PORT TOWNSEND – We first meet 23-year-old Meg at the moment she becomes a nun. Renamed Sister Angeline, cloistered, she embarks on a contemplative life. But Angeline is not at peace. Unspeakably terrible things have happened, and her world has ended.
Anna Quinn’s novel “Angeline,” to be launched this coming week, is about trauma, a woman’s rage — and healing. It is a story of possibility, and of transcendence from the worst things that have befallen us.
“Angeline” is about organized religion, yes, but this nun has her own ideas about what God is. No, not a bearded man up in the clouds. Yes, a force of love as powerful as the ocean.
Following three years of working on the novel, Quinn, the founder and former owner of Imprint Books and the Writers’ Workshoppe in Port Townsend, will hold a launch party at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The event will be at the Cotton Building, 607 Water St., with Quinn’s friend Susan Brittain giving the introduction; harpist David Michael will provide live music. Admission is free, and “Angeline” wine and chocolate will be served.
Quinn takes her reader on Angeline’s journey: from her first convent in Chicago to a progressive nuns’ community in the far Pacific Northwest.The novel’s Beckett Island was inspired by Shaw Island in the San Juan archipelago, where the Our Lady of the Rock Benedictine monastery begun in 1977. Quinn first saw this place when she was 17 and on a camping trip just before going off to college. She remembers arriving on the ferry to see the sisters – all in full habit plus safety vests – coming out to help bring in the boat. Quinn camped there solo for two weeks, impressed by how the nuns run a 300-acre farm while welcoming people of all faiths to work with them.
“Images of that trip really stayed under my skin,” Quinn said. Many years later, she finished “Angeline” while staying on Shaw Island.
Sister Angeline’s story is not that of a Benedictine. When she’s transferred to her island – to the Light of the Sea community – she joins five radical feminist nuns, women who celebrate their own Mass in direct defiance of the Vatican. These sisters have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church, yet they’re tightly connected to the people on the island.
Quinn first envisioned Angeline after dreaming of a young nun. An image of her, sometimes standing at the edge of the ocean, appeared in her mind. Such dreams, she said, are often the inspiration for her writing. Quinn grew up Catholic, so she knows the institution from the inside. The nuns in her life were good people. But she left the church decades ago.
In “Angeline,” there are two scenes involving a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. An accident causes damage to the figure; Angeline and Gina, another sister who is an artist, employ kintsugi, a Japanese art process, to repair the saint’s broken face. Instead of trying to make him look like he did before, they add adhesive mixed with powdered-gold paint to the pieces. His cheek then bears a golden scar.
“It’s possible,” Quinn said, “to bring our breaks together into a whole new story.”
As Angeline discovers this, she comes into her own womanly and miraculous power.
Then, Quinn added, “she has an epiphany about suffering.”
“Angeline” is the author’s second novel, following “The Night Child,” her acclaimed book published in 2018. That story is about the saving of a woman who was deeply wounded as a girl.
Both novels are about trauma, and both explore how people can help one another move through their pain and find their grit. Wading into a sea of heartbreak, they keep going. As they step into their strength, they find new lives.
JoAnne Tompkins, another Port Townsend author, is among several writers who’ve fervently praised “Angeline.” The story takes us from Chicago to this Pacific Northwest island where “a group of remarkable women have created a community on their own terms,” Tompkins has said.
With this new novel, “Anna Quinn reminds us of our shared humanity and the possibility of transformation even in the darkest of times.”
After years of pandemic-induced quietude, Quinn is about to have a launch event in her hometown, and then set out on a book tour. She’ll read and give interviews at the Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle, at Powell’s in Portland, and at other bookshops in Washington state, San Francisco and Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., in March and April.
Her hope for “Angeline”: It opens up conversations — about spirituality, trauma, healing, and beyond.
“And I hope it encourages others to tell their stories … when we take the time to hear each other’s stories, that’s how compassion is created.”
When other writers ask for advice, Quinn’s response is an extension of that idea.
“Pay attention to what calls you. What are the stories that spin over and over in your head? What are the characters and themes from the past that you can’t quite let go of?”
When you release that buried story, it can feel wondrously freeing, Quinn said.
“Follow that, and write it,” she said, “and stand behind it.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Townsend.