New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan Henry came home to Bluffton this week, but if we work her any harder she may never come back.
She came to share a love story, one of the oddest you’ll ever hear.
She told us about C.S. Lewis, the tweedy British intellect who created the “Chronicles of Narnia,” and Joy Davidman, a brash genius born to immigrant parents in the Jewish ghetto of the Bronx. She said the former atheist and Communist somehow married the professor on what they thought was her death bed.
In this telling at Bluffton’s community center named for the late Oscar Frazier, the town’s poet laureate, Patti talked before a full house next to a man with turned collar, pastor Jonathan Riddle of the Church of the Cross.
Between them, they seemed to know every crumb that this odd couple ever shared in their 10 years together. And somehow Patti worked herself up to a crescendo that was peaking as high as we can peak in the pluff mud of our Thursday-evening lives. And she turned to the crowd and begged as only we preacher’s kids can do it:
“Can I get an amen?”
It was an amen for the beat down one Joy Davidman put on a world filled with the pain and yearnings and unfair expectations and pigeon-hole limitations everyone else puts on us. It was for a divorced mother of two in 1950 who did more than match the Oxford and Cambridge wit and wisdom of C.S. Lewis. She led him to his greatest heights.
Joy’s point of view in this improbable love story fills the brand new book, Patti’s first historical novel, “Becoming Mrs. Lewis.”
This was Patti’s second or third public appearance of the day.
It was the first big event of this weekend’s Pat Conroy Literary Festival taking place in Beaufort. Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, who also talks Southern, is the headliner for Saturday afternoon’s main event.
But Patti can’t complain, because she’s home.
Patti Callahan was Lowcountry before she was a famous writer.
All her novels up until this one have a Lowcountry breeze shashaying through them. “The Bookshop at Water’s End” takes readers to what we know is Bluffton. She dedicated the book to Pat Conroy, and she spoke at his memorial service at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort.
Patti has a home at Palmetto Bluff, and her in-laws, Chuck and Gwen Henry, have lived on Daufuskie Island for about a quarter of a century.
It was in that quiet place, by the Haig Point Lighthouse, that handsome Pat Henry, then a budding business tycoon, asked beautiful Patti Callahan, then a pediatric nurse, to marry him. And she said yes.
Patti writes about the refuge Daufuskie offered her family growing up in the gridlock of Atlanta in her essay in the new book, “State of the Heart Vol. 3: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love.”
And now her parents live here, too. George, a retired Evangelical Presbyterian Church pastor, and Bonnie Callahan live in Bluffton because this is where their three girls, 10 grands and two great-grands like to gather.
George is an official wedding officiant, and leads popular services on Easter and Christmas Eve in the chapel at Palmetto Bluff.
Patti now escapes to the Lowcountry from Birmingham, where Pat is president of the Daniel Corporation, and they are empty-nesters in suburban Mountain Brook.
Patti jumped off the book tour three weeks ago, timed for the due date of her oldest daughter’s baby. She arrived in Hawaii an hour before her first grandchild came into the world.
Can I get an amen?
Beside C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis wrote “Surprised by Joy” before he met Joy Davidman. But you’d think it was the other way around.
Joy reached out to “Jack” by mail, as countless people did, and he answered them all. She was in yet another episode of a miserable marriage when suddenly she had a mystical experience that changed her life. She wanted to know if he could tell her what it meant.
She got divorced, took her two boys, and sailed for England.
It was not “happily ever after.” But something mystical happened.
Patti said Joy called her to this story. She dived into it headlong.
“She was always one to investigate things,” said Patti’s mother, Bonnie Callahan.
She also was one to always write, even when it was with crayons. Bonnie said they stapled together her little books.
But, like Joy, Patti yearned for more from this world, and as a mother of three little ones, she took a couple of classes at Emory University and joined an Atlanta writers’ group. And secretly, she wrote a novel. It won first-place at the writers’ group. That was more than a dozen successful novels ago.
Joy, like Patti, had breast cancer. Patti’s was caught early, but Joy’s was not and she died at a mere 45.
Patti is getting great critical acclaim for her historical novel in Joy’s voice.
And that voice has a message for new generations of women, she said. Joy showed that the hardest hardships can be overcome, and that women are the match of men, even those as brilliant as C.S. Lewis.
“She opened him up to life,” Patti told her hometown audience in Bluffton. She said it was like the Tin Man finding his heart.
Patti said you always hear that “behind every great man there’s a great woman.”
But she said they’re not behind him, they’re beside him.
And with her preacher daddy on the front row egging on the first of his three accomplished girls, she asked us:
“Can I get an amen?”