“The Miracle on Monhegan” balances light and dark in a swift, engaging story. The Monahan family of Monhegan Island engages with past and present drama sparked by mental illness, religious fervor and familial strife. As a tabloid reporter visiting the Monahan family describes it, the narrative explores “Faith. Belief. Truth. Lies. Consequences. Fathers. Sons.”

The Monahan men create and respond to the wild events that propel “The Miracle on Monhegan.”

Pastor Ragnor, the family patriarch, leads a congregation that is part Yankee puritanism and part circus sideshow. In the beginning of the story, his eldest son, Spark, has returned home after years away. He left when his son Hally was a baby, leaving the boy to be raised by the pastor and Spark’s younger brother, Hugh.

Each character is developed fully, grounding their responses to unbelievable events in a fully developed reality. All are likable in their own way, even as the reader is led to question the pastor’s motives, berate Spark for his bad choices or grow weary of Hugh’s long-suffering sacrifices.

Readers get to know each character equally because the story is narrated by the fifth member of the Monahan family and the only one with four legs – Ned, Spark’s loyal dog with his own secret past.

Author Elizabeth Kelly’s unlikely choice of a narrator adds humor and surprise to some of the story’s darker moments. Perspective is distorted (descriptions weighing heavily on scent and views below the knees) and readers get details that a human observer wouldn’t offer.

Describing Pastor Ragnor’s congregation, Ned said: “I glanced around and saw so many thick ankles crammed into so many cheap pairs of shoes, for a moment I imagined a herd of cows had wandered into a Payless.”

At the same time we get a charming view into the imagined world of our narrator. “I lay my head between my paws and thought about Old English mastiffs,” Ned said. “Seemingly the sanest of breeds, or so humans think … they make you feel as if you could bounce a dime off their taut intelligence, but really, as every dog will tell you, they are mad as apples.”

Madness – who defines it, what it means and how it is identified – is behind much of the controversy in “The Miracle on Monhegan.”

The story’s turning point takes place at Black Head (spelled in the book as two words), the island’s rocky cliffs. There, after dropping a match into a mason jar of bullets, Hally reports that he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

This event, combined with his grandfather’s spiritual opportunism, sends the family headfirst into a rapidly unfolding series of events that involve a stalker, religious fanaticism and the steady uncovering of family secrets.

“The Miracle on Monhegan” ends more quickly than it began. It is as if, after sprinting uphill during the first 308 pages, Ned collapsed, panting, and let the last two chapters roll along without him.

Not all questions are answered and not all secrets are revealed. But along the way, in addition to offering us a set of endearing characters and an astute narrator, Kelly shares pithy bits of wisdom about family and faith, while never letting any of it get in the way of her ultimate aim: a rollicking story.

Heidi Sistare is a writer who lives in Portland. Contact her at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @heidisistare

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