(Disclaimer: I received an eARC through NetGalley and the publisher for review consideration.)
Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty was my first introduction to Dorothy Day other than the mentions of her name in other readings. And what a gracious and intimate introduction it was. This biography of Dorothy is told through the lens of one of her grand-daughters, Kate Hennessy. It is not a sweeping narrative of Dorothy’s philosophy or religious conviction or activist commitment, though there are plenty of moments, mentions. and allusions to those elements. It is, rather, an intimate account of Dorothy’s life and that of her daughter, and Hennessy’s mother, Tamar. As a grand-daughter, Hennessy brings the compassion that comes from familial bond and the clarity that comes from the separation of a generation. She brings a unique perspective, a journalist’s sensibilities, and a storyteller’s style to a complex person within the framework of the naturally complex mother-daughter relationship.
Hennessy starts with a look at Dorothy’s earlier years. She adds Tamar’s perspective and insight gradually as Tamar herself creates her own space in the story. And finally, in the last couple chapters, Hennessy brings her voice to the singular person of Dorothy Day, of the relationship between Dorothy and Tamar, and of Hennessy’s efforts to understand the women before her. Throughout the chapters, Hennessy layers Dorothy the individual with Tamar the individual, and then with Dorothy and Tamar as mother-daughter, and finally with her own reflection on her mother and her grandmother. The layers are distinctly separate at times and blended in other places. Hennessy writes of Dorothy’s humanity including her frustrations, her small pleasures, her nuances, her contradictions, and her relationships. She tells of Tamar’s stolid response to the ups and downs of her life, of her affinity for living off the land, and her abiding love for her mother. Dorothy and Tamar, and eventually Hennessy as well, struggle to find a place of peace within the shadow of Dorothy the person, known to them, and Dorothy the saint, known to others.
In the beginning Hennessy acknowledges that there are those who would either vilify or sanitize the efforts and story of Dorothy and by writing this book she shows that the answer may well be somewhere in the middle. Hennessy’s account shows that passion and commitment are not without sacrifice or misunderstanding, but that beauty and love are also offshoots. They exist together, tangled, knotted, frayed, woven, stitched, and nowhere is this more evident in a person than in her relationships with close family. Three generations of Day-Hennessy women show up in this book. Their voices, experiences, and perspectives are dynamic. They enrich one another even as they seek to understand what is obscured in or by the other. In this they reveal a humanity that is loving in adversity and provocative in progress. Hennessy accomplishes the daring task of revealing the humanity of the saint while preserving the purity of her motives and passion even amidst the grime and confusion of daily necessity.
I look forward to reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, after being introduced through and to her family. Hennessy’s work in Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty is a multi-generational story of family. While Dorothy’s activism and passion provides the framework and interest-piece, this book is a thoughtful look at individual, community, and family rolled together and apart and together again. This perspective emphasizing family but all the while examining the intersection of community, and individual, and faith makes this remarkable woman accessible to everyone – her struggles are familiar. And in the end, when we see a bit of ourselves in someone else who we understand to be so set apart from us, then we can start to believe our own potential for creating change.