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My Father’s House 

My Father’s House
Joseph O’Connor
Penguin Books, $32.99

The opening pages of this book offer a succinct plot summary: “A small band of unlikely friends led by a courageous priest is drawn into deadly danger. By Christmastime, it’s too late to turn back.”

My Father’s House is a nail-biting thriller, as well as the story of a genuine Christian hero – Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty from County Kerry, stationed at the Vatican when Germany captured Rome in September 1943. When humanity faced one of its most dire tests, O’Flaherty stood with the oppressed, repeatedly risking his life to do so.

While My Father’s House is a novel, it is based on true events. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was indeed a courageous priest who helped saved thousands of lives.

The Nazis began their brutal 9-month occupation of Rome. By mid-October, they had rounded up over 1000 of Rome’s Jews; fewer than 20 returned after the war.

While Pope Pius XII has drawn criticism for not doing more for Italy’s Jews and for failing to denounce the German invasion, dozens of priests, nuns and others within Rome and the Vatican worked constantly behind the scenes to save lives. O’Flaherty and his group – known as “the Choir” – are credited with saving over 6,000 people from almost certain death.

Author Joseph O’Connor is a fellow Irishman with a long list of published works. He used a wide range of sources but stresses that much of the book is fiction.

After months of helping escaped POWs, Resistance fighters and Jews evade capture, the Choir knows that the hundreds of people in hiding – with neighbours, in convents, in the Vatican itself – are in increasing danger. The Nazi in charge of ferreting them out, Paul Hauptmann (clearly based on the real Herman Kappler, later indicted for war crimes) is under increasing pressure to find those responsible for the Escape Line which has been spiriting their targets out of Rome.

Hauptmann is sure that O’Flaherty is involved; his cat and mouse stalking of O’Flaherty adds to the dramatic tension.

O’Flaherty and his Choir decide that the best time to make a concerted move – which means transferring hundreds of hidden humans and wads of cash – is on Christmas Eve.

In the riveting first chapter, we meet O’Flaherty and Choir member Delia Kiernan, desperately racing to hospital with a grievously ill British escapee disguised as a Nazi. Its sections then alternate between third person accounts of the fateful Christmas Eve mission and pretend interviews and journal entries from other members of the Choir years after the events. If some readers find this frustrating – we want to know what happens on Christmas Eve! – that adds to the suspense.

Yet the structure shows how crucial the roles of O’Flaherty’s accomplices were. O’Flaherty was a hero, but could not have succeeded without the help of the Choir and many other ordinary Romans willing to risk a horrible, lingering death if apprehended.

Alternately harrowing and inspiring – and sometimes both simultaneously – My Father’s House is a fascinating story of good people standing up to evil – and (sometimes) winning.

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