heart of winter, nor that the preponderance of symbolism surrounding Father Meme involves ice and the frozen depths of lakes … and of the priest’s mind. The church where Meme practiced his religion and depravity is called the Indian Mission Church of the Snow, and he emits “winter breath.”

Throughout Father Meme, the reader is reminded that this is a tale of sacrifice; the sacrifice of innocence comes first and is followed by ritualistic escalations resulting in the priest’s crystallized destiny. Vizenor expertly evokes a sense of outrage and defiance to the story as he tells it. The narrator often reminds the reader that the stakes in such storytelling are high, noting early on that, “Father Meme abused my heart, mostly, and he is the cause of my most unbearable stories … how my narratives have become a vindication, the actual safeguards of my unbearable memories.”

Even eschewing the God’s-eye-view, Father Meme is an intense literary undertaking; sexual abuse survivors may find it a particularly difficult read, owing more to its subject matter than its narrative point of view. Nonetheless, it’s an engaging and challenging chronicle of survival in the coldest, most bestial and savage place the human heart can inhabit.
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