"This is the story of a retired high school Latin teacher who murders her son-in-law."
That's what Robert Hellenga wanted on the cover of his latest novel, The Confessions of Frances Godwin.
"I felt it was necessary to give some oomph to the story," Hellenga explains. "Otherwise, the memoir of a retired Latin teacher doesn't sound too exciting."
But his publisher, Bloomsbury, didn't want to give away this plot development. Then fellow novelist, Gail Godwin, wrote a blurb that referred to the protagonist as a "schoolteacher-murderer," so Hellenga felt vindicated:
"I just felt you gotta get that punch in there," Hellenga said, smiling. "Now the cat is out of the bag."
When we meet Frances Godwin, she's attending her final graduation ceremony as a teacher at Galesburg High School. Her husband, Paul, is dead and the Latin program is being phased out. The only project Frances has left is a translation of the works of Catallus for a small publisher. But that's become a source of anxiety because the cover designer used an image of the wrong Catallus: "Not Gaius Valerius Catallus, the poet, but Quintus Lutatius Catalus (with one `l')." What's more, she can't find an author to write a blurb.
Then she gets a hernia while lifting a box of books. In an act of surrender, she checks the "Do not resuscitate" box on a form before surgery:
Well, that certainly got their attention. The nurses. The surgeon (Dr. Parker, my neighbor in Loft #5), the anesthesiologist. They were all right there, crowded around. "You can't do that," they said, sequentially, and then in one voice. "We always resuscitate."
"Then why do you have the little box?" I asked.
When it became clear that they weren't going to repair the hernia unless I unchecked the box, I unchecked it, drew a heavy line through the box, and wrote, "OK to resuscitate." It wasn't a big deal. I didn't really care one way or the other."
But just as her life seems to be winding down, it winds back up again. Frances has a daughter, Stella, who's in an abusive relationship with her husband, a truck driver named Jimmy. One night, Jimmy pushes his pregnant wife out of the cab as it leaves a truck stop. Stella survives but loses the baby. Frances decides to force Jimmy to sign divorce papers, so she brings a revolver to a meeting with him at a truck stop in Ottawa, Illinois. When he refuses to divorce Stella, Frances shoots him.
Not long after, God starts speaking to her. The conversations begin when Frances is waiting for her friend, Father Viglietti, to finish hearing confessions so they can go out for drinks. Frances is getting impatient because the line to the confessional is long and moving slowly. Then she hears a voice:
"Vidi quod faceris, et scio quis sis." I saw what you did and I know who you are.
I started to turn.
"Et noli versari," the voice said. "Nihil non videbis." Don't turn around, you won't see anything at all.
Frances is surprised because the only other Latin-speaker she knows is Father Viglietti, who's still in the confessional. She turns but sees nobody:
Whoever it was was using the classical pronunciation, not the ecclesiastical pronunciation we learned in Rome, which is closer to Italian -- "she-o" rather than "skio."
"Sta in acie," the voice said. Get in line.
Frances refuses. Still, God remains cordial, even avuncular, during their many conversations. The two talk about everything from the Big Bang to the galaxies. God even gives her the secret location of a missing Catallus manuscript in Rome.
"God is a very humorous character," Hellenga says, "but in the end he does what she says tyrants always do: He starts using threats."
Does Frances finally confess her sin? That's one thing we'll let you find out.
Hellenga admits he doesn't know much Latin. But his wife, Virginia, teaches the language. In an interview with WNIJ, Hellenga denied that Frances is modeled after Virginia -- or his mother, who also taught Latin.
Other characters in the novel include Jimmy's father, Tommy Gagliano, who takes a romantic interest in Frances, and Paul, a professor who becomes Frances's lover in 1963 while she's student at Knox College. The story moves back and forth among the ensuing decades, and the cities of Galesburg, Milwaukee, Rome and Verona.
Robert Hellenga was featured in our 2013-2014 Winter Book Series when we discussed his sixth novel, Snakewoman of Little Egypt.
Visit our archive to learn more about our 2014 Summer Book Series authors -- and we hope you enjoy a summer filled with great reading.
For this series, we had help from musicians Bill Leighly and Erica Ensign, who wrote and recorded this jingle: