Hazel McHaffie


Sin Eaters

I’m familiar with the genre of biblical fiction, where authors bring the ancient stories to life, embellishing and speculating, sometimes with their own evangelizing agenda. Indeed, books of this ilk occupy space on my own shelves – Francine Rivers, Jill Eileen Smith, Anita Diamant, probably the best known. But I’d never even heard of sin eaters! So The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers intrigued me.

Reminiscent of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16, which was sent into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people of Israel, sin eaters feature in Welsh, English and Scots folklore. Who knew, huh? (Apologies if this is all old hat to you.) In essence they’re beings who, in exchange for food, take on the sins of the dead, leaving the deceased to rest in peace rather than roam restlessly for all eternity.

Immigrants to the Americas took the custom of appointing sin eaters with them into the remote areas of the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s this wild and isolated part of the world, in the 1850s, that forms the backdrop to The Last Sin Eater.

Told in the voice of 10 year old Cadi Forbes, it’s hauntingly of that time and place. Cadi is weighed down by a crushing guilt about her little sister’s death and all the troubles that have followed it. Her Mama won’t even look at her, and rarely speaks except to scold, and her Papa had ‘such a dark countenance most times that approaching him about anything took more courage than I possessed.’ She feels desperately lonely and undeserving; craving forgiveness. Her beloved grandmother has been her only solace, and when Cadi discovers Granny Forbes dead in her willow chair, gone without a by-your-leave after a long-living of 87 years, Cadi is bereft. There is no one left to lead her out of the wilderness of her pain and misery, to love her back from the edge.

It is an awful thing for a child to understand death in such fullness. I had already had one taste of it. This time it was a long drink of desolation that went down and spread into my very bones … what I knew hurt so deep inside me I thought I’d die of it.’

She’s already steeped in the stories of her Celtic ancestry, but her grandmother’s funeral is the first time she actually experiences the sin eater herself. It’s an eerie walk by torchlight in solemn procession up to the mountain cemetery, four men bearing Granny Forbes’ shrouded body, thick mist curling towards them like dead-white fingers through the dark shadows of trees, when Cadi senses the presence of the sin eater, like a cold breath of wind on the back of her neck. Everyone turns their backs, closes their eyes, while the sin eater consumes the bread and wine and Granny’s sins. Cadi is under strict instructions not to look at this creature – the ‘most dreaded of mankind‘ – who had already ‘taken all manner of terrible things unto himself‘, but she is mesmerised by the deep, tender, sorrowful voice that intones: ‘I give easement and rest now to thee, Gorawen Forbes, dear woman, that ye walk not over fields nor mountains nor along pathways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.’ She turns and sneaks a furtive  glance. For the briefest moment their eyes meet.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

Along with her friend Fagan Kai, gentle son of a brutal father, Cadi, finds a message of hope and redemption, first through her Granny’s best friend Miz Elda, then an unlikely preacher man on the other side of the river, and a woman who has squirrelled herself away from human contact, Bletsung Macleod. Gradually the identity and history of the sin eater emerges. And when they are forced to flee from Fagan’s father, the two children escape to the mountains, and are taken into the sin eater’s protection – the one place Brogan Kai is too afraid to go.

And so it is that the true gospel message comes to a remote people steeped in superstition and fear. There is no longer a need for a sin eater. This one was the last.

‘Light came into our highland valley that day so long ago, and it’s been shining bright ever since.

The analogies for Christianity are clear; but the story stands alone as an unusual tale of love triumphing over evil.

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Not wavering but drowning

Some of the visitors to my blog have asked me to talk about what I do when I get writers’ block. Good question.

Now, up till this point I thought I didn’t have a superstitious bone in my body … hmmm. I find I’m having to inhale deeply … touch things … mutter mantras … and generally take arcane steps to overcome a powerful sense of reluctance, before writing my answer this week. Why? Because to date … pause for more ritual … I haven’t experienced this well-known phenomenon. Oh dear, have I now well and truly jinxed future creative flow? Would those well-meaning souls who asked for this tip kindly send positive vibes my way and execute your own form of hex-repellent.

My problem is not a block but rather the reverse. The world of medical ethics is so full of rich material just waiting to be captured in novels that once I get going my difficulty is knowing when to stop. I’m positively inundated with ideas and characters and plots that suggest themselves to me regardless of the hour, the mood or the setting. Indeed, I’m in imminent danger of being completely submerged by them.

But before my questioners grind their teeth to the gums in frustration, let me tell you about two little practices I adopt on a fairly regular basis which I find help to prevent me getting stuck in the actual process of writing.

At the end of each writing day, before I go to bed I re-read what I’ve written. Invariably my subconscious works on it while I sleep and fresh ideas are waiting for me next morning … or in the middle of the night more often! Sometimes that necessitates nocturnal perambulations to the computer and furious typing through the wee small hours; at other times a couple of hours of jotting pen on paper in the semi-darkness of the bedroom suffice, capturing the essence of the idea enough to be effective prompts next day.

And my second pre-emptive action? I try to leave the story at a point where I know what comes next so that as soon as I sit down in front of the computer next time I’m instantly into the flow.

So the short bulletin on the McHaffie state of writing health is: I’m not wavering but drowning.

Up till today at least!

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