Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism

Sometimes, a book defies expectations for the better.

Take, for example, Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism, a product of the impressively fertile collaboration between Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola. Reading the back cover text, one might note the inclusion of children and childhood toys in the story and the hint of magic, and assume that this would be a story of whimsy and wide-eyed wonder.

And if you did, you’d be wrong.

This is not a work of childlike astonishment and hand-clapping delight. Slender though it may be, the book packs a load of heavy adult themes: forbidden desire clashing with responsibility, attempts to do good in the wake of evil and their unintended consequences, and the hell that we make for ourselves through our own choices.

Father Gaetano is a young priest, newly arrived at a Sicilian orphanage during World War II. The “liberating” Americans have moved on, but the devastation of war, as embodied by the motley band of children who’ve found shelter at San Domenico, lingers. It’s not a plum assignment – the priests tend to come and go – but the nuns who run the shelter endure.

But Father Gaetano is idealistic and energetic, a man who truly believes in his mission. And when he meets Sebastiano, the wide-eyed oddball among the orphans, it seems like we just might get a heartwarming story of redemption after all.

But Sebastiano has another friend, a puppet left behind by one of the orphanage’s early inhabitants. It’s a gorgeously crafted item, the only one of the set not banished to the cellar, and it is Sebastiano’s security blanket and boon companion. And of course, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Here is where the story subtly but powerfully diverges from the tropes it draws upon. With animate puppets and a priest, one expects a certain implicit moral dichotomy; one side heavenly, the other not so much. But these puppets are puppets, tools waiting to be turned to a particular expression and to take on the roles given to them. And when Father Gaetano decides to use the puppets – all of the puppets – to teach lessons from Scripture, he doesn’t realize what repurposing them to biblical roles will do.

That’s the subtlety of the story, and that’s brilliance of it. There are no monsters here until they are made through the best of intentions, at which point they inhabit their roles utterly. There is no straight up-and-down morality, just individuals struggling to do the right thing under impossible circumstances. And yet, everything still manages to find itself on the brink.

No review of the book is complete without mentioning Mignola’s gorgeous, stark illustrations. The woodcut echoes always present in his work play to strong effect here, giving the rough-hewn puppets a sort of earthy believability.

Books much longer than this one’s 176 pages have given readers less to chew on. Father Gaetano’s may draw on familiar tropes – the scuttling noises under the bed, the puppet that is somehow magically alive, the warnings unheeded – but it manages a subtlety and a grace that separate it from the expected. This is not a story for children of all ages; it’s one for grown-ups who remember what a deadly serious business the toys of childhood could be.

(St. Martins Griffin, 2013)

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