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Excerpt from The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Sunken Cathedral

by Kate Walbert

The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert X
The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2015, 224 pages
    Mar 2016, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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About this Book

Print Excerpt


The mothers, dressed for exercise, gather on the steps of Progressive K–8—Stephanie G. at the center, forty-five, give or take, her hair in short braids, dandelions woven into the bands— Elizabeth sees her and sidesteps but too late.

"Elizabeth!" Stephanie G. calls. "Elizabeth!"

How had she agreed to the idea at all? Now Stephanie G. blocks her path, clearly determined to see the vision fulfilled: Who We Are stories line the hallways of Progressive K–8 like so many snowflake cutouts in winter, each sincere and beautiful and excruciatingly heartbreaking for reasons Elizabeth cannot name and does not want to examine. The idea had grown out of the school's pledge for better communication by way of stronger community, dialoguing through dialogue, something like that, one of those tautologically challenged declarations beloved by their new interim head of school—Dr. Constantine—an elderly woman whose early advocacy of sexual education in pre-K put her on the academic map. If everyone could share their roots, or dig down to their roots, or expose their roots the school might come together in a grand way, or at least in a way that would increase the parent participation in the annual fund drive.

It had all been outlined in an e-mail: IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT FROM DR. CONSTANTINE, which Elizabeth opened expecting to read of another outbreak of nits on a fifth grader's scalp or an additional plea for vigilance when patrolling the City blocks after pickup. This, Elizabeth's favorite parental responsibility: mothers and the occasional bemused father wandering Bleecker Street in pairs regardless the weather, dressed in bright orange vests and carrying heavy walkie-talkies, a bit over the top, yet still: vigilance must be maintained, Dr. Constantine stressed, especially in the event of a What If.*

Last month Elizabeth had patrol duty with a woman whose son was in first grade, a woman tall and thin with dark, New York hair and glasses suggesting a love of books or at least a graduate degree in the humanities. The two had wandered the block greeting other mothers they knew, nodding to clusters of students and telling them to get along, eyeing any stray man who seemed not to have a destination in mind, their hands gripping the walkie-talkies just in case they needed to call back in to, whom? Dr. Constantine? Central control? The crackle of static had felt comforting, as was the idea of a direct link to someone who might allay her more general fears: Dirty bomb a hoax, the voice would whisper; organic beef as good as grass fed.

But this e-mail had a different message:

What's Your Story? it read. We're asking the Progressive Community to participate in a 3-E endeavor to Enliven, Engage, and Enlighten with Who We Are stories. Everyone has one: Great-Uncle Vic worked as a tailor for Chiang Kai-shek; Grandmother Sanchez escaped from Castro's Cuba. Whatever it is, we want to know! And please, include pictures!

"So, who are we?" Ben asked that night at the dinner table.

"What?" Elizabeth said, distracted by the amount of cheese he had stuffed in his taco.

"Dr. Constantine said we were supposed to remind you," Ben said, negotiating a bite. "I'm reminding you."

"Oh, that," she said, turning to her husband, who scooped the meat with a spoon and whose pale, delicate fingers, long and tapered, looked as if he should be playing a musical instrument. "What?" Pete said. "What are we talking about?"

"We're supposed to write a Who We Are story," Elizabeth said. "You know, where we come from, how we ended up here. They're asking everyone to do it. One of those community things."

Pete looked at her as if not comprehending. She had noticed this more and more about him, these brief synapses—hamster trances, Ben called them—and wondered if it had to do with his not sleeping, or maybe the hours he spent sitting at a desk staring at small numbers moving across a computer screen or on the device held in his palm. Perhaps he was waiting for his wife and son to morph into something else, for the trading feed to begin its loop across the bottom of the page: information, statistics, the rise and fall of the stock exchange; or possibly he hoped the text might offer links to other sites, sites that would explicate his family's deeper, troubling mysteries—his wife's increasing restlessness, his son's unpredictable moods.

Excerpted from The Sunken Cathedral Copyright © 2015 by Kate Walbert. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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