book review

Book Review: Transgression

TRANSGRESSION by Ben Stoltzfus is a coming-of-age story both unique to its time and universal in its protagonist’s struggles. Check out what Kathy L. Brown has to say in her book review of this indie historical novel.

Book Review: Transgression

Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown

A coming-of-age story both unique to its time and universal in its protagonist’s struggles

Transgression describes itself as “autofiction”—a fictionalized memoir. It is the tale of a gifted, curious, and precocious American teen as he reconciles the fundamentalist religious teachings ingrained in his heart and mind with his spiritual quest, intellectual rigor, and sexual longings. His internal conflicts mirror dangerous conflicts in the world around him; Hitler’s aggressions and World War II’s events form the background of his life. 

Stoltzfus’s parents are American educators working in Bulgaria at an international school.    Life is good for the family. The household is devout in the Congregationalist religion, and the protagonist has also attended Catholic school. He is a bright, mature child who has internalized most everything he’s been taught. But his twin obsessions with burning in hell and sex create an almost constant state of conflict within him. 

“My spirit has also been Balkanized, split and parceled like Bulgaria…my parents are Congregationalists, and I, after each Catechism lesson, am beginning to think like a Catholic.”

World events quickly overcome the family’s idyllic life as well as that of everyone around them. From Jewish friends changing their names’ spelling to growing scarcities of basic items, things aren’t looking good. When Germany invades and occupies Bulgaria, the family must flee, thus initiating a multi-year refugee experience. Coinciding with this upheaval, the protagonist struggles mightily with the meaning of good and evil in his personal life. What is sin? Where does redemption lie? What is a person’s soul and how can one guard it? 

Stoltzfus and his friend Mireille love to read and discuss books, especially banned books (now considered classics). Thus, Transgression is also a story about the written word: its value, not merely as entertainment but also as a source of multiple insights into the human experience. 

The narrator shares his story in the first person, present tense. The voice is that of a mature individual deep in revery rather than that of the young person experiencing the events. The story episodes are memories, coming, as memories do, in a stream of thought. 

“White seeps through the cracks. Memory. White, like city sounds sifting through leaves, slops through winter branches. The tree trunks are black crows on a snowbank, like punctuation marks, dot the landscape. The crows become magpies, and the magpies are the white collar and black robe of Brother Ignatius. No, they are now black crosses on the fuselage of Junker airplanes. They are black swastikas…”

Skillfully utilized literary techniques hold the reader in the narrator’s memories. The story is told in summary—that is, descriptions of events (as opposed to scenes, in which the event is “acted out” by the characters). For example, dialogue is marked by a colon and run together into a paragraph. The lyrical voice is replete with figurative language, at times stark but often as intricately designed as the Persian rugs Mrs. Stoltzfus loves to collect. Although generally linear, the narrative often shares episodes of varying degrees of consequence with equal emphasis. The narrator’s introspective moments, often humorous, illuminate a growing maturity and rich interior life.

A fundamentally life-changing event for the narrator occurs early in the story. It precipitates the spiritual crisis that haunts him through most of the book. This event is recognized as a crime in 2022, and although ultimately the narrator understands he had no actual culpability, no hint of that insight occurs through most of the story. Since the book voice is that of the narrator in maturity, this omission is troublesome to this reader. 

Readers interested in first-person historical accounts as well as moral philosophy questions and coming-of-age stories will enjoy Transgression. Replete with issues relevant to modern life and ripe for discussion on many levels, Transgression would be a great choice for a book club.

Publisher: Atmosphere Press

Genre: Literary & General Fiction / Historical Fiction

Print Length: 290 pages

ISBN: 978-1639885176

Thank you for reading Kathy L. Brown’s book review of Transgression by Ben Stoltzfus! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.

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