Grain of Wheat

Mike Aquilina recently mentioned this new piece of historical fiction written by Michael E. Giesler, Grain of Wheat (Scepter Publishers, 2008).

The book is the third in a trilogy following the lives of several Christians in the mid to late second century city of Rome, from the end of Hadrian’s reign into that of Antoninus Pius. I will avoid any spoilers in this short review. This volume is set entirely in Antoninus Pius’ reign and relates especially the story of Marcus Metellus Cimber, son of a senator, and the results of his conversion on his family. There are several ancillary stories describing, I presume, the further adventures of some of the characters from the first two books in the series, which I haven’t read. Among these are Numer, a black Egyptian Christian who is a close friend of Marcus, and Dedicus, a Christian from Samaria,friend of both Marcus and his hometown friend Justin (not yet, of course, known as St Justin Martyr in the book), a teacher and writer who has just moved to Rome. There are Christian fish merchants, freed slaves, and Christian-sympathetic people of the senatorial class, including even the head of the Praetorian Guard.

The story itself is gripping. There is the accurate depiction of a palpable anxiety among the Christians, whose religion was illegal, and who were required to meet in private homes, which could potentially result in exposure by a jealous friend, or embittered slave or family member. Christians could be and were often accused in the courts; when offered to recant their religion and apostasize, they often chose martydom instead. These were facts of life through the first three centuries of Christian existence, particularly in centers of secular power, but especially in Rome. Yet, it is also not always the case that people known to be Christian were not simply rounded up and all done away with immediately, and the book shows this aspect accurately, too. Those Christians of greater wealth or ability, and particularly the clergy, were most in danger of being denounced by friends and even family. It was a cruel time. Yet one could live one’s life as a Christian without it ending in execution, which is often forgotten. The book also accurately depicts the fervent and very personal faith that we find record of in the catacombs, as well. People are praying to Christ constantly, even experiencing the charism of glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”). They refer every worry and care about friends and family to prayer, and are shown experiencing the joy of the Eucharist. The incidental details in the book show the author is very familiar with the period, and has done his research well. The setting is sufficiently authentic and yet without annoying extraneous detail that the picture given of Rome is lively and believable. This is a very enjoyable book. I hope the series will continue.

I think perhaps one of the best things I can say about this book is that I couldn’t put it down. It was a pleasant and a quick read (one late night). I would estimate its reading level to be young adult, so it should be fitting for any teenaged reader and upward. As Mike Aquilina mentions, two of his teenaged daughters loved it and have passed that love on to others. The contagious love of a book can spread like wildfire. This book is worthy of it.

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