North by Brad Kessler

I read a lot of books where I praise the empathy displayed, but after reading Brad Kessler’s brilliant North, I realized that there’s another, rarer quality I appreciate even more in writing: the quality of compassion. It’s one thing to understand where another person’s pain is coming from, to find common ground no matter how alien another’s motivations, but it’s altogether something different, something greater, to reach out a helping hand, whether it’s in the form of providing material comfort or even, in a scene here that made me cry, the warmth of a friendly face, as Angela did by showing up at the detention center just to chat with Sahro, just to be a human being connecting with another through kindness and a listening heart.

Sahro is one of our main protagonists, a young Somali Muslim sick of living in fear in her home nation. She and countless others have heard that if you travel to America and request asylum, they will give you a hearing, and that America is a land of good, kind people, where every home has three taps, one for water, one for milk and one for orange juice. As an orphan growing up in a nomadic culture, she’s pretty certain she can brave the perilous journey. But arriving at her destination and being jailed merely for the temerity to ask for help is the rudest shock on a trip riven with more terror than any one person should ever have to undergo.

Up north in Vermont, cloistered monk Father Christopher of the Blue Mountain Monastery is worrying more about his apple orchard during an unseasonal blizzard than the state of the souls of the monks under his care. In fairness, the souls are all in pretty good shape, with the monks all bending their energies to the contemplative life, himself included. He finds that he has a lot more to contemplate than usual, however, when the monastery’s groundskeeper Teddy rescues two women from a car crash in the snow.

Teddy is an Army vet who lost his leg in Afghanistan and has come back to his hometown, taking up his father’s old job as a layman working for the monastery. While his feelings about Vermont are complicated, he knows two things very clearly: first, you always help people stranded in the cold, and second, obedience to the chain of command, while not paramount, is often useful in providing moral clarity. Nowadays, his CO is Father Christopher, so whom better to bring his new charges to?

North examines the way these unusual, out-of-the-mainstream lives intersect, and how the plights of three seemingly random people have so much to say not only about the state of America today but also the world. Mr Kessler explores their interior lives with a sensitivity and lack of sensationalism that is more affecting for not being put on. It’s also clear, even before you get to his thoughtful afterword, that he’s done a ton of research on all the things he discusses here, before coming to his wise, heartfelt, compassionate conclusions.

I mean, nativists are going to loathe this book — an irony Mr Kessler points out considering how the vast majority of such also oppose reparations to actual Native American peoples — but anyone who isn’t a total ogre will find much to think about in this novel that explicitly underscores the/our religious and moral obligations to provide charity and sanctuary to those in need. As an open borders absolutist, I did not need any persuading, but I greatly appreciated how Mr Kessler channels the voices of the marginalized to show how pressing the need is for greater humanitarian acceptance of immigrants.

Gosh, this is such an important book, so thoughtful and so well-written and so deeply human and kind. I hope people read it, and that it wins awards so that even more people will meet these wonderful characters and absorb the lessons of compassion Mr Kessler imparts.

North by Brad Kessler was published October 5 2021 by The Overlook Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

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