Today we set off on a new series and bit of a journey to sixteenth-century Zürich, by way of author Martha Kennedy and her magnificently-told tales. Her second novel, Savior, previously reviewed in these pages, brings us next to The Brothers Path and the six Schneebeli brothers, descendants of characters in its predecessor. Stay tuned for more from this wonderful author and what she has to say about it all.
The Brothers Path by Martha Kennedy
In The Brothers Path, set in 1520s Reformation Switzerland, author Martha Kennedy brings us to an era that often seems to get the short end of the stick in history classes. These are the days of Zwingli and Manz, when infant baptism was rejected, then, by Zwingli, supported. Barely concealing the selling out of his beliefs in exchange for the influential support of the Zürich council, Zwingli rose in prominence and power. Using corruption of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy as an overture, his teachings turned to condemnation of Lenten fasting and the use of images in worship, and promoted clerical marriage. He also re-organized the structure of the Mass.
Manz, for his part, continued his activism against infant baptism believing, as Zwingli had originally declared and Andreas, one of six Schneebeli brothers in The Brothers Path frantically ruminates in the novel’s opening pages,
that children should be baptized only “… after a firm faith had been implanted in their hearts and they had confessed the same with their mouth ….”
Manz’s support of adult baptism led to the refusal of parents to baptize their infants as well as the rise of the Anabaptists—“re-baptizers”—who believed their adult baptismal was the only true one, having come after their own freely chosen confession of faith in Christ. The Anabaptists were ordered by the council to cease their activities; they refused and Manz was executed by drowning under the authority of a newly minted edict outlawing the group’s religious practices.
As the novel opens and Andreas is left alone with his prematurely newborn brother Rudolf, his monk brother Hannes is summoned and Andreas directed to baptize the dying infant. He silently declines, later rebuked by Hannes, who insists the child unable to be buried with its mother in consecrated ground.
In this manner the Reformation propels its way into the Schneebeli household, one of some standing in the village outside Zürich, though past its prime. Hannes, who has been questioning particular angles of his faith, though not his devotion, is the first to realize the forceful manner in which the new ways will overtake the old. He sees some validity in their messages, but sympathizes with Catholics who wish to remain such. It is here that Kennedy’s neutrality really shines in its honor, for she not only gives the old prior at Hannes’s monastery voice, but also a compelling, humane position.
“Look at the women who go to that battered little Virgin.” The prior crossed himself. “They believe she will help them conceive a child. Some leave her money, which we collect and use for the poor. Do these women believe they can ‘buy’ help from that statue? I don’t know. Perhaps. Still, when they return home, their heart is lightened. They have told their troubles and they feel less alone.”
He goes on to assert the power of art distinct from any idolatry and the manner in which each new generation utilizes scripture for their own ends. Hannes expresses his mixed feelings as the two prepare for their church’s denudation—objects newly prohibited for worship will be seized and sold or melted down for money for the poor—and feels gladness upon noticing that the linden-wood Virgin has disappeared, surely taken by the prior to the safety of Einsiedeln or Luzern.
Brother by brother, the author journeys us through the march forward of the new religion, allowing us to bear witness not merely to events that affect them, but also the manner in which the new ways touch all lives. Zwingli’s declarations do not allow for people to “live and let live” or simply keep their heads down, and there is no room in this new order for respecting the beliefs of others as the theocracy some scholars believe he created begins to take shape. Kennedy’s personal religious beliefs do not make themselves apparent because, while those on all sides of the dispute state their criticisms and she gives them free reign to do—it is Zwingli and his forces who oblige their whispers—we recognize the coercive nature of beliefs and the ramifications of such coercion as the destructive agent. When Hannes travels to Zürich for information we are given an early glimpse into the manipulative manner in which the demolition persuades its way into the tolerance of good people.
Jud paused. “Join us. As I said, all of the canton will have to join us sooner or later.”
“Have to, Brother Jud?”
“Well, yes. It would be most unkind of us to allow our neighbors, our brothers and sisters to continue on the road of sin, not knowing our Lord and Savior, in thrall to superstitious idolatry, believing they can buy their way into Heaven.”
Hannes began to fear for the abbey.
It should be noted also, that this is more than a tale of people working or riding their way through a religious crisis. In itself that would be a compelling story, but under Kennedy’s guidance we are gifted scenes in the lives of love, dreams, disappointment, regret, honor, compassion, loyalty and more. With dexterity she lays out, for example, the inner running of Old Johann’s flour mill, written succinctly, but with the detail we need in order to understand the passion he has, a fervency that led to him acquiring it, building it from near nothing and passing it on.
Also striking is the manner in which the family —including extended members, spouses, children and so on—and villagers care for each other and attempt to provide physical, spiritual and emotional shelter for others even when they wrangle. It’s not that Kennedy’s characters are always agreeable; they’re not. They clash with each other, sometimes bitterly, and terrible heartbreak ensues resulting from poor choices paired with selfishness. But they can also pull it all together to act on behalf of those in danger, or simply to live up to the respect they know others deserve, even when the other party had not done the same, especially in the matter of religious belief. This gives reflection to an underlying tenet of what religious perspectives they all do share, of forgiveness and doing unto others, perhaps the most difficult of all.
Throughout the novel, with shifting perspectives and labeled as such at the start of each chapter, the author magnificently transports us from village to city and various scenarios, often via a trail referred to as The Brothers. Named for three brothers, children of two characters in Kennedy’s previous novel, Savior, the pathway provides a link not only to other locations, but also to ancestors and their experiences, and a guide to how they got to be who they are and, ultimately, who they want to be. In better times and in crises, including escape from authorities who have by now begun to bear down on even the lying-low Schneebelis, the trail provides connection, later revealing a discovery that harkens back to a time before the rise of what simply is a new master and a destructive campaign to be free of it.
Having previously reviewed Savior and come to care about Rudolf, the Schneebelis’ ancestor, it was a small delight to encounter reference to him here. The Brothers Path also continues to confirm Kennedy’s strong sense of a people as she realistically and compellingly paints a portrait of a time with her dialogue, historical events and individuals—including Heinrich Schneebeli, her own ancestor—mingled with those of her imagination, producing a greater understanding of what it was to experience life in a dangerously divided society.
There is great loss in this novel, though as mentioned earlier, it is not merely a catalogue of oppression and war. A glimpse into the Schneebelis’ lives, even during disputes, carries us through the steps of how creeping conversion takes hold and people seek to stand by their values while by necessity quietly resisting. The language is lovely and we can understand, through the awareness of how much family means to these people, how even a character not really all that likeable can come across as sympathetic.
Also as mentioned before, the novel does not take sides—except perhaps with freedom—and the author beautifully presents elements of worship without proselytizing. This, of course, broadens the potential readership, which naturally is a wise strategy, but it isn’t strategy that keeps readers with a book after the first few pages if it isn’t well written. From start to finish the Schneebelis’ story draws reads in, perhaps at first for the expression, later for the family themselves and ultimately what it all means for every one of us. The Brothers Path is another work of art from an award-winning author who generously shares her gift of story with us, and hopefully will again.
Stay tuned for more from the “Journey to Zürich” series and author Martha Kennedy!
About the author…
Martha Kennedy has published three works of historical fiction. Her first novel, Martin of Gfenn, which tells the story of a young fresco painter living in 13th-century Zürich, was awarded the Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society Indie Review and the BRAG Medallion from IndieBRAG in 2015.
Her second novel, Savior, also an BRAG Medallion Honoree (2016), tells the story of a young man in the 13th century who fights depression — and discovers himself — by going on Crusade.
Her third novel, published in July 2016, The Brothers Path, a loose sequel to Savior, looks at the same families met in Savior three hundred years later as they find their way through the Protestant Reformation.
Kennedy has traveled intensively in Switzerland, journeys that have at once inspired and informed her writing. She has also published many short-stories and articles in a variety of publications from the Denver Post to the Business Communications Quarterly.
Kennedy was born in Denver, Colorado and earned her undergraduate degree in American Literature from University of Colorado, Boulder, and her graduate degree in American Literature from the University of Denver. She has taught college and university writing at all levels, business communication, literature and English as a Second Language. For many years she lived in the San Diego area, but has recently returned to Colorado to live in Monte Vista in the San Luis Valley.
All of Martha Kennedy’s novels are available in both paperback and ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other online booksellers. You can also contact the author!
The blogger was furnished with a free copy of The Brothers Path to facilitate an honest review.