Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Athol Dickson's "Lost Mission"

Athol Dickson’s novels always seem to include at least a touch, and often more than a touch, of the apocalyptic. In River Rising it’s a flood. In The Cure, it’s a town under siege by desperate alcoholics. Winter Haven, perhaps the least apocalyptic of Dickson’s works, still portrays a sense of unease and then menace and impossible, almost paranormal things happening. And now there’s Lost Mission.

Lost Mission is apocalypse, Southern California style, crossing two centuries – the late 18th century, when missions were being established by the Spanish from Mexico (New Spain), and the 21st century, with its eclectic and politically/socially explosive mix of wealthy Americanos and illegal aliens. Layer on both eras the rigidity of religious belief (Franciscan Catholic in the former and evangelical Christian in the latter), and you discover some fascinating parallels.

You also find an incredibly good story.

In the late 18th century, three Franciscans, Abbott Guillermo, Brother Alejandro and Brother Benicio, travel with a contingent of soldiers to Alta California to establish Mission de Santa Dolores. They gain early converts among the native population, but Abbot Guillermo’s rigid sense of propriety and order, and his inherent condescending attitude, soon begin to work against the goals of the mission. Brother Alejandro is ordered to paint an altarpiece, a triptych of paintings, so that the converts can visualize the crucifixion of Christ and related events.

In the 21st century, Guadalupe Soledad Consuelo de la Garza leaves her small shop in Mexico to preach to the pagan Americanos. She is given a triptych, kept safely locked away by the local priest, to help lead her onward. She will need to enter the United States illegally, and she is helped by Ramon Rodriguez, crossing into the United States to find work. She wanders in the desert, until she is found by Tucker Rue, a seminary graduate spending 40 days in the wilderness to understand his calling. Eventually, Tucker established Sanctuario to help illegal aliens and their families, and Lupe goes to work for Delano Wright, a wealthy Californian who lives high atop a mountain and who will eventually develop a plan for a Christian enclave, separated from the world.

The enclave, of course, occupies the same site as the old Spanish mission. And the old mission was destroyed in an attack by the native population following a long period of plague. And plague, under certain conditions, can remain dormant.

The author credits his agents for slogging through “an ugly early draft” and his editor for her work on the novel. Whoever is responsible for the final outcome did an extraordinary job – Dickson tells the two stories as one, moving deftly from one to the other. And gradually the reader comes to understand that one story is actually being told.

Lost Mission is the work of a master writer, a good story told incredibly well.

(Attention Federal Trade Commission: I purchased this book from No one gave it to me. I have received no compensation from it other than the pleasure of reading a really good novel.)

1 comment:

Maureen said...

And you write very good book reviews.