Review: The Boys Upstairs by Jane Lebak

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, readers! But before we get to the chestnuts roasting on an open fire and presents under the tree, I have a last-minute gift for you. This would be Jane Lebak’s sweet Christmas story The Boys Upstairs,* one of her Father Jay novels.

From the back of the book:

Three homeless children. Two estranged brothers. One last chance.

Kevin Farrell is a jaded police officer trying to save three homeless children. But it’s three nights before Christmas, and the only one he can ask for help is his brother Jay, a disabled priest.

The catch? He and his brother have been estranged because after all the evil he’s seen, Kevin cannot believe in God. Only now, to save these homeless kids, with temperatures below zero and falling, Kevin knows it’s going to take both him and his brother working together, but first they’ll have to mend the breach between them.

The Boys Upstairs is a novella-length work (not as long as a novel, but longer than a short story) about hope, brotherhood, and second chances.

This author cannot recall the last time she read a Christmas story this moving. Most tales set around this wonderful time of year focus on Santa Claus, the magic of giving, and last-minute miracles that are a touch over-the-top. None of which is to say that I despise such stories – my favorite Christmas film is The Muppet Christmas Carol*, after all! It is just that those stories occasionally feel a little out of touch with the reality of Christmas.

Ms. Lebak’s story takes the opposite tack. Set a few days before Christmas, The Boys Upstairs begins with Kevin Ferrell dithering about going in to see his brother, the priest who runs St. Gus. St. Gus is a poor Catholic church in the inner city run by Father Jay Ferrell, Kevin’s older brother, who became a priest after an ambush in the Gulf War nearly killed him. Father Jay’s significant injuries make it hard for him to get around on his own, and the fact that he is legally blind means he cannot drive.

Kevin is a police officer who doesn’t like religion at all. Watching his older brother convert to Catholicism and become a priest means that meetings between the two brothers are tense. Not that Father Jay is angry at Kevin; he certainly doesn’t browbeat him with the need to convert, nor even to be a better person. He just knows his younger brother doesn’t approve of him “wasting [his] life” and wants to avoid unnecessary arguments.

Father Jay has taken the example of Fr. Edward J. Flanagan, St. John Bosco, and others to heart by giving shelter to homeless boys and letting them sleep in the rooms upstairs in his rectory. He finds the boys jobs, helps them keep their noses clean, and a few have formed their own gang to keep other inner-city gangs off church property. He’s determined to give these boys a second chance the same way he was given a second chance when he survived the ambush (three other men were not so fortunate).

Never one to turn away children, Father Jay accepts the three little ones Kevin brings him just before Christmas Eve, though he is mortified to find the middle child is a girl. (A girl in a rectory full of boys? That’s asking for trouble.) Still, there’s nowhere else for the kids to go, which he reminds them when they try to leave in the middle of the night.

The novel focuses on Father Jay trying to keep his kids in line as he prepares for Christmas, giving plenty of time to Kevin as he ruminates on just why he and his brother no longer get along. Despite being in a modern setting, The Boys Upstairs feels like a return to The Bells of St. Mary’s*, Going My Way*, It’s A Wonderful Life*, and I will add I Confess* to the list just because it hits the right priestly notes despite not being set in the Christmas season. There is an old-time charm to this story that lends itself to Christmas and makes the novel feel more wholesome.

Now that I consider it more closely, I think that is because The Boys Upstairs has a priest for a protagonist and religion is central to the story. Modern Christmas tales shy away from portraying religion for the most part. Like a lot of current fiction these stories don’t give priests their due, either, treating them as scam artists at best – or something worse in the less cheerful stories. Reading a book where the priest practices what he preaches, believes it with all his heart and soul, and does his best to be better than he was yesterday is a breath of fresh air and a welcome Christmas gift.

This doesn’t mean his faith goes untested in the course of the story. Kevin’s given plenty of time to push his brother’s buttons, and Kevin himself does not convert at the end of the book. I rather doubt he’ll convert at the end of the sequel, A Different Heroism*, either. But he and Father Jay reach an understanding here that lets them repair their relationship. Again, that’s not something you see in very many modern stories, whether they’re religious or secular in outlook. It is a refreshingly unsentimental and practical story about how the religious and the non-religious deal with life – and Christmas.

Which reminds me, I really need to give a shout-out to Holly. A parishioner at St. Gus, Holly is a waitress and a devout Catholic. She is also bound and determined to take care of Father Jay while lamenting the fact that Kevin’s hostility to religion prevents them from dating. (It’s kind of hard to have a nice, romantic dinner when the other party is attacking your beliefs.) Holly gets to step up and remind the overworked Father Jay that he is allowed to ask for something for Christmas; he doesn’t have to ignore his own needs and wants to run the parish. It is a reminder the priest sorely needs at the point in the story where she pins him with that.

She also gets a moment to shine and make Kevin stop and think. I won’t spoil the scene completely, but suffice it to say those who leave something besides tips when exiting a restaurant should take note. Although my tips are generally just that, Holly’s speech gave me plenty to think about in all the right ways. Wow!

Bulletproof Vestments: Father Jay Book 0 by [Jane Lebak]

If you’ve done most of your Christmas shopping, readers, see if you have some spare change for The Boys Upstairs, A Different Heroism, and the prequel story Bulletproof Vestments*. At three dollars each for Upstairs and Heroism (Bulletproof is $0.99), these books are an easy purchase that will serve you well now and in the future. You will not regret picking any of them up, I assure you!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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