Saturday, October 23, 2021

Forty Martyrs



Maggie Gust


Forty Martyrs 
By Philip F. Deaver
Burrow Press, March 29, 2016 – 231 pages
Genre: Short story collection
Collier County Library: No

Deaver is a new-to-me author and a pleasant discovery. He is on the English faculty at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. His previous publications have received acclaim and awards. This collection of nine stories centers around the small town of Tuscola in east central Illinois. Most of the protagonists are linked in some way to the college as well as to the local Catholic parish, Forty Martyrs. But believe me, these are not stuffy self-righteous people.

These nine stories were written over a period of 30 years, Deaver states, but they are absolutely seamless in telling the tales of these friends and neighbors in small town Midwest. The protagonists are all residents or former residents of Tuscola and besides having the college and church or its priest, Father Kelleher, in common, many also share a connection to Lowell Wagner as their psychologist.

The introductory short acquaints us with Vasco Whirly, a father of two teenaged daughters. His wife is living separately and things are not going at all well in Vasco’s life. After being denied tenure in his college teaching job, he went to work in one of the coal mines, which is absolute torture for a literature professor like Vasco. He is out mowing his lawn, thinking about the failures in his life, which seem to be as a father, husband, teacher, even as a practitioner of his religion. Suddenly he sees the Virgin Mary appear to him over his bed of peonies. She spends about 20 minutes with him and promises to come back on the 13th of each month.

In case you’re wondering, she is very pretty, about 5 feet 5 inches, has a glorious smile and a very no-nonsense attitude. She told him to stop wasting money on lottery tickets, that he was too self-involved but she could help him with that, and he needed to put away his metal detector and stop scanning his lawn. On one of her visits, a neighbor observed Vasco standing still and staring at the peonies for about 20 minutes and asked him what he was doing. Pretty much everyone knew Vasco was unhappy and his life was basically a shambles. She was used to him walking about with his metal detector but not staring at the space above the peonies. The neighbor, actually the town librarian, was truly concerned although that was outweighed by her nosiness.

Eventually Vasco tells a few people about the visits. Word gets around to the point that a crowd gathers in front of his home on the 13th of each month. There are people from around the larger area holding signs, most supporting him and hoping for a miracle themselves. She still comes, but only addresses Vasco’s behavior, offers advice and a blessing on her departure. Through the other eight stories, we learn what effect these visits have on Vasco.

This is the first collection of short stories I have read where I completely enjoyed each story. Usually there are a couple of stories that don’t fit or just don’t match up to the quality of the others. These nine stories are uniformly riveting.

This small town is stuffed full of interesting characters. There is Wally Brown, the history professor who is put on Prozac by his medical doctor at the suggestion of Lowell Thomas, Wally’s therapist, but has a psychotic reaction to the drug and ends up stabbing his wife Carol almost to death in front of their two young children. Carol is the town’s femme fatale whose beauty and charm camouflage a very destructive personality that seems compelled to waylay any happy marriages, including her own. Lowell Wagner, therapist to many, carpools to AA meetings in another town with two of his patients. There is a fire at the college that destroys most of the main building. The fire department determines it was arson. The rectory at Forty Martyrs is burglarized and Carol Brown ends up taking Father Kelleher to her home for lunch while the police do a forensic examination of the rectory. She learns that her long-time secret love affair was known to her husband. After three scotches, Father Kelleher schools her in the realities of life in the priesthood and having a bishop as a boss.

I found this a very enjoyable read. Philip F. Deaver is an exquisite storyteller as well as an excellent writer. His characters are genuine, very human, and he plaits their stories together flawlessly. Definitely recommend this to any short story lover or anyone who is interested in human behavior. The book is not available at our public library at this time, but can be pre-ordered at Burrow Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Booksamillion. Its publication date is 3/29/2016. You might want to contact your favorite local independent book store to check availability. Rating: 4.0/5.0.

Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher, as well as various occupations in the healthcare field. She shares a hometown, Springfield, Illinois, with Abraham Lincoln, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, reading, movies and writing are among her favorite activities. She is self-employed and works from her Naples home.  Contact her at or

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