Members of two Episcopal book clubs react to Bleak Midwinter: ‘Our vestries would have stepped in.’

By Mike Pettinella, Daily News Correspondent

The relationship between the Rev. Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest, and married police Chief Russell Van Alstyne would have been the talk of the town in Le Roy, says a member of an ecumenical women’s book club which recently discussed Julia Spencer-Fleming’s novel, In the Bleak Midwinter.
“I think she was incredibly naïve,” said LeRoyan Joy Cooney, a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, who gathered with a few of her friends last week to talk about the award-winning book.

“I don’t think in a town like Le Roy that would have gone unnoticed,” she said. “The vestry (church leadership) would have intervened.”

The discussion group from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Medina — known as the church in the middle of the road — similarly did not approve of Fergusson’s impulsive manner.

“A true Episcopalian priest wouldn’t be taking a six-pack (of beer) to his house with his wife out of town,” said Kay Outwin, wife of the Rev. Edson Outwin, St. John’s priest.

Opinions such as these are what drive book discussion groups and, as a result, In the Bleak Midwinter proved to be a worthy selection for this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project in Genesee, Wyoming and Orleans. The book’s author visited Batavia on Thursday and Medina on Friday. Spencer-Fleming completes her tour today with a 2 p.m. talk and booksigning in the Perry Elementary/Middle School Auditorium, 50 Olin Ave., Perry.

Cooney was joined by Donna Call and Nancy Weinzler of Stafford, Sandy Brady of Le Roy and Trixie Wadhams of Caledonia in a discussion at St. Mark’s.

Outwin and nine other women sat around the table at the Lee-Whedon Memorial Library in Medina. They were Cynthia Kiebala, the group’s organizer; Mary Zangerle, library director; Connie Stork, Ronnie Barhite, Arden Dick, Sally Webster, Gladys Hill, Nance Lattin and Nancy Crosby.

Although most of the women in the two groups found fault in the way Fergusson and Van Alstyne bonded, they sympathized with the plights of the main characters of the story, which was set in Millers Kill, a fictional small town in the Adirondacks. There was Fergusson, the new priest at St. Alban’s, a tough ex-Army chopper pilot, and Van Alstyne, the cynical always-on-the-job “town watchdog” who is also an Army veteran.

When a baby is left at the St. Alban’s doorstep and later when the child’s mother is found murdered, the stage is set for a skillfully conceived whodunit that also explores the inevitable mutual attraction between the two detectives.

“The police chief could talk to her and she was able to talk to him; they connected with each other, became friends and their relationship grew,” Call said.

Zangerle agreed: “The police chief really didn’t have anyone to talk to, and likewise the priest. Who did they have? (They had) one another.”

The Le Roy and Medina women had varying views concerning the author’s depiction of the Episcopal Church and the priesthood; although Dick noted that the church does allow women priests and they can be married. St. Mark’s currently has a woman interim priest.

“Everything that she (Clare Fergusson) did, she did in her priestly role,” Webster said. “She always was counseling people, always trying to help people.”

To which Crosby responded, “If she didn’t make some mistakes along the way, she would have been a goody, goody, not a real person.”

When asked if they thought Fergusson was a believable character, all of the Medina women said yes, although Lattin, who until recently lived in Alaska, questioned why she didn’t have the proper vehicle (Clare drives a bright red ’82 MG) and clothing for such a cold, snowy location. “You think she would have had winter boots. She had to have had survival training (while in the Army),” Lattin said.

Some of the women remarked about Clare’s initial meeting with the St. Alban’s vestry.

“At the time she was deeply involved with the baby and during that first meeting I think she realized what a conservative church she had come to,” Brady said.

Cooney wasn’t as forgiving. “I thought this priest’s first vestry meeting was poorly organized.”

Weinzler added that, contrary to real life, the “vestry wasn’t highly involved” and Cooney put herself into the situation by saying, “We’re former and current vestry members here and we run a tighter ship.”

Both groups said they wish the author would have explained why Fergusson chose to enter the ministry. “I’m still puzzled over what brought her to the priesthood. Was it her sister’s death? I don’t think it’s explored enough,” Kiebala said.

But, Cooney noted, Clare performed each service with reverence.

“She definitely was steeped and schooled in the rituals of the church,” she said.

Stork said she wanted to read more about Fergusson’s role as a priest. “I disliked (the) portrayal of her as a priest. The book didn’t show her as a priest enough. It was almost an afterthought.”

Hill quickly rebutted by saying the priest was not a detective, but a counselor and a “good role model. And her drinking didn’t bother us.”

The readers agreed they could see a spiritual change in the police chief as the book progressed.

“She (Fergusson) made him see God in more places,” Barhite said. “She helped him pull that curtain down; he had insulated himself.”

While most of the women said they would read Spencer-Fleming’s other books, Wadhams said she has no plans to go beyond In the Bleak Midwinter. Fergusson’s disorganized first vestry meeting, her lack of regimentation and “the lust in their heart” made the novel “confusing,” she said.

“I just felt she (the author) needed to focus more. It just wasn’t my kind of book,” she said.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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