On The Road With Archangel by Frederick Buechner


Frederick Buechner is one of those authors I probably should have known about but didn’t. His short bio at HarperCollins tells us that:

Frederick Buechner, author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction, is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Short literary works touching on faith and history? Yeah, I should have been reading this author sooner. I only recently stumbled upon his novella On The Road With Archangel, however, at a used book store and promptly picked it up and read it. I turned out to be a interesting take on faith and fate.

Here is how the flap jacket describes the plot:

Inspired by events in the apocryphal Book of Tobit, from the second century B.C., this is the magical tale of two families brought together, as no mere coincidence, by the devilishly clever archangel Raphael. One is the family of Tobit, a virtuous man who can no longer support his wife and son because of Raguel, the quiet, devoted father of Sarah whose pact with the demon Asmodeus has left her life in tragic shambles.

Assuming human form, Raphael appears before Tabias, Tobit’s devoted son, to help him retrieve his father’s fortune hidden in a faraway city. Together, they embark on a miraculous journey in search of the answers to both families’ prayers–a journey that is made challenging and delightful by Rapheal’s artful efficiency.

A retelling of a Apocryphal story certainly intrigued me, but if there is a danger here it is over-selling the book and raising expectations too high Here is the rest of the promo text:

On the Road with the Archangel is a masterful combination of fluid writing, lyrical storytelling, and ancient truth blended with modern wisdom. And beneath it all lies a subtle, glowing meditation on the nature of the Holy.

Hailed as “one of our most original storytellers” (USA Today), Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Frederick Buechner has written an extraordinary new novel that shines with the mystery and wonder of the divine.Drawn from the ancient apocryphal Book of Tobit, On the Road with the Archangel unravels the tale of a eccentric blind father and his somewhat bumbling son who journeys to seek his family’s lost treasure. Narrated by the wry and resourceful archangel Raphael, Buechner’s tale is a pure delight, alive with vivid characters, delightful adventures and wondrous revelations.

Kirkus, perhaps a bit more cynical, captures it in less verbose fashion:

Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, emphasizes the goodness of God, playing down suffering, playing up faith. A slight tale, though often quite charming.

Now I am not so naive as to take the flap jacket copy at face value, but if you go in looking for the profound – looking to be blown away – you could easily miss the understated nature of the story and be disappointed. As Kirkus noted, however, it is quite charming. If you appreciate a story that doesn’t try to do too much, you will appreciate Archangel.

There is also a great deal of skill involved in (re)imagining a story already at least partially told and putting it into novel form. Buechner does this well. The characters are sketched out in insightful and interesting ways. When he is describing certain people and their relationships you find yourself thinking: “yes, I know just what he means.” In a short book, this is easier said than done.

And I don’t mean to short change the exploration of faith, because there are some interesting ideas going on in the background (about why we pray; about how we conceptualize God; etc.). But for me it wasn’t a “wow” type reaction as much as a hmmm” type one. “Shines with the mystery and wonder of the divine” may be a bit over-the-top.

But On The Road With Archangel really is a well crafted and enjoyable story and Buechner is obviously a skilled enough writer that I feel compelled to seek out more of his work.

And if, like me, you were not aware of this author’s career you might want to do like wise. On The Road With Archangel will only take an afternoon of your time so what’s the risk?

And that is one of the points of small books . . .

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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