Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Way by Kristen Wolf

Book:  The Way
Author:  Kristen Wolf
Publisher:  Crown Publishing

I was born in a small, dusty hamlet where people’s cars typically cost more than their homes, where the first day of hunting season is an official school holiday, and where the only road that runs through town is named Church Street.  It’s the kind of place where “Junior” is a given name, not a nickname, and where they still print the Senior Citizen Center menu in the newspaper every week.  On any given day, if you walk into the Stop-N-Shop to do your trading, you’ll likely meet any one of several Wandas, Almas, Delberts, or Elberns; and when someone makes a 911 call, the volunteer first responders are just as likely to show up on a tractor as they are in a fire truck.

It’s the kind of place where people firmly believe that in addition to faith and works, you have to bring a covered dish if you expect to get into heaven.

Gender roles are, for the most part, fairly well and “traditionally” defined––men fill the roles of electrician, plumber, truck driver, and carpenter, while women perform the duties of secretary, cook, caregiver, and maid.  Within the structure of the local churches, men are Elders, Deacons, and Ministers while women play the piano, teach Vacation Bible School, and make coffee and cookies for the Wednesday night prayer meetings.

Curiously, though, one of the places the lines of gender become blurred most often is on the farm, where it’s not uncommon to see women driving tractors in the fields or loading bales of hay onto wagons during the hot, dry summers. 

Though my parent’s personal and political beliefs list wildly towards the conservative right, they somehow had the vision and wherewithal to instill the ethic of reciprocity within their children.  And, whether they know it or not, they taught their children to be liberals, free thinkers, and twitchy little dykes.

Well, the twitchy part more so than the dyke part, which really only relates to me.

So, while philosophers such as Kant and Nietzsche argued that it is impossible to presume to know how others want to be treated, I submit that it’s not impossible to presume that people want to be valued, respected, and treated equitably, regardless of racial group, religion, sexual orientation, disability, class, ethnicity, nationality, age, sex, gender identity, social status or political affiliation.

Pfft!  Take that John Tanner!

The Way by debut author Kristen Wolf tells the story of Anna, daughter of a carpenter from Nazareth named Yoseph and his wife Mari.  Local heretic, Zahara is asked by Mari to assist in the birth of her child, but Zahara is unable to save the baby. A distraught Yoseph blames Zahara for the death of his son, and rallies the townsmen to stone her to death, claiming she is a tool of the devil. Yoseph’s life is destroyed by the death of his beloved son, Jesus; and Mari is unable to physically or emotionally recover from the traumatic childbirth and dies.  Angered by the very thought of his androgynous daughter, Yoseph dresses Anna as a young boy and sells him to a group of shepherds, led by Solomon and his impetuous cousin, Judas.

In order to protect her identity as a boy, Anna takes on the name of her stillborn brother, Jesus, and befriends Peter, another young shepherd.  A woman violated Peter before he was sold to the shepherds, and he harbors a sharp hatred towards all women.  As the two young shepherds become teens, their friendship deepens and Peter becomes confused by his feelings toward Jesus.  While crossing the desert, Solomon, who knows the secret Jesus harbors, senses it is time and sends him off on a mission to bring food and water back to the other shepherds. 

While wandering through the desert, Jesus is injured and wakes up in a cave, surrounded by hooded figures.  While healing, the secret Jesus hides is uncovered, and Anna learns of the Sisters, a sect of religious women who worship the Mother and uphold the ancient earth-centric religion simply called "The Way".   Anna becomes a shepherd for the Sisters, and slowly begins to learn the tenets of The Way, and why the people who believe in a male-based God seek to destroy them. 

While leaving her guard post to show Sister Tabitha a silly little lizard, the Sisters’ enclave is attacked.  Anna, Sister Tabitha, and Sister Ruth run for their lives, but find that three unescorted women in ancient Palestine in 33 A.D. are not welcome.  Once again, Anna becomes Jesus, and much to everyone’s surprise, is able to begin healing the masses and spreading the philosophies of The Way as a man.  Old friends return, secrets are discovered, love begins to blossom, treachery and betrayals ensue, and lives are forever changed as Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Judas, and the Sisters make their way to Nazareth.

If you read The Rainbow Reader on a regular basis, you know that I rarely review works published by mainstream publishers, and never review anything Oprah Magazine calls a “Title To Pick Up Now.” 

Well, never, until now.

The Way doesn’t fall into the traditional definition of “Lesbian Fiction”, which I loosely define as “by, for or about lesbians.”  But it is such a compelling story, and one that is chock full of queer symbolism, and frighteningly relevant to the political debauchery of our current world that it needs to make its way to the reading lists of women and lesbians everywhere. 

In terms of the queer symbolism, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Peter has a sexual attraction to Jesus.  Likewise, it’s hard to deny that Jesus and Mary Magdalene appear ready to embark upon a physical journey together.  Similarly, while Anna is living with the Sisters, she notices their sensuality and intimacy, and finds herself having thoughts of the lushness of the female body.  In contrast, it can be argued that Anna, being androgynous, feeling comfortable in the skin of Jesus, and believing that “women possess a gracefulness in their being that I do not”, could be considered transgendered.

As for the relevance to the political debauchery of our current world, it occurs to me that the theme of the subjugation of women in The Way is painfully ironic in terms of the current attacks on women’s rights.  As a young girl and as a woman, Anna is forced to hide her face, is seen as worthless, and is considered ‘damaged’ if she is unescorted by a man.  However, as a man she is free to have thoughts, opinions, and make decisions. 

As a man, Jesus has value.  Yet as a woman, Anna has value only as chattel. 

One doesn’t have to work too hard to see the similarities between the current war on women–the Catholic Church equating contraception to abortion, the attempts to require trans-vaginal ultrasound prior to having a legal abortion, and companies, institutions or health care providers denying contraception based on “moral conscience”–and the long list of inequalities, inequities, and humiliations suffered by Anna and all women in 7 A.D.

The Way is a bold and powerful story of self-empowerment and faith in things greater than our limited lives.  Ms. Wolf considers the imprint and role of nature in our lives, challenges the reader to focus inward to acknowledge our true self, and reminds us to never stop asking questions when we are presented with thoughts and ideas that run counter to logic and reason.  Her prose is sensual, at times lyrical; and her daring retelling of the life of Jesus forces us to widen our perspectives of our place in this world.

If you are a bible purist or looking for a warm and fuzzy lesbian love story, Kristen Wolf’s The Way isn’t the book for you.  However, if you’re willing to dive head first into a thought provoking read that is sure to make its way into your conversations and contemplations for weeks to come, it is a must read.  I’m giving this amazing and audacious book a 5.6 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

Kristen Wolf has generously provided TRR a copy of the trailer: 


  1. Another excellent review and a very timely topic. I just recently heard about this book and your description bumped it to a must read. I've often wondered "what if...?"
    And your small town memories remind me of a simpler, gentler time. Thanks, MS. West.

  2. Thank you, Ms. MacBean, I always love it when you stop by TRR and sit a spell!