Beyond the White Fence, Edith M. Humphrey. Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2021.
Summary: A group of cousins visiting “Gramgon” and a neighbor boy have a series of adventures in which they meet their patron saints, passing through a portal just beyond the garden gate.
It all began with the fawns. Katie, visiting her “Gramgon,” spots them beyond the garden gate at the bottom of the yard. She’s been told not to go into the valley beyond, but is almost irresistibly drawn to them and passes through the gate. There are other animals including turkeys…and a peacock. She follows and discovers she is in a different time and place. She encounters Lady Edith of Wilton, the sister of King Edgar, who has chosen the life of a religious sister. While there, Edith brother is killed, and the neighbor boy, TJ, who had followed narrowly foils an attempt on Edith’s life before the two are led by the peacock to where they can see the garden gate. Katie carries and hides a feather of the peacock.
Subsequent adventures follow as cousins from Pittsburgh join Katie, who is from Kansas. Together or separately, each of the girls sees the fawns and are transported to an encounter with their patron saints — Rachel, Jacob’s betrothed, Ruth and Naomi, Mary Magdalene. Sometimes they simply learn of the faith of these saints, and sometimes there is adventure, for example, rescuing Rachel from kidnappers who would prevent her marriage to Jacob. The end of the visit to Gramgon is coming but Katie has not met her patron saint Katherine yet. Edith is the saint of the author of this work, and presumably Gramgon. One more time they are bidden beyond the garden gate, this time by chimes, only to witness Katherine’s courageous witness before her martyrdom, and glimpse the glory beyond that Katherine would enter.
They carry the peacock feather on each venture, and when the peacock appears, it is time to depart and the way back to their own time is open–and no time has elapsed. The situations they enter are dangerous and the peacock feather and the peacock represent the eyes of the Lord upon them, protecting and guiding.
This Narnia-like story is about the discovery of the saints, our communion with believers who have preceded us, whose lives may instruct us in living the life of faith. I do wonder a bit with Gramgon’s prohibition of these ventures, the whisperings of the children she overhears, and her unconfirmed suspicions. It makes me wonder if Gramgon herself has traveled beyond the gate. Does she realize that the children can only go if bidden? Does she even “cover” for the children when they are weary from ventures?
This is a delightful story, particularly as the cousins become more interested in the backstory of these saints for whom they are named. The climactic adventure, witnessing the martyrdom, is beautifully written, and to be savored.
This story reminded me of a wonderful experience a few years back when I was invited to be present as a friend was baptized and received into the Roman Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Part of the liturgy includes the Litany of the Saints in which we work through a list beginning with the Holy Trinity, Mary, the angels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, the disciples, the innocents, martyrs, the holy bishops and confessors, the doctors of the church, and many more, interspersed with a long list of names in each category.
With each group or saint, we bid, “pray for us.” It is prayed slowly and meditatively and takes a long time. After all, this is part of a vigil on the eve of Easter. I sat in wonder as I heard this “great cloud of witnesses” enumerated and the vision of our solidarity as we run the same race, fight the same battles that millennia of believers before us ran and fought, and now pray for us. It seemed a “thin place” where the veil between us was barely there and we were present to one another. I knew the stories of some, and wondered about those of many others.
There is something in this for all of us–children and “Gramgons” alike. Stories like this one invite us into the literature of the saints, the stories of all those who have gone faithfully before us until whatever end God had for them. It explains the attraction of the stories of martyrs. They remind us of our communion with them, the mysterious fellowship we enjoy, and that we may well be prayed for not merely by our living friends but by many in glory who are heard by the Father who watches over our ways.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.