Book Review – The Brothers Path by Martha Kennedy
The Brothers Path is set in the 16th century during the tumultuous and bloody Swiss Reformation. Ms Kennedy brings to life the events of the Swiss Reformation through the everyday experiences of the six Schneebeli brothers – Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. The novel is a follow-up to Savior (see my review here), a story of two Swiss brothers (ancestors of the Schneebeli brothers), caught up in the Crusades in the 13th century. Each novel is self-contained and can be read independently.
Ms Kennedy proves a fine storyteller and I was engaged right from the start and carried along by the drama. It is claimed by historians that the Protestant Reformation shaped modern day Europe, helping to draw the boundaries of each nation state, as powerful forces coalesced around their preferred new religious leader, and thus their preferred state-sanctioned Christian religion. In Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli led the rebellion against the unyielding edifice of the Roman Catholic Church. However, Zwingli was not without a challenger for this role. This challenger was Felix Manz, the leader of the Ana Baptists (otherwise known as the Re-Baptisers). Don’t worry, it is all explained in the book.
Ms Kennedy seamlessly weaves Zwingli and Manz into the story. Unsurprisingly, the rebellion does not end well for the men or their followers. As the old Prior at the Abbey reflects:
“It is the power of scriptures that anyone can use the words to support their argument. Even the infallible doctrines of the Holy Church were disputed constantly… It didn’t matter, really. People like to be right. They’ll fight just for that. It is not so complicated to follow Christ’s rule. As humans, we are fallen. We struggle against a thrust for power just as Eve defied God’s order…. I very much fear that when he’s finished fighting the French, the Holy Father in Rome will do what he can to squash all of this. No one gives away power. No one….” (40%)
There are two storylines within The Brothers Path. The first is the story about political intrigue, struggle and the contest for ideas; the second is a story of love, family and community. Both storylines are interwoven beautifully and sensitively. Where Rudolf, the main protagonist in Savior, is alone and desolate, the six Schneebeli brothers have each other. There is conflict, betrayal and loss in the family, but there is also sanctuary and a sharing of burdens. The Brothers Path, despite its subject matter, is gentle and compassionate.
Compared to Savior, The Brothers Path is a lighter read. I confess that its lighter tone lulled me into thinking that the themes within this book were not as grand or powerful as those of its predecessor, and it was not until I began writing this review that I realised I was completely wrong. The Brothers Path, although set 500 years ago, is timeless in its relevancy. The parallels with the pressing problems of the modern age and politics are unmistakable.
When I first started writing this report, the Australian and international press were abuzz with reports of widespread abuse of children by those protected by religious institutions. I began to hear the term clericalism and discussions on the role of clericalism in protecting paedophiles (eg. the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse). Clericalism is a term often used pejoratively to connote excessive devotion to the institutional aspects of an organised religion, usually over and against the religion’s own beliefs or faith (Wikipedia). Another feature of clericalism is the refusal of those in authority to engage with reformists, and the persecution of those who challenge Church orthodoxy or raise concerns on clergy misconduct. Despite these revelations, there has been an increase in politically-driven religious nationalism in many countries. After reading The Brothers Path, I asked myself, “Have we come full circle? Have we not learned from history?” It seems not, and this is not a new phenomenon.
“As if reading his mind, the Prior gave expression to Hannes’ thoughts [about the decree to destroy all Roman Catholic religious iconography]. “I wonder why the new church does not see the power of these paintings and statues, in and of themselves? Art endures, a bridge through the lifetimes of us all, linking us one to the other. In this way, it seems to me, we should learn from the mistakes of the past, but each generation invents the world anew. The unchanging paintings are good reminders that it is we who are new; the world is old, old.” “ 41%
Well-researched, skilfully written, wholly-absorbing historical fiction, like that of The Brothers Path, is also a good reminder. I have come to the conclusion that the central theme of the novel is kindness and resilience. At its heart, The Brothers Path is a story about people of goodwill and of faith who reject corruption, intimidation and militarism. It reminds us that we are part of a larger family (a broad church) that may occasionally agree to disagree, while at the same time, still sharing humanist ideals and respect for peaceful co-existence. Or maybe it is just a story about the 16th century Swiss Reformation. Why don’t you read the story, and let me know what you think?
I loved this book and highly recommend it.
Find out where to buy this book on Goodreads.
Note for Readers:
The Brothers Path is the second book (of a trilogy) in the multi-generational saga of the Schneebeli family. The trilogy spans five hundred years. The first book, Savior, set in the 13th century, tells the story of two Swiss brothers caught up in the Crusades. The third book, The Price (to be read), tells the story of the family’s emigration to America in the 18th century.