Jack Cavanaugh,
While Mortals Sleep
(Bethany House, 2001)

If we were to believe the raving blurbs in Jack Cavanaugh's While Mortals Sleep, we are in for a real treat of superb historical fiction. But contrary to the breathless exclamations of admiration by a number of fellow writers, in my opinion the book can neither be considered "extraordinary historical fiction" nor "a gripping story."

The first in a series called "Songs in the Night," While Mortals Sleep covers a year in the life of Josef Schumacher, a young German pastor, and his wife Mady. Set between two Christmas seasons, 1939 and 1940, the author primarily relates the struggles raging in Schumacher's conscience on how to balance himself between his Christian faith and Hitler's Nazism holding Germany -- and soon the rest of Europe -- in its grip.

Unfortunately, it is all a bit predictable: young preacher and devoted husband oscillates under pressure from his environment between resistance and collaboration. Josef's father was a Nazi fanatic who got shot dead due to a case of mistaken identity. Then there is the -- I assume -- mentally handicapped brother who died tragically together with the mother while hiding from Nazis. The vulnerable divinity student is taken in by Rev. Wilhelm Olbricht, whose daughter he marries. Subsequently Josef is caught up in an underground Christian resistance network, which also includes members of the Nazi bureaucracy.

After a somewhat unlikely sequence of events it is the father-in-law who appears to become Josef's undoing. Where most of the story's personae remain rather shallow, flat characters it is Olbricht, who -- in the setting of Nazi Germany -- comes across as the most credible character: survival instincts have transformed this former anti-fascist resistance activist into a pliable fellow-traveller capable of the most diabolical betrayal.

Then follow some more twists and turns -- or is it divine intervention? Hardcore Nazis convert, Josef miraculously survives captivity in a mental asylum, the devious father-in-law repents through valorous self-sacrifice, and all ends well. Somehow this book seems very much like a rehashing of Schindler's List.

As for Cavanaugh as "a master of historical detail," I cannot detect anything beyond the most obvious stereotypes and the use of some German expressions to create an air of authenticity. Most of the times the narrative is also almost painfully slow-paced. Certain passages are unnecessarily verbose and their only apparent function seems to be to achieve some cheap effects: lengthy quotations from Adolf Hitler's speech and a lot of slapping around during SS and Gestapo interrogations serve to underscore the demonic power of the Nazis.

Not withstanding an acclaimed interest in history, Jack Cavanaugh comes first and foremost across as an author of devotional writing, for that is how While Mortals Sleep should be qualified. Readers expecting a historical novel will come away disappointed.

[ by Carool Kersten ]
Rambles: 18 August 2002

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