Down-to-earth in seeking the otherworldly, spiritual being (most likely set in New England in the 2010s): Looking for a unique book for these unique times? Something that wraps you in kindness, selflessness, and faith, but you don’t have to be religious for it to speak to you? Suggestion: a novel full of grace, with prose that’s not just literal but figurative, even in its poetic title, One Night Two Souls Went Walking.
Ellen Cooney is a provocative writer. What could be more provocative than opening her tenth novel on page one, line one with this elusive, existential question: “What is a soul?”
Cooney taught creative writing for years at a number of colleges in Boston, Massachusetts. She thought she’d be a poet or a playwright when she grew up. Like poetry and plays, she says so much in the fewest words needed – a little over two-hundred pages– and does so with warmth and wisdom without coming across as preachy or judgmental.
To do that, she’s created a unique character – the narrator – who embraces all the goodness, kindness, and empathy we wish everyone had. She’s chosen not to name her, except to refer to her by the only name that matters: Reverend. Ever since this extraordinary young woman (in her thirties) was a child she imagined fairy-tale-like visions of the meaning of life. She didn’t have words for what she dreamt or witnessed in “a flicker, a glimmer,” so she called it “the other thing.” That’s when something happened in fleeting moments in her everyday life that shined lightness and beauty; that told her there’s more to life than the ordinary. Something amazing and mysterious. Everyone in her big, loud family was too caught up with their athletic lives so they treated her as different, though they do love and care about her. “It can be lonely for me in my family,” this noble girl felt because they were all busy with sports while she was asking about souls. The story she tells spans about six years of her life tending to broken souls, feeling hers was too.
Our narrator also asks, “Can a soul speak to another soul?” Through a series of vignettes about the people who touched her life over six years as the chaplain of a medical center when she worked the night shift (due to budget cuts), the loneliest of hours, she shows us she’s blessed with an exceptional gift of finding a way to speak to another soul; her boss, whom she calls Head, told her the same thing.
In this medical setting, the souls she tells us something defining about them are sick, elderly, victims of disasters, and dying. Mostly, she leaves them unnamed too, identifying them instead by their interests, professions, or what they look like. A simple yet personalized characteristic. These descriptors, and the briefness of chapters, emphasize their encounters may have been brief but they’re not forgotten. Cooney does a marvelous job of weaving them together, as memories of them pop up in the chaplain’s thoughts. Yes, we remember you.
The effect is this doesn’t feel like a short story collection. Rather, a poignant, life-affirming novel connecting people from all walks of life who are sad, lonely, have regrets, hard lives, were discriminated against, who have a common, urgent need or longing to find peace from their psychic pain, before many leave this world.
The poetic title refers to two souls. There’s several versions of who these two souls might be. Scenes that actually happened, and an especially vivid one that’s dream-like, mystical, which fits this abstract, invisible notion of a soul. And, of course, there’s a collection of souls the Reverend has been summoned to sit by their bedside, or be with a family member in the Consolation Room, where she metaphorically walks with them as she comforts them.
These souls include: an older, black, proud librarian who worked herself up from a hidden person toiling in a basement promoted to reference librarian where she was seen, needed, and respected. When the minister meets her she’d been content living in an assisted living facility until she had a bad fall and was admitted to the medical center, where she conceded she “might need attention to my soul here.” A demanding lawyer in his fifties whose life depended on facts, evidence, who woke up during a medical procedure and thought he’d arrived at the “roof of the world.” A teenage boy, Surfer, who had a tragic accident that paralyzed him, with whom she patiently sat with until she gained his trust, helping him see waves as “holy,” that it was all not in vain; Doctor Brown Hair who confided something was “hiding in my soul”; an elderly man who hadn’t been diagnosed with dementia but starting “acting weirdly,” for whom the Reverend diagnosed as looking for “a way out of his soul.” These sad, resonating stories are sometimes told with humor, and show another unique quality of the narrator: she lies if she can offer someone a way out of their soul.
Some stories remind the chaplain of her own past, so that’s sprinkled in here too, often in magical moments like her childhood dream of “me and my soul are riding our planet,” escaping daily life to someplace heavenly. Bits and pieces of glimpsing the light, reminding us there’s more to life than what we see.
Two important characters who are not patients move us because they’re men the chaplain falls in love with during these soul-searching years working in the darkness of night, feeling how much she deserves to be loved for who she is. Of the two, Plummy (he loves plums) is the one we feel she’s meant to be with; she sensed he was an “old soul” at nineteen, she approaching thirty. Fascinated by near-death experiences, they were two souls who walked together. But she was concerned about their age differences, the fairness, the morality, of impacting his life at the cusp of a career as a neuroscientist when she was settled in her own. Their relationship remains a source of unresolved angst.
It’s been five years since Ellen Cooney wrote her last, soulful novel, The Mountaintop School for Dogs and other Chances (reviewed here).
In her novel about rescuing abused dogs, Cooney made it perfectly clear her heart broke when dogs were treated cruelly. This time, she’s made it perfectly clear she wasn’t finished with making sure we understood that dogs have souls too; souls that can rescue people like the hospital souls rescued the chaplain.
The most likely version of which two souls are referred to in the title is a tribute to the indelible memory of a therapy dog, “an animal with dignity,” whom she does name, Bobo Boy. The two did go walking one night together. It can also refer to another therapy dog, Eddie, she goes walking with, more like flying at the end of this strong boxer’s leash, in a dream-like scene, reflective of the ghost of Bobo Boy. The souls of dogs with therapeutic abilities, and the bond between humans and dogs, adds a unique touch to this collective story about respecting the dignity of all living souls.
Cooney owns three dogs, and now lives on an island in Maine. We can picture her peacefully walking with her dogs buoyed by so much beauty, feeling lightness and hopefulness. She’s found a poetic, literary way to share that with us.