Me and Momma and Big John is a beautiful fictional tribute to one of the first women in the United States to learn the traditional craft of stonecutting. With lyrical text, author Mara Rockcliff narrates a heart-warming story with positive values such as the importance of sharing moments as a family and taking pride in one’s craft. Illustrator William Low complements Rockcliff’s words with luminous digital spreads of warm family scenes and of the majestic Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City.
The massive cathedral has been a work in progress, since 1882; to this day, its towers remain incomplete. The first time Rockcliff visited one of the chapels at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine over thirty year ago, it had a fish tank. Being Jewish, she hadn’t seen the inside of many churches. According to an interview at Watch Connect Read, Rockcliff knew the moment she saw those tropical fish swimming around that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was her kind of church. And so it is fitting that Rockcliff has now written a book about it.
What I love most about Me and Momma and Big John is how the main character slowly comes to understand his mother’s role in creating this special place. She cuts one stone, a process which she describes as “that stone is just like my babies’ faces. My hands feel it when it isn’t there. I smelled it in my sleep.” When her son asks how come it’s so much work to create just one stone, she tells him that building a cathedral is an art. Later, when his mother takes him on a tour, her son thinks about the hands that worked on every stone. He feels proud of his mother and her work and of the cathedral.
Cathedral of St. John the Divine — a Stone SCULPTOR working on an angel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I enjoyed Rockcliff’s descriptions of the stonecutting craft. Momma would return home daily with “her bouncy beaded earrings … dull as dirt.” When home with her children, she would describe the cathedral to them and lay out her tools. Her son likens her stones to paintings and his momma to an artist.
With Me and Momma and Big John, Rockcliff has successfully educated and entertained me. Having read it, I wanted to know more about Momma’s trade. In the About section at the end of the book, we are told that it was inspired by Carol Hazel, an apprentice stonecutter who became involved with efforts to complete the cathedral when construction resumed in 1982. Hazel herself explains her feelings about her work on the cathedral: “Stonecutting is in my blood. The cathedral is a beautiful thing and beautiful people helped build it.”
The About section provides other interesting details, such as the fact that construction on the cathedral might not have resumed after World II except for the idea by the dean to help boost a dying economy by hiring young New Yorkers to revive a dying trade. Yet I would like to know more. For instance, I’d love to know about any of the other women who worked on the cathedral, and whether any female craftsmen were involved in the project prior to the suspension of the construction in the 1940s. As such, Rockcliff has inspired me to search out other books, which is what quality fiction should do.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
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