Black Bottle Man

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Black Bottle Man

Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell
Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2010; 176 pages
Gold Medal, Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, Young Adult Fantasy/ Sci-Fi, 2011

What do you do when your two childless aunts sell their souls to become pregnant? According to Black Bottle Man, you cut a deal with the devil and spend the next eighty years trying to find a champion who can beat him at his own game.

In 1927, Rembrandt is only ten years old when his loving Canadian farm family tears itself apart over his aunts’ dabbling in black magic. Determined to save the two women’s souls, Rembrandt, his Pa, and his Uncle Thompson cut a deal with the Black Bottle Man, Satan’s rather uninspiring earthly persona. The deal requires them to never spend more than twelve days in any one place until they either find a champion to defeat him, or die. Pa and Uncle Thompson only make it for a few years on the road. The rest is up to Rembrandt and the magic he’s learned to do using hobo signs.

If that description doesn’t tempt you, well, it didn’t really tempt me, either. Craig Russell contacted me last year, wanting to send me a review copy, and at first I think I didn’t answer. (Sorry!) He tried again a few months later, sending along an outstanding review from a blogger I usually agree with, so I cautiously agreed to give it a read.

Thank you, Craig, for persisting. This story is wild, ridiculous, serious fun.

Black Bottle Man’s structure easily draws the reader into the culture of hobo freighthopping. It moves with the speed of a train, jumping between Rembrandt’s Dust Bowl-era travels and a “present” time in 2007, while throwing in the points of view of other characters along the way. Russell’s prose is crisp and effective. He has a knack for finding just the right image to quickly wrap a reader into a scene. His characters are a blend of ordinary and outlandish, and the balance between the two is just right.

Best of all, Russell has given us a story that works at every level. Black Bottle Man is a romp, and if you want to leave it at that, it will let you. But scratch the surface just a little, and layers of new meaning begin to emerge. Rembrandt’s two aunts literally sell their souls for a magic bottle that will give them babies; it’s hard not to read that as a metaphor for modern technologies like IVF. It’s also hard to resist the unrepentant Aunt Annie’s claim that her sin was worth it, to have her strong, good daughter. But the aunts’ souls are still worth saving, and it is only through the intercession and sacrifice of others that such a feat is possible. Rembrandt’s hobo signs are part of a very incarnational magic. Each word, or sign, brings its meaning into being; for example, the sign for fish makes actual fish appear. These signs are a kind of sacrament, a visible sign of grace. The story drips with symbolism, some explicit and some more subtle, and I suspect there is even more that I will uncover in subsequent readings. Black Bottle Man is the very best kind of Catholic fiction: it weaves a Catholic worldview into the fabric of its being, creating a story that is resplendent with grace without ever needing to preach.

Black Bottle Man is marketed as “teen fiction,” and it is a book I would happily give to a teenager. But I think that moniker might also be holding it back from reaching an adult audience, who can enjoy it just as much.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

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The Immigrant

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The Immigrant

I stumbled across a gem on Netflix this week: The Immigrant, a 2013 film from director James Gray that I had never heard of. I gave it a chance because Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix are both actors I trust to deliver good performances. They did not disappoint, though Cotillard’s character is more consistent than Phoenix’s. But the film also provided a visual feast of cinematography, plus something I never dared to hope for: a story laced with Catholic-flavored themes of forgiveness.

Set in New York in 1921, The Immigrant stars Cotillard as Ewa Cybulska, a young Polish Catholic woman who has fled war and famine to come to the United States with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). At Ellis Island, Magda is taken into quarantine for tuberculosis, while Ewa is labeled likely to become a ward of the state and tagged for deportation. Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), who claims to be from the Travelers’ Aid Society, bribes the officials to set her free; then, through a mixture of kindness and coercion, he leads her into the burlesque show where he serves as impresario and the prostitution ring where he serves as pimp. It’s evident early on that Bruno has fallen in love with her, but that does not stop him from selling her on the streets. Ewa goes along with the scheme because she must raise a large sum of money to pay the bribes that will free her sister from the immigration detention center—money she cannot earn legally because she has no legal status in the United States.

Enter the inevitable third party of their love triangle, Bruno’s cousin, a stage magician named Emil (Jeremy Renner). He offers Ewa the opportunity to escape her life of degradation, but Ewa cannot leave her sister behind.

To this point, the film is a well-crafted drama, a period piece that manages to be both intimate and grand, leaving nothing of the topless burlesques to the imagination yet handling the prostitution scenes with unusual subtlety and discretion. James Gray knows how to use a single touch to evoke more emotional depth than a graphic sex scene ever could. The plot hiccups occasionally, with a few scenes that are too contrived, but on the whole the script provides a worthy vehicle for its excellent cast.

But then—

The turning point comes when Ewa decides to return to church. She attends Mass, praying to Mary for help for both herself and her sister, then stays to go to confession afterward. Bruno eavesdrops to hear her sins, including the priest’s admonition that she must leave the man who is misusing her. From this point forward, there were so many ways for the plot to go wrong—so many easy clichés the writers could have chosen. Instead, The Immigrant does the hard work of being genuine. It resists clichés, as well as the all-too-prevalent temptation to graft modern ideologies onto stories about the past. Ewa and Bruno are granted the rare dignity of being allowed to be true to themselves. The final scenes are nothing short of beautiful. I can hardly remember a better cinematic expression of genuine love—yet not even so much as a kiss is exchanged.

In reading through a few of the secular reviews of The Immigrant, I cannot help but notice that there is virtually no mention of the film’s emphasis on love and mercy. The immigrant experience in America, Gray’s talent for evoking emotion, and the plot’s occasional missteps seem to have gotten all the ink. But to this reviewer, The Immigrant was not only a treat for my eyes, but for my soul.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.