Revelation, AIDS, a bishop, school

Books Of The Region

September 09, 2001|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Mary Fred's name testifies to her family's membership in a rural Apocalypse sect; the founder-leader, and the author of its sacred text, was named Fred Brown. Right now, Mary Fred's family is in trouble -- the parents jailed, the kids dispersed among foster homes.

Mary Fred is sent to live with unbelievers (or Lackers): Diane, a harried single-parent librarian; Diane's useless brother, Roy; and Diane's boy-crazy teen-age daughter, Heather. They live, and the girls go together to high school and shopping malls and a community soup kitchen, in a Maryland suburb of Washington. Their daily life is shallow, sloppy, materialistic; Mary Fred not only adapts, without letting go of her beliefs, but she improves the prevailing household mood.

Then Mary Fred's mother appears, to regain custody, and the story takes on Doomsday overtones. Not that Abby Bardi's The Book of Fred (Washington Square, 292 pages, $24) is a novel of theology; call it, rather, a study of human strengths and failings. Bardi, of Ellicott City, excels at reading the teen-age female mind and approximating teen-age female emotion.

By the end of this impressive first novel, a hard question has formed: how does a girl from these limited, TV-less origins -- everyone wearing brown, and reading mostly just Revelation and the founder's book -- get to be so much more of a person than the typical middle-class suburbanite?

The Rev. Dr. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo is the founder-pastor of Kalafong A.M.E. Church here. The names are South African -- she grew up in Soweto, a Christian, and in youth went into exile after protesting apartheid. In this country since 1981, she has earned degrees from Morgan, Johns Hopkins (public health), St. Mary's Seminary and United Theological Seminary. On AIDS, she is an authority.

As the count from that pandemic accelerates, passing 25 million dead in a continental population approaching 800 million, Mahlangu-Ngcobo's impulse to cry out has resulted in a book, AIDS in Africa: An African and Prophetic Perspective (Gateway, 68 pages, $19.50, softbound). She explains viruses and the immune system; she allows for the traditional, often polygamous African family, for tribal health ignorance, for the new, impoverished urbanization. She condemns female circumcision. She counsels abstinence or postponement. Quietly, she cites scripture.

Mahlangu-Ngcobo bears in mind those 53 nations' many believers in Islam, or in spiritism. Modimo, Thixo, Mungu, Oluwa, Chineke, Allah -- Africans have many names for God. And for lingering, painful, unnecessary death.

Last century, when something big happened, the media routinely sought comment from religious leaders; nowadays, a reader / watcher rather seldom sees them. Is this cause or effect, amid the waning influence of the main-line faiths?

The Rt. Rev. Noble C. Powell, Episcopal bishop of Maryland from 1941 to 1963, was one among many local religious eminences. But the calendar made him an unhappy focus for change, David Hein points out in his painstaking, thoughtful biography, Noble Powell and the Episcopal Establishment in the Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press, 182 pages, $29.95).

Powell arrived by way of Ala-bama, the University of Virginia, Virginia Theological Seminary and Washington National Cathedral. An interval in the 1930s as rector of Emmanuel Church prepared him for Baltimore. The end of World War II touched off a resurgence in the standard denominations. He himself was ever on the go, ecumenical, eloquent if not profound. A commanding figure, Powell nonetheless had friends aplenty.

A traditionalist but not a mossback, he believed in amicable, gradual, top-down change. Along came, in the 1960s, civil rights. For Bishop Powell, it was a bridge too soon; he didn't cross over. His more adaptive successor, the Rt. Rev. Harry Lee Doll, was installed the very day of John F. Kennedy's death.

To this story Hein, a Hood College faculty member, brings balance, sensitivity and exhaustive research. As "the last bishop of the old church," Noble Powell will be remembered longer than many of his predecessors.

Somewhere, doubtless, the old school tie still knots; but the symbol of fond recollection and lasting devotion, among independent schools, has come to be the new school book. The latest example is A Place in Our Hearts: Roland Park Country School (RPCS, 289 pages, $30), coinciding with the school's centennial.

For content, Betty Ann Schmick Howard (Class of '57), as editor, could turn to some powerhouse bylines: Josephine Jacobsen '26, Adrienne Rich '47, Joan Buckler Claybrook '55, Kathy Hudson '67, Jane Tinsley Swope '34 (in 1956, author of the first RPCS history).

Altogether, 62 alumnae write of the six headmistresses so far (plus one man), classmates, uniforms, funny moments, the school's site changes, its steps toward diversity, the fires of 1947 and 1976, the Reds' athletic prowess, the individual writers' later life. Eleven pages picture art work by RPCS people.

Does interest in "The Star-Spangled Banner" hold up, nationally? Publishers must think so: another anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore brings with it more oh-say-can-you-see books.

The Star-Spangled Secret, by K. M. Kimball, a pen name for Kathryn Jensen Pearce(Simon & Schuster, 234 pages, $4.99 softbound), carries younger readers straight back to 1814 and the turmoil in downtown streets as Ross heads for North Point, Cochrane for Fort McHenry. Young Caroline Dorsey seeks her missing brother Charlie; her one true ally, as villainy looms, is Sean Foley, an indentured servant.

James H. Bready writes a monthly column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.

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