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Two Triumphs When Gary Schmidt Was Hit With Cancer He Wondered If His First Novel Would Be His Last

By Ed White Associated Press

Gary Schmidt could get a private room with a window if he arrived at the clinic 20 minutes early.

The pine trees were comforting. The sight of a cemetery was not.

As medication to kill cancer dripped into his left hand early in 1995, the final chapters of his book, “The Sin Eater,” emerged from his right hand and onto paper.

“There was this sense that this could be the last business,” Schmidt says, referring to death and his first novel.

Instead, two triumphs: The cancer has disappeared, and his book about the spiritual awakening of a New England boy is among 22 fiction titles recommended for young people this year by the American Library Association.

“The Sin Eater,” published by Lodestar Books, is the story of Cole Hallett, who moves to New Hampshire to live with his grandparents after his mother dies of cancer.

Cole is eager to learn more about his mother’s early life in the town named Albion, a composite of many New England towns. Along the way, he also learns about the legend of the sin eater, a 19th-century Welsh immigrant who would cleanse people of their faults by eating a specially made bread.

“Sometimes they would come out to talk, just talk,” Mr. Gealy, a family friend, tells Cole. “And they would leave whatever they needed to leave and not have to carry it anymore. He gave them the chance to let go of their hurt.”

The sin eater seems Christlike. There are subtle shades of religious intolerance in the tiny Protestant town, but Cole also sees the power of forgiveness and personal sacrifice in the people he meets, especially other teenagers.

He, too, will need those qualities and more as he deals with his own tragedies.

Schmidt, a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, says the book’s spiritual theme is no fluke.

“I read a lot of adolescent literature,” he says. “It seems as if none of the kids have a connection to a church. It seems like that part of life is completely ignored.

“There are children in this world with spiritual meanings. That is what Cole is trying to deal with,” Schmidt says. “He doesn’t go home and read Galatians. What strikes him are the real people in the church. It’s something that Cole is thinking about a lot.”

Schmidt, 39, has been an English professor at Calvin for 12 years. After writing several scholarly books, he turned to fiction.

By December 1994, his book was nearly complete. Then the bombshell: cancer. It started in his lymph nodes and spread to other organs. He had surgery and began intense rounds of chemotherapy, with medicine dripping intravenously into his hand six hours a day.

“We had gone through a few days when we really thought it was death,” Schmidt recalls.

But by April 1995, doctors were optimistic. The cancer is gone and Schmidt, of course, is grateful.

He says the ordeal was a major influence on how the main character was portrayed in the book’s final chapters.

“Bad things really do happen to people in this world, but you have to be harebrained not to try to make sense out of them,” Schmidt says. “That was a reflection of what my mind-set was at the time.”

By landing on the American Library Association’s recommended list, “The Sin Eater” is reaching a wide audience. A pastor read it aloud over several weeks to sixth-graders at St. Paul Lutheran School outside Chicago.

“It wasn’t afraid to point out the faults and foibles of human beings, including human beings who call themselves Christians,” the Rev. Walter Schoenfuhs says.

“We have a child in class whose mother died of cancer just like Cole’s mother,” he says. “We have a child who had been made fun of because he was Roman Catholic. It was a real book to the students, not a fairy tale.”

Schmidt’s prose is rich and pleasing, much like the fresh pies that Cole’s grandmother seems to serve at every supper.

Through Cole, the author describes fall leaves this way: “It’s not just the colors. It’s the cooler breezes that draw across the leaves, making them shiver. It’s the cold dew that beads on them and wets the arm of your jacket. It’s the dusty smell when they’re dry in the afternoon. And it’s the thick smoke that coils up from them when they burn just before suppertime.”

Schoenfuhs, who lived in New Hampshire for 12 years, said Schmidt “got it all down very well.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ‘SIN EATER’ EXCERPTS The Associated Press Excerpts from “The Sin Eater,” written by Gary Schmidt and published by Lodestar Books: Fall leaves in New Hampshire: “It’s not just the colors. It’s the cooler breezes that draw across the leaves, making them shiver. It’s the cold dew that beads on them and wets the arm of your jacket. It’s the dusty smell when they’re dry in the afternoon.” The Albion Grace Church of the Holy Open Bible: “The pews were for sitting, not relaxing, so they were plain oak with straight backs. … Mrs. Dowdle brought one of her fancy sofa pillows to sit on and Pastor Hurd changed his sermon midstream to talk about how sin was comfortable like a cushion that we sat easy on.” The legend of the sin eater, a man who would absorb the faults of others: “Sometimes people would bake bread and say their sin was in it, and they’d leave it on the windowsill or the doorstep and he would come by and take it and people would feel healed.”

This sidebar appeared with the story: ‘SIN EATER’ EXCERPTS The Associated Press Excerpts from “The Sin Eater,” written by Gary Schmidt and published by Lodestar Books: Fall leaves in New Hampshire: “It’s not just the colors. It’s the cooler breezes that draw across the leaves, making them shiver. It’s the cold dew that beads on them and wets the arm of your jacket. It’s the dusty smell when they’re dry in the afternoon.” The Albion Grace Church of the Holy Open Bible: “The pews were for sitting, not relaxing, so they were plain oak with straight backs. … Mrs. Dowdle brought one of her fancy sofa pillows to sit on and Pastor Hurd changed his sermon midstream to talk about how sin was comfortable like a cushion that we sat easy on.” The legend of the sin eater, a man who would absorb the faults of others: “Sometimes people would bake bread and say their sin was in it, and they’d leave it on the windowsill or the doorstep and he would come by and take it and people would feel healed.”

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