During the little interval between church and Sunday school, 14-year-old Boyd Robison and his friends wander outside into the churchyard cemetery. It’s the end of May and very hot and the boys practically stumble onto a dead body lying over a grave. The body, which appears to be that of their male Sunday school teacher, has been beheaded (“And I don’t mean just a little bit. This wasn’t one of your vague, half-hearted beheadings”).
After alerting the congregation, the boys breathlessly look on as the adults investigate the scene, both morbidly curious and slightly afraid their parents will either scold them for skipping Opening Exercises or, even more dangerous, find their discarded cigarette butts in the nearby bushes.
What distracts them, momentarily at least, from their fears is the discovery that the headless body does not belong to Bobby Morgan, their Sunday school teacher; it is, in point of fact, not even male. Though the head stays missing, authorities in the rural township of Perth Hill, Pennsylvania, soon identify the body as that of a nun—and wearing Bobby Morgan’s clothes, to boot. “The limit,” writes Helena author Rob Laughner, “of how weird and impossible things could ever get on any given morning at Perth Hill United Presbyterian Church had thus been reached. A body. Murdered. Headless. Female. In Bobby Morgan’s clothes. And… Catholic.”
And so the stage is set for Our Nun, Laughner’s stunning debut novel, and what might have been a dark mystery instead becomes something slyly funny and utterly engaging. As the ensuing mystery unfolds, Boyd Robison’s insights and observations quickly settle onto the quirky and endearing community of his rural hometown.
While turning a keen eye onto each odd character in the close-knit community, wondering whose discombobulated sense of morality brought the dead nun to their churchyard cemetery, Boyd fantasizes about girls in his class, imagines himself in another life as the nun’s boyfriend, and loses himself in the pure rapture of his mother’s country cooking.
Our Nun, to some extent, is a framed tale. Its outward, ostensible action concerns the need to solve a murder: Who beheaded the nun? However, the pure enjoyment of reading Our Nun comes not from the whodunit aspect characteristic of most mystery novels, but from the acute sensibilities of Laughner’s prose.
Boyd Robison hearkens back to Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, making Our Nun less a mystery and more a substantial addition to the genre variously known as the novel of adolescence, the novel of apprenticeship, or the Bildungsroman, the novel of educational or character development. Ultimately, the mystery of the murdered nun serves as a backdrop to the more interesting world of Boyd Robison.
As a narrator Boyd is endearing, emotionally honest, and wickedly hilarious: “To make it clear, early on, I am not—NOT—a necrophiliac.” But he might not see, as the reader does, many of the implications of the observations he narrates. Perhaps innocently, he reports the clues and puzzles surrounding the nun’s murder (Laughner’s prose mimics the sensibilities and language of a 14-year-old boy so well that the reader is, at the very least, mesmerized by his acute skill), but we cannot be sure what the adolescent protagonist makes of the stories he tells. He narrates in a straightforward manner, honestly sharing with us the Presbyterian community’s bewilderment over Catholic traditions: “What did nuns eat? Mrs. Orr had read about a certain type of nun that ate primarily nuts. Nuts. Imagine that. Primarily nuts.”
Particular passages indicate the narrator is still a child, as opposed to a wiser adult looking back with the added perspective of many years’ experience. Boyd volunteers his emotions to the reader willingly enough, but toward the end of the story he stops interpreting the information received; he listens to the adults in his life, but does not seem to draw as many conclusions.
One of the most compelling aspects of Our Nun is that through language we are permitted to see something of Boyd’s growth. When an elderly man in the community passes away, Boyd fails to grieve deeply but is sensitive enough to know that he should: He’s “sad, I guess. I didn’t cry, though. I just don’t.” He seems mildly troubled by this shortcoming, and in this annoyance we see a boy measuring himself against what he knows is expected of him. Yet what he sees and hears—an old myth, a noise in the night, a drip-drip from the upper rafters of a neighbor’s barn, a small rabbit splayed open by a stroke from a scythe—shows how the experience of the young nun’s murder, presumably by someone in his own community, has shaken him.
Toward the end we see less of Boyd’s interpretive thoughts about the mystery. It’s as though he cannot quite put his finger on what has happened, in part because he’s too busy trying to relate the pace of events. By the mystery’s conclusion, the narrative has the detachment of a story written in third-person. The increasing detachment also suggests a boy still trying to make sense of things—as Boyd does, alone. A secondary character reveals the conclusion of the mystery, with no narrator to filter the events.
The hilarious nature of the story reflects life’s potential for darkness as well as irony and humor. As melancholy humorist Nikolai Gogol once opined: “The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.” Our Nun is neither horrible nor melancholy, but truly mystifying in its ability to perplex, to play, and ultimately to incite readers to ponder the self-reflexive ironies of growing up and awakening to what’s beyond the familiar.