L.J. Hippler’s stunningly well-written debut novel “Cathedral Street” follows the dramatic saga of the Miller family from 1959 to 1999.
Set in a bleak and shuttered Baltimore, the Miller household is held captive by a viciously cruel patriarch, the boys’ father Jarvis Miller. Jarvis casts himself as the hero of his own delusional play -- crushed down at every turn, object of personal vendettas and denied his richly deserved rewards by everyone around him, including his wife and small sons. Determined to punish his family for their imagined slights again him, the petulant Jarvis turns his household into a war zone, campaigning to drive a wedge between his useless sons and their loving, protective mother, Greta. Beatific Greta bends but refuses to break under the strain of her husband, but wheels have already been set in motion, and as one black night the last light of hope is extinguished from the household, the Miller family earns its first, dark secret.
Unable to recognize that their best chance to break free of their father’s toxic influence is to band together and support each other, instead the brothers find their fraternal bonds snapped and fraying as each son tries to escape his horrible past by abandoning all those with communal ties to it. As each brother stumbles darkly along his unique path, the shadow of their father’s hate and cruelty persistently threatens to seep into their lives and choke out their dreams. But the warmth and comfort of their mother’s love has not abandoned them, either, as the boys (now young men) refuse to perpetuate the sins their father heaped upon them and instead strive to create their own brave new worlds.
The eldest brother, Jerry, finds his escape when he is entrusted with the dreams of a classmate who can no longer pursue his sworn path to the priesthood. Jerry agrees to devote his life to the church in this boy’s stead, and finds himself, fresh out of seminary school, thrown into in the bloody battlefields of Vietnam. Here he meets fellow chaplain Rabbi Larry Adelson, and this vital and nourishing friendship offers Jerry a source of solace throughout his life.
Middle brother Buddy chooses industry over faith. Determined to show mastery over his squalid beginnings, Buddy declares his independence through hard work and seeks financial security to overcome his dysfunctional past. He seeks to solidify his happiness with the love of a good woman, but his marriage to the beautiful, but ultimately unsuitable, college sweetheart Brena puts his entire intended future in jeopardy. Adrift and directionless, his dreams begin to falter, until finally, in one terrifying moment, Buddy makes a desperate decision which propels him into the secure lifestyle of wealth by a dreadful means. From that moment on, Buddy’s dark secret places his family at risk and threatens to take away that which he holds dear above all else.
Tommy, the youngest brother, sees his brother Buddy remake himself in the image of the modern breadwinner and seeks out employment himself. But the daily toil is hardly satisfactory for young Tommy, who longs not just for financial means but for personal recognition and the validation of those around him. Stumbling upon a local underground boxing culture, Tommy discovers his true self in the roar of the crowd and the rush of a good fight. Raised to new heights, Tommy forgets that those who climb too far too fast may be in for a swift fall.
Betrayal, darkness, and cruelty swarm around the stormy lives of the Miller brother, but there is escape from Jarvis Miller’s vile legacy in the presence of Buddy’s only daughter Melissa, who begins to question the family’s policy of separation and secrecy. Her quest to discover the Miller family’s past may delve up secrets hoped forgotten forever and bring the darkest corners of that history starkly into the light.
The New Road brings us back to the Baltimore area for the next installment of the Miller family drama.
It's ten years after the events in Cathedral Street, and young Michelle Miller (now Ibanez) has matured into a respected lawyer with a budding law practice. Michelle’s life is on the upswing; with her lovely new home, her handsome husband, and her adoring toddler son, it looks like things can only get better . . . until she’s handed the brown folder containing the innocuous-sounding House Bill 1664. Blessed with strength of character from the grandmother she never knew, Michelle’s courage and determination will be tested to the very edge of her limits as she readies for the fight of her life.
A new road should bring new beginnings, but as Michelle learns, for the residents of Canton the thoroughfare interchange proposed by House Bill 1664 spells nothing less than the total destruction of their historic neighborhood. A pork-barrel project pushed through by a self-serving politician, HB 1664 is nearly unstoppable. With few allies and little clout behind her, Michelle’s only chance of stopping the new road is to rely on herself and her unswerving moral compass.
The bill’s master architect, self-serving politician Sam Sampson, is a man with no compunction for fighting dirty. Sampson’s plans for the interchange are nothing less than a monument to his own overblown ego. Determined to ensure the success of his vision whatever the cost, Sampson institutes a scorched-earth policy against Michelle, starting with her father, Buddy.
Former “Captain of Industry” Buddy Miller is older and a little worse for wear from the last time we saw him. His position in life is finally secure and stable, thanks to his hard work and a good turn or two in the stock market. Between his strained relationship with his daughter, Michelle, and his new love interest that is scarcely older than her, Buddy’s got his hands full. His vigor is staring to fade, but what’s really bothering Buddy is those dark nights when the face that stares back at him from the mirror, dark and full of rage, belongs not to him but to his own despicable father.
Meanwhile, Father Jerry, the eldest of the original Miller brothers, has grown too accustomed to comfortable surroundings. Striking out away from the neighborhood he’s known so long, Father Jerry’s new parish provides some unexpected challenges. The run-down chapel is dirty and hopeless, much like the migrant farm workers that are his parishioners. But Father Jerry has been in hopeless places before, and although his fight might look different from the one Michelle is waging, he’s not willing to leave things as they are.
With her days and nights consumed by her fight against Sampson and his interchange, Michelle feels her once-perfect life beginning to slip away as she comes to understand the sacrifices her determination may demand of her. She’s barely able to speak to the father she once doted on. With her small law practice overwhelmed (and unpaid) due to her fight against House Bill 1664, long days spent away from her toddler son, and mounting evidence pointing toward her husband’s infidelity, Michelle comes to realize that campaigning to protect something larger than herself may cost her everything she holds dear. As Sampson’s goons prepare to take the fight to the next level, Michelle discovers that the real threat to her marriage may come from an unexpected corner . . .
Like L.J. Hippler’s enthralling debut novel, Cathedral Street, this offering is a gripping, suspenseful treat. The New Road delivers a strong, incredibly well-written narrative that’s simply addictive. Whether you’re familiar with the original novel or not, it’s thrilling to watch Michelle come into her own in this novel.
A third installment of the Miller family saga is currently underway, and I’ll be keeping my eyes out to see where Michelle goes from here.