Two sisters, both around thirty, sit uneasily across from each other in a restaurant — Sarah, wife, mother, seamstress, and Glennie, an obstetrician-gynecologist married to her career.

Six years ago, their grandfather died, and Sarah felt abandoned because Glennie, overworked in medical school and overstressed by anorexia, wasn’t there with the rest of the small family.

Glennie squints her eyes.  “Do you think you’re the better person?”

I look at her, whose hands welcome lives, the thin fingers delicately guiding, then putting back into place what has been ripped away; whose precision and care is renown.

“I think you should have been there,” I tell her.  “But mostly I think we’re both selfish as hell and that Grandpa wouldn’t like either one of us.”

A few minutes later, Glennie asks, “Don’t you ever forgive?”  And Sarah realizes that she doesn’t like her sister, and she wonders how much Glennie likes her.

We’re from the same place, but we have different geographies of the heart.


“Don’t have a great history”

The painfully raw scene is one that, in one way or another, has been enacted between many sisters.  Brothers deal with differences in other ways.

Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is a story about sisters, spanning more than thirty years.  And not just about Sarah and Glennie, but also about their Grandma and her wild and estranged sister Cecily. And about Sarah’s two girls, Amelia, who was born just before the death of her great-grandmother, and Beth, who was adopted at the age of six.

Sarah’s husband Al, a large teddy bear-like professor of religion at the University in the Minneapolis area, wasn’t sure it was a good idea to adopt a girl.

Sisters don’t have a great history in this family, so I argued for a boy.  That lasted about two minutes.  Sarah had seen Beth, and her heart was set.


Summie’s heartfelt and poignant 2022 novel is about the jaggedness of family relationships, the rough-edged interactions of people who share a physical and emotional place — who love each other — but have “different geographies of the heart.”

It is also about loss, about death and dealing with death. A young neighborhood boy named Timmy, befriended by Al, is hit and killed by a car driven by his drunk father. Both Grandma and Grandpa die.  Al learns that his cold and distant mother has spent her life mourning the accidental death of her first love. And Sarah suffers a wrenching miscarriage.

Al watched her, saw her face twitch.  He could not know her grief.  He knew part of it, but he did not know how it felt for the beautiful hope to slide, then wrestle its way out of her.  Let it go naturally, the doctor had said, and they had all agreed.  Natural sounded good, preferable.

But Al had been angry ever since.  Had he known it was a lengthy process. Had he known what pain Sarah would feel, that she’d be keening, rocking on the bedroom floor at one point and grasping his hands, he would have suggested exploring alternatives.  She had needed a gentler passing. They both had.


“Wanted to believe in goodness”

Geographies of the Heart is also about faith.  Al is a professor of religion without any formal or, for that matter, informal faith.  And, yet, he and the rest of the family seem, especially in their most difficult time, to look for faith, for meaning.

After Timmy’s death, Al is weighed down by grief.  It used to be that, when Al opened the garage door from the inside, he’d be half looking to see Timmy hanging out in the vicinity for a breakfast or a bit of attention.  Now, the garage door opening is a kind of hell, and he no longer waits for it to rise fully before ducking out, almost furtively.  This is, he thinks, a loss of faith.

Maybe even in God, who was not someone Al had ever professed to know.  That’s what had led him to study religion.  Al wanted to believe in goodness, and even more, in redemption.  Maybe even in a better life next time, since his mother’s current one was so broken.

Later, Al has a testy interaction with a university colleague over the phrase “We must all choose our own God.”  She rejected it as something out of a self-help book.

Al thought he understood her perspective.  He had often thought faith was for the weak, in the past.  Yet it was, in its own wonderful way, a sign of strength.  To release your woe to God was to have the strength to let go of it, the strength to trust rather than to hold on to it tightly, savor it, keep licking the wound.  It was what gave someone the breath, the hope, the break needed to get back on their feet and walk forward to new possibilities, or at least, past the pain.


“A night to believe”

Near the end of the novel, Sarah, now 47, is making preparations for the family’s annual Christmas Eve candle-lighting at midnight.

For one night, they all briefly joined the stars, midnight by midnight, connected worldwide.

In that quiet assembly, then, it was a night to believe in God.

Faith for the characters of Geographies of the Heart is a faith in family, a faith in goodness, a faith in love even amid the jaggedness of relationships.

It is a faith in trying to do what is right, even amid the grief and loss and disconnection that life brings.  A faith in staying the course.

Each character may have his or her own geography of the heart, but all, however awkwardly, are staying the course together.

The sisters in this novel may get on each other’s nerves, but they stay connected.  The griefs that come to the people in his novel are endured in the circle of family love. Geographies of the Heart is a novel about goodness, kindness and yearning, and how, together, they form a kind of faith.


Patrick T. Reardon







Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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