In light of the often tortured interweave of faith and politics in American life, we sometimes forget that our country was first settled by those seeking freedom not from religion but to practice their own versions of it: French Protestants and English Puritans. In many ways, religion is our founding fact. These books explore the vital undercurrent of faith in the expression of American life.
My sister and I moved my grandmother to a nursing home when she was 107. Clearing out her apartment, we stumbled on a box of old papers. A crumbling leather portfolio emerged, overflowing with love poems written in her assertive hand. Love poems? Nana was infamously unsentimental. Our grandfather had been the classic henpecked husband. We were pretty sure these weren't for him.
Despite the long years we spent with Nana, did we really know her? After all, most of us share only a fraction of ourselves with the world. Maybe that's why books about family secrets are so delicious.
Tomorrow by Graham Swift, paperback, 272 pages, Vintage, list price: $14.95
In the novel Tomorrow, by Graham Swift, Paula Hook stays up all night holding an imaginary conversation with her 16-year-old twins. She's compulsively worried about the news that her husband will tell them the next day. Even though Paula and her husband have agreed to the disclosure, she's terrified of her children's judgment, that the revelation will make them disparage her life choices. What's remarkable here is the author's exploration of her anxiety. More than the actual content of her secret, which today would be commonplace, is the way it's taken over her psyche. I had insomnia right along with her, hoping the truth wouldn't destroy her family.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, paperback, 247 pages, Picador, list price: $14
This same kind of dread infuses Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. In Gilead, Pastor Ames can't stand to hold his godson's secret. Here again, greater than the concealed information, is the pastor's tormented knowledge of it. He swings between contempt and fear for his godson, and fury at himself for failing to be more loving and tolerant. Even if I couldn't relate to the reason for the pastor's angst, I clung to his every word as he mapped his internal struggle. Pastor Ames' secret shakes the very foundations of his faith.
Fallen, by David Maine, paperback, 256 pages, St. Martin's Griffin, list price: $14.99
For the primal set of family secrets that test faith, try Genesis. Talk about skeletons in the closet. Consider telling your kids that you were the one who bit the apple, or that you murdered Abel. These are crimes that are actually worse than the cover-up. In Fallen, author David Maine brilliantly re-creates these Old Testament stories. The book runs backward, beginning with Cain on his death bed, through Adam and Eve freshly expelled from the Garden of Eden. We discover secrets that are literally of biblical proportion. I'm amazed at how riveted I was, even though I knew how it came out.
Is it the secret itself or the guilty knowledge of it that's consuming? So many books revolve around shameful concealments. But aren't there some secrets that mix a little sweet with the bitter? I hope my grandmother's did. Unfortunately, I won't find the answer in a book.
Martha Toll is seeking publication for two novels, one of which is about family secrets.
Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz
The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal each win two Pulitzer Prizes in journalism. Steve Coll wins the non-fiction prize for Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden.
The following is the complete list of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winners, by category, announced Monday:
Public Service: The Los Angeles Times for its series exposing deadly medical problems and racial injustice at an inner-city hospital.
Breaking News Reporting: The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J., for coverage of the resignation of New Jersey's governor after he announced he was gay and confessed to adultery with a male lover.
Investigative Reporting: Nigel Jaquiss of Willamette Week, Portland, Ore., for his investigation exposing a former governor's long concealed sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl.
Explanatory Reporting: Gareth Cook of The Boston Globe for explaining the complex scientific and ethical dimensions of stem cell research.
Beat Reporting: Amy Dockser Marcus of The Wall Street Journal for her stories about patients, families and physicians that illuminated the often unseen world of cancer survivors.
National Reporting: Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times for his stories about the corporate cover-up of responsibility for fatal accidents at railway crossings.
International Reporting: Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times for her coverage of Russia's struggle to cope with terrorism, improve the economy and make democracy work.
Feature Writing: Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune for her reconstructed account of a deadly 10-second tornado that ripped through Utica, Ill.
Commentary: Connie Schultz of The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, for her columns that "provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged."
Criticism: Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal for his film reviews.
Editorial Writing: Tom Philp of The Sacramento Bee for his editorials on reclaiming California's flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Editorial Cartooning: Nick Anderson of The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky.
Breaking News Photography: The Associated Press staff for photos of combat in Iraq.
Feature Photography: Deanne Fitzmaurice of the San Francisco Chronicle for her photo essay on an Oakland hospital's effort to mend an Iraqi boy nearly killed by an explosion.
Letters And Drama Prizes
Fiction: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
Drama: Doubt, a Parable by John Patrick Shanley.
History: Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press).
Biography: de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (Alfred A. Knopf).
Poetry: Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser (Copper Canyon Press).
General Non-Fiction: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll (The Penguin Press).
Prize in Music: Second Concerto for Orchestra by Steven Stucky, premiered March 12, 2004, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (Theodore Presser Company).