Book Review: 'Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family' by Veronica Chater

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family

By Veronica Chater

Norton. 330 pp. $23.95

At the center of "Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family" stands the figure of Veronica Chater's father, a one-time California highway patrol officer so focused on a single idea that he uproots and impoverishes his large family and distorts the lives of his children. His obsession is with the reforms of Vatican II, which he thinks have corrupted the Catholic church. Disgusted with the liberalization he sees in California, in 1972 he decides to relocate to Fatima, Portugal, where the Virgin Mary supposedly visited three shepherd children in 1917 and imparted three secrets: One was a lurid description of hell. The second was a warning that godless Soviet communism threatened the world. The third secret was never revealed by the Church, but Chater's father, like other traditionalists, believed it was a prophesy of Vatican II and the moral destruction it would wreak.

But once in Portugal, having settled close to Fatima and joyfully prepared for their first mass there, the family discovers the local church is as liberal as those they rejected in California. Bitterly disillusioned, Chater's father moves his brood back home. Here he begins associating with increasingly extremist splinter groups, carries a gun to the fly-by-night church services he and his family attend in garages and deserted department stores, and sends two of his sons -- aged 10 and 12 -- to a militaristic Catholic boys' academy on the East Coast.

Most of the book is riveting. Chater's descriptions of their troubled voyage to Portugal, the freedom the kids found in a rural village, and the mixture of pleasure and astonishment with which they explored local customs -- all these are particularly lively and evocative. But once the family is back in the United States, even as Chater describes the beginnings of her own rebellion, much of the color leaches from the story.

-- Juliet Wittman

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