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Book Remarks — Operation Wormwood

Operation Wormwood
Operation Wormwood - Contributed

When I was a wee and innocent bay-boy famous evangelist Billy Graham routinely frightened the whoopsie out of me. From the platform of his radio program The Hour of Decision, he roared about God’s wrath and hell’s eternal flames.

Fearing those flames were already flickering around my ankles and flaring rapidly towards my bay-boy butt, I fled the environs of my grandfather’s blaring radio and, my teeth chattering, hid among the fire logs in the woodshed.

Every Sunday Pop listened to The Hour of Decision. Every Sunday Billy Graham tortured me with the promise of God’s vengeance, with the promise of God’s almighty and everlasting wrath.

Beware God’s wrath, eh b’ys?

Helen C. Escott’s novel Operation Wormwood (Flanker Press)

reveals the wrath of God.

Or does it?

Archbishop Patrick Keating arrives at the Health Sciences Center (HSC) in St. John’s suffering from an unknown, fatal affliction characterized by gushing nosebleeds and unquenchable thirst. The archbishop’s assistant, Father Charles Horan, brings him to the HSC and describes his symptoms: “He has this incredible thirst for water, but every time he drinks it, he throws it up, saying it’s bitter and vile.”

It’s spooky how sometimes a line of fiction causes flashbacks of reality. The minute I read Archbishop Keating’s symptoms Billy Graham’s stentorian preaching burst full volume in my noggin assuring sinners their punishment would be as bitter as wormwood and gall.

Dr. Luke Gillespie is Archbishop Keating’s physician but despite his knowledge and experience, he is mystified by the uncontrollable bleeding and the maddening thirst.

Seeking answers, Dr. Gillespie runs a battery of tests, the results of which are inconclusive.

During one examination of Archbishop Keating, Dr. Gillespie is startled when he discovers a nun sitting in the corner of the room dressed in “old-fashioned garb” — Sister Pius who, because he attended a Catholic school, Gillespie thinks “probably still has a three-foot wooden ruler under that tunic.”

Recognizing that the reason for Archbishop Keating’s sickness has stumped Dr. Gillespie, Sister Pius offers a cryptic explanation: “His blood is a stain upon the Church.”

 Returning to Archbishop Keating’s room later, Dr. Gillespie finds another surprise. Sgt. Nicholas Myra — of the RNC’s Child Exploitation Unit — is questioning the archbishop.

Soon more patients presenting the same symptoms as Archbishop Keating are admitted to the hospital. Province-wide — nation-wide — inquiries find that similarly affected patients are being hospitalized all over.

Confounded, the medical community fears an epidemic.

As if the lack of any conclusive medical answers for the bleeding and thirst does not surprise him, Sgt. Myra makes this remark in the face of Dr. Gillespie’s bewilderment: “There’s a rumour that only pedophiles get this disease.”

As well as rumours about the disease’s target group, it has also been given a name — Wormwood.

Sister Pius explains how this reference to the Book of Revelations has become “a Biblical metaphor for things that are unpalatably bitter.”

While Dr. Gillespie seeks a cure for Wormwood, while Sgt. Myra investigates cases of child abuse, while Sister Pius prays for the salvation of souls, Father Peter Cooke, a priest who feels he is “painted with the sins of evil men”, decides to climb into the pulpit and proclaims publicly that Wormwood is God’s wrath made manifest.

Father Cooke’s ranting could do Billy the Evangelist proud.

Helen Escott confesses it took her 10 years to write Operation Wormwood, not that the length of time matters. The book addresses an issue she has obviously thought about in depth — child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, child sexual torture.

She attacks predators wherever they lurk — in the church, in schools, in seats of government. Perhaps because the failure of the justice system to mete out fitting punishment, perhaps because of cover-ups even on the part of government, Escott, frustrated, permits her characters to deliver condemnation.

As Archbishop Keating dies, Sister Pius says, “Release these boys you rotten bastard.” One of the abused, now a grown man, says, “Go to Hell!” — “Then he spat in the old man’s face.”

Is Wormwood a frightening new disease or truly the wrath of God? Although Helen Escott has given readers something to chew on, it isn’t possible that she give a definitive answer.

However, she has answered one question … about nuns.

While talking to Charlie Horan, Sister Pius accidentally exposes her ankles and running shoes.

“You do have feet,” says Charlie.

“Of course I have feet!” says Sister Pius. “How do you think I get around?”

“Hovering,” says Charlie.

Question answered, eh b’ys? Those iconic, formidable old nuns didn’t hover. They had feet.

Thank you for reading.

— Harold Walters lives in Dunville, Newfoundland, doing his damnedest to live Happily Ever After. Reach him at

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