The Woman in the Trees by Theoni Bell

When I first joined the Catholic Church, I had some reservations about the Church’s veneration of Jesus’ mother Mary. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate those teachings and to love Our Lady like any cradle Catholic. The stories of how the Virgin Mary appeared with special messages in Fatima, Guadalupe and Lourdes are among our favourites. Did you know that Our Lady also appeared right here in North America? I was delighted to find out about a local Marian apparition through The Woman in the Trees, a new novel by Catholic mom and author Theoni Bell.

The Woman in the Trees by Theoni Bell, a novel about America's first approved Marian apparition.

I received this book for review courtesy of the author; all opinions expressed remain my own. This post contains affiliate links; as an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

In The Woman in the Trees, gifted storyteller Theoni Bell imaginatively paints a picture of a dramatic but relatively unknown miracle and the souls it touched. Gripping, exquisitely penned, and based in a fascinating slice of American history, this book is a true page-turner with a higher purpose. Enjoy! ~ Lisa M. Hendey, author of I’m a Saint in the Making

The Woman in the Trees plot summary

Slainie is a pioneer girl growing up in Champion, Wisconsin in the 1800s. One day as she’s helping her mother, a strange woman drops by their cabin, offering to help out around the homestead and teach Slainie. Something about Adele Brise attracts Slainie, despite her disfigured face, but Slainie’s mother sends the woman on her way. Later, Slainie meets Adele again at her best friend Marie’s house.

As the girls take lessons from Adele together, Slainie also learns about Adele’s vision of Mary and the chapel she’s founded in the middle of the Wisconsin woods. Slainie’s father begins to attend the chapel and help out there, but her mother remains angry and opposed to Adele’s work. As Slainie tries to decide what she thinks of Adele and the chapel, she also processes her memories of their voyage from Belgium to Wisconsin, and her sister’s death along the way.

As Slainie’s mother continues to harden her heart against her daughter, Slainie decides to move away from home. It will take a miracle to soften her mother’s heart and bring their family back together again… but that miracle might not be what Slainie and her fellow immigrants expect.

My thoughts on The Woman in the Trees

I’m a longtime lover of historical fiction, so I was fascinated by the idea of learning about Our Lady of Good Help through a novel. I devoured The Woman in the Trees on my Kobo, packing it to the park with me while the kids played. Slainie’s story drew me in from the opening pages, as I learned about her pioneering life in Wisconsin and saw the Marian apparition through her eyes—the eyes of a curious young girl in a difficult situation.

I found all the characters in this book likeable and real. The story is dominated by Slainie, her parents, and Adele Brise. Slainie is an active, busy, curious girl whose life is overshadowed by the death of her younger sister. Her mother is an angry, hard-hearted woman who can’t love her remaining daughter while she mourns her lost daughter. Slainie’s father is caught between his daughter and his wife; he’s a gentle man who tried to make life better for his family, but that decision cost him deeply.

Adele Brise, the young woman to whom Mary appeared, is shown through her interactions with Slainie and other immigrants around the chapel. Slainie listen to her respond to accusations and doubts about her vision. Slainie sees her traveling through the community, in all weather, offering to help and teach the settlers, as Mary directed her to. One of Slainie’s friends joins Adele’s community, while another experiences a miracle when he remembers Adele’s teachings and asks for Mary’s intercession.

As a writer, I found myself fascinated by the way Theoni chose to tell this story. I’ve read many saint stories with my children, and have started my own novel about a saint. When I picked up The Woman in the Trees, I expected to be closer to the action—to be reading a story about Adele Brise herself, perhaps. Instead, I was drawn into Adele’s story from a slightly more distant viewpoint, which perhaps provides more perspective on the apparition, chapel, and Adele’s work in Wisconsin. Slainie isn’t a cradle Catholic or an instant convert; she views Adele with both interest and reservation, and comes slowly to the chapel, as many of us do. From my own background, I could understand her hesitation and doubts.

We are always on the lookout for good Catholic fiction and are so glad to have this book as part of our library! It’s a unique look at the lives of nineteenth century American Catholic immigrants, interwoven with the story behind the only approved U.S. Marian apparition. I look forward to making it part of our homeschool reading list. ~ Kendra Tierney, author Catholic All Year Compendium

Our Lady of Good Help

Overall, Theoni tells a powerful story that will draw readers in and inspire a deeper curiosity about Our Lady of Good Help. I’ve now added another shrine to the list of places I’d love to visit in the eastern part of Canada and the United States, if we are ever able to make a pilgrimage across the country.

In America, The National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help at Champion covers the peace-filled holy ground deemed ‘worthy of belief’ by authority of the Catholic Church, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared. Identifying herself as ‘The Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners,’ Mary appeared in October 1859 to a Belgian immigrant woman, Adele Brise, on the grounds of Champion Shrine, when the town was known as Robinsonville.

Our Lady’s message to Adele was “teach the children their catechism, how to ‘make the sign of the cross’ and how to ‘approach the sacraments.’” In The Woman in the Trees, Theoni continues Adele’s work. Children around the world will learn about their catechism and the sacraments along with Slainie, drawn into the wonders of their faith through a good story. I appreciated this novel as an adult, and have told Sunshine and Lily to add it to their reading stack.

More about Theoni Bell

Theoni Bell converted to the Catholic Church while she was in college. She earned a master’s degree in journalism and has traveled to 13 countries. She and her husband have three children and now make their home in Los Angeles, California. Theoni homeschools her children and also enjoys reading science fiction novels, collecting sea glass, and growing succulents.

Through a devotion to Our Lady of Good Help, I am slowly understanding the eternal consequences of mothering and educating my children. But, along with good catechesis, I hope we can simply raise decent human beings. ~ Theoni Bell

The inspiration for The Woman in the Trees came when Theoni and her family visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. Theoni’s devotion to Our Lady of Good Help began there, along with a conviction that more people need to hear about this Marian apparition. The Woman in the Trees is the result of years of researching, writing, and rewriting.

To find out more about Theoni and her writing, drop by her website or check out my interview. You can also find her on Facebook and follow her on Instagram as thewomaninthetrees (more about Our Lady of Good Help) or wordslikeseeds (more about the book and its launch, including quotes and behind-the-scenes details).

The Woman in the Trees is available on Amazon and in your favourite Catholic bookstores.

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