Review: Strangers and Sojourners by Michael O’Brien

“I am a patriot,” she went on. “But my country is an invisible one, populated by poets and painters, novelists and thinkers who are interested, above all, in truth.”

I am a huge fan of stretching outside of your reading comfort zone, which is why I love being part of my local Well Read Mom chapter. This year has been centralized around pilgrimage, so the month’s read was Strangers and Sojourners by Michael O’Brien.

English woman Anne Ashton moves to the Canadian wilderness to become a school teacher after serving as a nurse in World War I. It is in Swiftcreek that she meets Irish immigrant Stephen Delaney, a trapper and farmer. They marry, and thus begins the greatest adventure of her life. Strangers and Sojourners follows Anne, Stephen, and their family through the next century as they try to make a place for themselves in the world.

O’Brien is a Catholic author, and  laced through the book are several teachings on faith and pilgrimage. Symbolism is heavy in this book, I could imagine a literature class spending weeks dissecting  all the intricacies of events and relationships. At the intellectual level this book runs deep, and beckons for you to sit with it in meditation. The story has been likened to a spiritual retreat, and I see some merit in that if that is something you’re looking for.

The valley teemed with life, breeding, killing, and eating undisturbed by man, He passed sow bears standing erect and protective of their cubs, woodpeckers and flickers knocking, bull moose rearing their ponderous lips and rack of bone from which water roots dangled slovenly. Geese, too, passed high overhead, northbound and honking. The man began to assume again life’s benevolence, of which he had recently entertained some doubts.

The writing in this novel is rich, O’Brien wields his pen like a paintbrush, so that the words on the page render vivid scenes in the mind. However, the vividness is almost overwhelming sometimes, like thick frosting on an already rich and heavy cake. Scenes begin to drag, with O’Brien spending an inordinate amount of time in one moment to leap suddenly to something completely unrelated. There was no cohesiveness that allowed the plot to flow, rather it was an untrustworthy vehicle lurching in sudden starts and stops.  The book needs to be read in chunks, with time to reflect on a passage before moving on to the next chapter.

For the most part I had a difficult time relating to Anne, the main character. A deeply troubled soul, Anne spends a lifetime fighting consuming loneliness and isolation. She is a truly complex character, and even after reading I am still struggling to come to terms with her as a person. Anne and Stephen’s  relationship was also something I found difficult to grasp, I could not fully immerse myself in the events because their marriage was so foreign to everything I have known as a wife (not to give too much away).

Overall I gave this book 2 out of 5 stars for writing, but 5 out of 5 for theme and character complexity. The book is long at over 500 pages, so it really all depends on what you like to get out of a novel. This book will appeal to fans of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist (a book I reviewed last Summer), or readers searching for a book that challenges your faith and purpose in life. However, if you want an engrossing plot to get lost in, this may not be the one.


What is your favorite book on faith? I personally love Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings series, there are so many timeless ideas in all of his books paired with a kick ass story to boot. 

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3 Comments

  1. I’m in WRM, too, and just read S&S. At first I loved it but as I read on I found parts of it sloggy, too — overwrought, kind of showing off. I didn’t always understand the actions of the characters either, especially Anne. Parts of the book felt like pastiche of other Catholic writers, bits of Charles Williams and C S Lewis and Flannery O’Connor. But parts were so rich and beautiful, and some of the ideas stopped me in my tracks. I can’t wait to discuss it in our group!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! There were some beautiful hidden gems, but they seemed buried deep. I was especially drawn to the artful renderings of the Canadian wilderness and the connection Stephen had to the land.

      We discussed Anne at length in our group, it seemed she needlessly brought a lot of suffering upon herself. I know O’Brien also drew a lot of inspiration from G.K . Chesterton, and I saw his writing style in the book as well. Happy reading!

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      1. I had trouble remaining patient with her through the long middle age of doubt and discontent!

        Liked by 1 person

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