In her debut work of fiction, author Lil Copan creates a world so real, rich and relatable that you will not want to leave it behind. The epistolary novel, Little Hours (One Bird Books), is a character-driven story revolving around an exchange of letters between a 42-year-old woman seeking peace and meaning and an elderly nun in a small monastery set in an oceanside Massachusetts community.

The woman, Miriam, discovers the Sisters of Saint Hildegard of Bingen when she purchases a guidebook on birds. The last page invites readers to send inquiries to the monastery, which will “gladly respond to questions about the life of birds and/or the life of faith.” Sister Athanasius, 72, is assigned by her prioress, Mother Lourdes, to respond to Miriam’s letter. Herein begins a fruitful correspondence spanning nearly two years, pertaining to critical seasons in the lives of the letter writers and monastery members.

A SISTERHOOD COMBINES SEPARATE SPHERES

The lives of these sisters are nuanced in warm shades of grey. Their daily rhythm revolves around scheduled hours of prayer and meals. Governed by specific statutes of their order, these rules act as a transparent framework by which the sisters live out their vocation of prayer and service according to their particular charism. They are almost as dedicated to birds, farming, baked goods, coffee and the Red Sox as they are to each other and God. The characters are so authentic that I googled the monastery to see if it existed, eager to visit it. Sadly, it exists only in this beautiful novel.

Miriam is a married woman with two teenage children. Already troubled by her relationship with her husband, she soon faces an even greater challenge: a cancer diagnosis. Sister Athanasius is by nature a writer, listener, counselor and caregiver who does not understand the value of her gifts. Miriam challenges the Sister with questions regarding her vocation as a nun and how she decided to enter religious life. In response, Sister Athanasius examines her motives, concluding that her whole life consists of imperfect replies of “yes” with time wasted on excessive rumination. Thanks to her friendship with Miriam, she is finally able to make peace with that revelation.

DISTINCT INDIVIDUALS RELAY UNIVERSAL THEMES

Each sister in the monastery has her own particular challenges, gifts and memorable personality traits. Sister Anne, the beloved spiritual rock of the community, suffers from many infirmities. She is also a die-hard Red Sox fan. Sister Farm tends to the gardens and farm animals and enjoys annoying Sister Patrick Gertrude, whose job is to take care of everyone’s dirty laundry. Sister Bird is the ornithologist who makes it her mission to protect the plover, an endangered species. Little Sister is the baker and an enigma to her fellow sisters, guarding her privacy with jealousy. Mother Lourdes is the wise leader but feels the burden of the responsibility.

Each of these women is quirky, imperfect, warm and funny. They are women you want to sit with around a breakfast table, enjoying coffee and talking about life. They listen to the transistor radio late at night, cheering on the Red Sox, and carefully peruse the sports page in the morning. They pray together in the chapel at various hours of the day, with Sister Patrick Gertrude assigned to sit next to Sister Farm because of their differences. They collectively pray for Miriam through her struggles and comfort each other in the face of difficult losses.

GENTLE, WARM AND GENEROUS

Little Hours has given me new friends that I can visit again and again even if I can’t go to their monastery. Copan has crafted a profound read based upon the everyday aspects of life, aspects which prove to be the most significant in the end. She skillfully bridges the gap between the mysterious and hidden world of the religious and the secular, demonstrating that we all live in a community with others and deal with the same problems. She avoids overt religious terminology and presents the spiritual life as one that is greatly rewarding, offering meaning and peace amid difficulty.

Little Hours is not a page-turner. Instead, it is a novel that acts as a companion, inviting readers to ponder their lives and relationships with others. This book is a read that you won’t forget.

Buy this book!

About Lil Copan:

Lil Copan serves as Senior Acquisitions Editor at Broadleaf Books (part of 1517 Media; formerly the trade books of Fortress Press). She previously worked in acquisitions for several religious publishing houses — Eerdmans, Abingdon Press, Ave Maria Press and Paraclete Press, among others. 

Copan has worked with an impressive array of bestselling authors, including Madeleine L’Engle, Scot McKnight, Debbie Blue, Amy Frykholm, Thomas Lynch, and Lauren Winner. She acquired Frederick Buechner’s Faces of Jesus for Paraclete in 2004 and was credited by Jana Riess in a 2011 Publishers Weekly interview for having “brilliantly suggested” the concept for her book Flunking Sainthood. She is the author of Little Hours.