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Book Review: The Woman in the Trees: A Novel About America’s First Approved Marian Apparition

The Woman in the Trees: A novel about America’s first approved Marian apparition 
Theoni Bell (
Independently Published
237 pages
$6.99 Kindle; $15.99 Paperback

Publisher’s Description: “Set within the expanses of the American frontier, The Woman in the Trees follows Slainie, an inquisitive pioneer girl, whose life is forever transformed when a mysterious seer shows up at her door. Amidst the backdrop of the Civil War, family tragedy, and the nation’s most destructive wildfire, Slainie must navigate her rugged pioneer life as she encounters love and loss, and comes face to face with the story of America’s first approved Marian apparition.”

When Theoni Bell reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of the launch team for The Woman in the Trees, I was hesitant. I didn’t know anything about Our Lady of Good Help. I had only heard the name Adele Brise in passing. Besides that, I was busy, and I didn’t think I’d have time to read and review the book before the release date.

I shouldn’t have worried. As soon as I sat down to read the story of Slainie LaFont, I realized that finishing in a couple of days wouldn’t be a problem. Bell’s writing dragged me into the world of Civil War-era Wisconsin and wouldn’t let go. I knew that this book and its main character were historical fiction based on the true events surrounding Adele Brise, Our Lady, and a group of Belgian immigrants to rural Wisconsin. What I didn’t expect was that it would stand so well as a compelling, well-written novel.

Let’s face it. A lot of books marketed to those with a Christian worldview are simply not very good in terms of artistic merit. In fear of offending more conservative readers by depicting sin on the page, many Christian authors end up writing characters that are painfully one-dimensional. I consider this fact to be a real problem, not only in books, but in other Christian media as well. It is a grave mistake to underestimate the power of story in spreading the Gospel. After all, Salvation history is itself the greatest story ever told, centered in every time and place around the God-Man Jesus Christ.

When I was growing up, my mother would read the Little House series by Laura Ingalls out loud to my sisters and I. I always looked forward to those moments, cuddled up on the couch, waiting to hear what hardships would next befall Laura’s family and what they would do to overcome them. Those books taught me more about human resilience and the need for virtue in suffering than almost anything else I read as a child, and it didn’t feel like a lesson. I was just enjoying a fascinating story of a life that was very different from my own.

The Woman in the Trees reminds me very much of those books, and not just because it is also set in the Wisconsin frontier. Even though Slainie LaFont is not a real person like Laura Ingalls was, Bell did such a fantastic job writing her that I found it easy to believe that a girl like her could really have existed and been catechized in the Catholic faith by Sister Adele Brise.

This is precisely the kind of novel that I want to read aloud to my son when he’s older. As much as I can teach him the factual truths of the Catholic faith or the lives of the Saints, I know that no other sort of teaching can be internalized as naturally as the things that one learns from a good story.

This is true not only for children but even for adults. I doubt I will ever forget what I have now learned about Adele Brise, a Belgian immigrant woman to whom Our Lady appeared in 1859. Though she gave Adele a special and difficult mission of catechizing local children on the frontier, her other simple messages to Adele are just as edifying for us today as they were 150 years ago.

The author prayed fervently for Our Lady’s intercession that this novel would not only teach more people about America’s first approved Marian apparition but would also do the real people involved in this story justice. I think that she succeeded on that front more than I ever could have imagined.

The words that Theoni Bell put on the lips of Adele Brise impacted me in a very real and personal way. The story includes a completely fictional subplot regarding Slainie’s difficult relationship with her non-believing mother. As a Catholic convert living with a complex mother-daughter relationship of my own, this book brought me to tears on multiple occasions. Although the advice that Adele gave to Slainie on this matter was fictional, it deeply touched my heart and convicted me of just how prideful and hard of heart I am when it comes to my mother.

Most of all, this book gave me hope. It reminded me that just one good story can have the power not only to educate but to transform lives from the inside out. I think that this story is well worth the read for anyone interested in Marian apparitions, miracles, pioneer history, or learning how to cope with wounded family members who have not yet discovered the love of Christ. If more Catholics crafted stories like The Woman in the Trees, we might just change the world.

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