When Margaret Kell Virany subtitled her family memoir A Book of Kells with “Growing Up in an Ego Void,” readers could well get the impression that this is just another tell-all tale written by the bitter survivor of a dysfunctional family. The elements are all here: an undemonstrative Methodist minister for a father, a high-strung, humorless mother and three impressionable daughters who must live up to their parents’ expectations of “devoting their lives to being a good example to others” and “not taking credit for themselves but giving it to God.”
Yet Virany’s affection for her remarkable and rather famous parents is evident throughout the book, and if she still wrestles with lingering confl icts stemming from the way she was raised, she has evidently learned to live with them well. Not that growing up in the Kell household of pre-WWII Ontario was easy. A sign in the church basement where Jack Kell preached warned, “Christ fi rst, others next, self last,” a dictum Virany forever struggled to live by, even if it meant subjugating her natural exuberance and fierce intellect, and living with the secret guilt of resenting her cool and occasionally critical mother.
Virany recounts her litany of church functions and crises of faith with all the charm of the willful child she used to be, but it is in the telling of her parents’ early lives, taken from the diaries and letters left to her when they died, that her narrative soars. Virany’s father, Jack, was born in Cookstown, Ontario in 1897, a descendant of William and Mary Kell, who immigrated to Canada from Europe in the 1850s. Even as a boy, Jack knew he wanted to be a minister, and at a surprisingly young age he left civilization for the great wilds of the Canadian north to aid in the Methodist Church’s mission of evangelizing the Indians.
Blizzards, biting cold and hunger mark Jack Kell’s early years of ministry, yet he seems to have thrived on the challenge. The Cree Indians, fur trappers and other hardy souls who comprised his fl ock welcomed his ministrations, while a budding transatlantic courtship with a young Englishwoman soon proved successful, providing him with the wife and helpmeet he so desperately yearned for.
Kathleen Ward Kell, Virany’s mother, embraced the hardship of wilderness life with admirable courage for a sensitive young woman raised in the more genteel environs of Portsmouth, England. Virany’s account of their adventures, particularly the trek by sleigh through a blizzard to bring the pregnant Kathleen to a distant hospital, are riveting. When the Kells finally return to civilization the pace of the narrative doesn’t fl ag; Virany has the natural gifts of a born storyteller who keeps you caring about the characters no matter where they are.
Even as the story moves to her parents’ later years, when adulthood allows her to see them with a more discerning eye, Virany tends to treat them with the same exasperated affection, bringing their very human shortcomings to light with admirable clarity. Her own struggles to come to terms with her religious beliefs as well as her battle with the depression that seems to run in her family, are given equally honest scrutiny.
The real Book of Kells, Virany reminds us, is the earliest known illuminated manuscript known to western civilization. Produced by ninth-century Catholic monks in Kells, Ireland, it is perhaps one of the most beautiful works of illustrated Holy Scriptures. “It would be a stretch for me to claim lineage from them,” admits Virany at the end of her book, “but my family did try to illuminate the gospels by the way they lived their daily lives.” And by all accounts, they succeeded.