Beauty and the Monster: A Review of Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted

This blog was originally published on Readers Unbound, May 6, 2015

Beauty and the Monster: A Review of Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted.

I like mysteries and I like fiction that explores controversial subjects. So the BBC Outlook interview with Rene Denfeld immediately captured my attention. Denfeld’s first fictional work is a mystery set ondeath enchanted book coverrow with the surprising title The Enchanted.

The Enchanted tells the story of three very broken main characters. “The lady” is a death penalty investigator employed to find evidence that might save prisoners from execution. In this case, she explores the life of an inmate named York. She is there not to diminish the horror of her clients’ crimes, but “to hear their truth, whatever it is, and to honor their truth.” Having survived a childhood of abuse herself, the lady is uniquely qualified to do this.

But York wants to die, and the lady understands why.

“I understand why you want to die,” she tells York.

“Most people say that,” he says.

“I’m not talking about living on death row,” she says. “I meant I would want to die if I were you.”

He stares at her…”Because of what I did?”


The anger in his eyes passes and is replaced with sadness…” I’ll ask you please.”

“Please what?”

“Walk on out of here and let me die.”

The third character is a kind of narrator, an observer. He is also on death row, is nameless until the final pages, and mute to all but the reader. His words open this intriguing book and give us its title:

“This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do. …The most wonderful enchanted things happen here…. I want to tell you while I still have time, before the close the black curtain and I take my final bow.”

An avid reader since childhood, he knows how to escape into magical worlds, and has turned the antiquated prison with all its violence, abuse and corruption into an enchanted place. He hears “golden horses” with manes “like tongues of fire” running beneath his cell, little men with hammers in the walls and “flibber-gibbets” that dance. He pictures his breath rising and becoming one with clouds until it descends somewhere else on the planet. He gathers rain seeping into his cell with childlike delight.

There are many “monsters” in the prison. Some are persons: the corrupt guard, prisoners who abuse the weak, and the man whose crimes even murderers don’t mention because “some things are too awful to contemplate.” And there are monsters within. The narrator explains what happened when abuse made his body no longer his own:

“…your soul has no place to go, so it finds the next window to escape.

“My soul left me when I was six. It few away past a flapping curtain…It left me alone in the choking dark…When you don’t have a soul, the ideas inside you become terrible things. They grow unchecked, like malignant monsters. You cry in the night because you know the ideas are wrong…and yet none of it does any good. The ideas are free to grow. There is no soul inside you to stop them.”

The Enchanted searches the stories of broken people to lay bare what may drive human beings to commit terrible crimes, or to transcend their circumstances. The author probes human experience to find the boundary of redemptive possibility. Denfeld’s thesis seems to be that for some it is simply too late to change the course of their lives, while others are able to turn their tragedies into gifts. Not until the end do we know whose lives are transformed and in what ways.

Beautifully written, The Enchanted is also deeply disturbing. One expects to be disturbed by the horror of crimes, the violence of prisons, the tragedy of childhoods. Denfeld depicts these without minimization or sensationalism. One does not expect to be so disturbed by the beauty found in the midst of monsters.

“In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America,” Bruce Jackson & Diane Christian—Documentary Photography at CSAS (

This beauty becomes almost disorienting. Denfeld’s writing style, with its poetic cadences and imagery, adds to the atmosphere of mysterious ambiguity which characterizes the book. Several characters have no names – the lady, the narrator, and minor characters like the “fallen priest.” I do not know whether the golden horses and flibber-gibbets reflect imagination or psychosis or perhaps something real. At times it was not clear to me whether I was hearing York or the narrator. The characters are full of contradictions and surprises and often reminiscent of the theater of my dreams. Denfeld’s style captivated me with its otherworldly quality.

Such qualities might cause the reader to dismiss The Enchanted as fantasy, interesting but not challenging, if the author herself were less credible. But Rene Denfeld is qualified both professionally and personally. She is a death row investigator. She is a wounded person and several of her characters are strongly reminiscent of her own story. Like both the lady and York, she was raised by a mother with mental disabilities who loved but could not nurture her, and who brought violent men into her life. Like the narrator she found refuge and magic in books, refers to the local library as the place she ran to after school, where she could be safe and escape to magical worlds. The narrator has read every book in the prison library and in a way “authors” his own books as well, as he turns his surroundings into lands of enchantment.

Because the characters and the world of The Enchanted are so surprising and because the questions posed are so challenging, I find Denfeld’s credibility essential. I cannot dismiss the work as “fanciful imaginings.” It will remain with me for a long time and the questions posed will probably change me. I would like to ask Denfeld how often she encountered beauty, poetry, depth among death row inmates. Are York and the narrator the rarest of exceptions? Or are we to utterly alter our images of those whose crimes are monstrous?

"Wild Horses" by George Catlin "Their manes were very profuse, and hanging in the wildest confusion over their necks and faces..." (

I highly recommend Denfeld’s brilliant book. It challenges me to relish every patch of sky, drop of rain, smell of spring with something approaching the delight, the rhapsody in fact of the narrator of The Enchanted. Is it possible that all the freedom, possibilities, sensory experiences and tragedies of my world actually scatter my attention and obscure the “enchanted”? Or if an inmate on death row can find incredible beauty in his world, can I learn to see my own as “enchanted”?

What helps or hinders seeing the enchanted in our world?


Book Promotion Tuesday: The Hospital

hospitalSo today I had a colonoscopy and sold two copies of my book to nurses.

The first was my main intake nurse, white, from the UK. She talked really fast, letting me know everything she was going to accomplish in her allotted 15 minutes. But her voice dropped to a near whisper when she began more personal sharing.

“I’m a stay at home mom basically”, she confided, but I don’t want to get depressed like some of my neighbors, so I’m working part time.”

Somehow our conversation quickly moved to religion and politics. She spoke of going to Catholic School as a child and being taught by nuns who provided “a wonderful education”.  But she is not a Catholic today.

“I love the new Pope, but I know he can’t change anything” she said. Her views of the President were similar:

“I like Obama”, she said, but I don’t think he’s made any changes”.

She described her brother’s reaction to news in the US – “so distorted”, We agreed on that.

I was lying down on one of those beds-with-wheels surrounded by curtains being prepped for my procedure. My book was in my hands, on top of the sheet against my chest. The nurse picked it up, exclaimed about loving the feel of my book.  ”It feels lovely in your hand”, she exclaimed, and then turned to read the information on the back cover. “You have had such an interesting life – and your book sounds fascinating. I must get one”. She sounded genuinely delighted.

Without missing a beat, she proceeded to fill out multiple forms, showing me efficiently where to sign, asked a hundred questions about my medical history – several more than once – and did in fact accomplish all this in the 15 minutes allotted for her many tasks.

I liked her. There was a sense of personal caring and connection. Despite the 15 minute time constraint, we got to know one another a little – as people, not just nurse and patient. But as someone wheeled me away, I realized that although she must have had a name tag, I didn’t know her name.

The second nurse was my main discharge nurse. She was black, an Atlanta native, and had heard about my book from nurse number one. She pulled out her cell phone and took a picture of the front cover so she could order it.

“Do you ever speak to groups?” She confided she plans agenda for a women’s Bible study group at her church, and sometimes they have speakers.

“Oh yes, I do a lot of presentations. And I love to speak about my book at churches and other places too. I’d love to come to your church”.

“Really? Awesome!”

She took out the IV, put a little bandage on the site, got my clothes, brought a glass of water, showed me the way to the exit, took one of my outdated business cards, looked at it, saw I do retreats and asked about those too.  She did all this in just 7 minutes. But I realize – I don’t know her name either. And I feel bad about that.

Somebody wrote somewhere: “Take it everywhere you go”.  This was in some list of ways to promote your book of course. I took it seriously, and have added a few embellishments which I’ll pass on to you.

For example, I always carry it with the back cover toward the other person. I try to hold it as close to their eye level as possible and always make sure my arm it not covering up the picture of the author – who is me, of course.

It is amazing how many people see the pic, look at me, and say “Oh – that’s your book”! They seem excited to meet an author and conversation and book inspection begins. This happened Saturday and Sunday too – not yesterday though, that was colonoscopy prep day.

I’m actually having a blast with this. And I’m laughing at myself. I mean, I’m the one who told Wayne, my editor, very seriously that I despised marketing and found self-promotion, what? – repulsive? odious? Something like that. Wayne said “Think of it as sharing what’s important to you”. That was good advice and I tried, but frankly my main motivator is that it’s just plain fun.

Sometimes I wonder what new corridor I’m travelling down of course. The self-critiquing “walk the high road” voice still whispers in my ear. The self-observant eye still hovers just over my right shoulder. I get a little nervous because this is unknown territory and I don’t know the boundaries yet. So it felt good when the editor of the Readers Unbound blog suggested the last paragraph of my blog was too much like advertising. She did so kindly, she was right, and I was grateful. That was in yesterday’s email and it didn’t stop me from grabbing the book just before exiting the house to go to the hospital for “the procedure”.

Maybe I should carry a tote with several books with me? Or have one made with the book cover on it? I mean, people may forget to do the Amazon thing. Hmmm. I’ll think about it.

P.S. Results today? All good! PPS. I really will try to remember their names!

Fishing – – And Other Things I Had to Learn

“How long did it take you to write your book?”  David asked, holding out his copy for me to sign.

sight in the sandstorm“Two years to write, but at least a decade of research,” I probably answered. That’s what I usually say, but it’s only part of the truth.

Sight In The Sandstorm: Jesus in His World and Mine was actually birthed from a much longer journey which began in the broken heart of a five year old,  wound its way through startling spiritual experiences, several faith traditions, a couple of graduate degrees, ordination, preaching and finally a “yes” to writing. My research involved using my head a lot, but was driven by my heart.

At age five I was tremendously excited by an invitation to a church picnic at a swimming pool. My Jewish father and Gentile mother did not raise me in any faith tradition.  On Sunday mornings, when other children went to church, I played alone, a sad outsider. I wanted to belong; this picnic seemed a ticket of admission.  But just two days before the big event my mother told me I couldn’t go. The pool was restricted.  “That means we do not go there, Ann,” she said. “It means your father is not welcome because he is Jewish, and we never go anywhere he’s not welcome.”

As I grew older, I learned from other experiences – children chasing me, throwing stones and yelling “dirty Jew” – that a lot of people who said they followed Jesus didn’t like Jews. Since Jesus was a Jew, this was extraordinarily perplexing.

"The Infant Jesus" by Salvador Dali

At 19, visiting a friend’s church, a sudden experience of God’s presence overwhelmed me and set me on a Christian path. But I didn’t find a Jewish Jesus in any of my varied church experiences, and a Master’s Degree in Theology didn’t solve the puzzle either. My impression was that for most people Jesus had been born a Jew but became a Gentilesomewhere along the line. The boy Jesus was presented in the temple and dialogued with rabbis. The adult Jesus is shown with wavy brown hair and narrow features, and the Gospel of John (20:19) says “the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.”  The Jews? Well, weren’t the disciples Jews, too?

Decades later I found myself in a small, round church with a Star of David skylight in the middle of the ceiling. For three months I sat under that Star and wept. Until then I had been part of two worlds.  Could my two worlds be coming together? I had to uncover my Jewish roots and find the Jewish Jesus, too. Marvin Wilson’s book   Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, my first read on the subject, opened the door for decades of study.

In Jesus’ day the Roman Empire ruled Palestine.   Gone were the patriarchs, like Abraham, gone also kings like David. Now the Roman Empire ruled Palestine. Now the landscape was overrun by Pharisees and Sadducees, Zealots and tax collectors.  Books like The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce Malinaand Palestine in the time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts by Hanson and Oakman helped me understand the socio-economic, political and even religious ramifications of oppression under the Empire. Ninety-eight percent of Jews were poor and trapped. Crops were grown to enrich the conquerors; even the Temple was turned into a money maker for Rome. It was a volatile time. Revolution was in the air. Those whom Rome saw as a threat to the status quo were crucified

The Second Jewish Temple, before its destruction by Rome in 70 A.D. The Western Wall is now known as The Wailing Wall. (

At age 61, while immersed in this reading, I was also finally ordained. By now I was studying the Scriptures in a new way, exploring the Hebraic language behind the Greek. I learned more about daily village life and began including this context in my sermons. How and where did the people live? What work did they do, and for whom? What did they eat? What was family life like: marriage, divorce, celebrations? I was reading everything I could find in libraries and on the internet. Jerusalem Perspectives, a website making available the work of Jewish and Christian theologians working together, was particularly helpful.

I became fascinated with the parables – stories like the 10 talents and the prodigal son that Jesus told to make a point. Brad Young’s The Parables was one of the books that turned on light bulbs. Today’s churchgoers have heard the parables so often, and without any historical context, that they have minimal impact. But to Jesus’ audiences the stories would have been shocking!  The references to the oppression of the day, the devastating economic policies of the Empire would have been obvious to them.

And so I began to preach that the story usually called “the prodigal son” is more about Jesus’ extravagantly loving God than about youthful sin. God is like the father who rushed to meet the wayward son. This father picked up his cloaks to run; that means he didn’t care what the neighbors thought, not even that he was showing his ankles!

And the story about the horrible judge and the widow who kept badgering him for justice until he finally gave in? Jesus’ audience all recognized that judge! Perhaps the story was not meant to say we must wear ourselves out begging God endlessly. Perhaps Jesus was contrasting God to this uncaring judge: “he [God] will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:8).

Sunset over the Sea of Galilee (Todd Bolen,

My heart was beating fast; I was learning a lot and speaking in churches and seminaries. People began urging me to write. I dismissed the idea. Finally I decided to wrestle with the idea of a book and make a decision. Writing won.  I had to get what was inside me outside of me, in other words, I had to give birth.  I would write in accessible story form.

That was the beginning of one more stage of research. Now I had to check details and uncover concrete information.  And “what was the hardest piece of research,” you ask. “Fishing.” Fishing comes up a lot in the Gospels.  Peter and Andrew, James and John were all fishing when Jesus invited them to follow him. Jesus provided a miraculous catch for the disciples who had caught nothing all night.

Palestinian fishermen used all kinds of nets, as well as different methods of fishing, some at night, others during the day. And I have never fished even once! I did figure it out, though, along with many other things, and a book did result.

After a mighty sandstorm comes a bursting blue sky. I often find it hard to make sense of our troubled world. In my personal sandstorms, sometimes God is very hard – or impossible – to find. Jesus’ story, however, is one of hope. The Roman Empire killed him, but the Empire did not have the last word. The empires of our day need not have the last word. God is on the loose – through us, and we can set the prisoners free, make our way through the sandstorms and dance together under blue skies.


What sandstorms have you walked through? What blue skies have burst upon you? Writing is a way of speaking to the world. What is it you need to tell us?