John W. Donohue

Nearly 100,000 new books were published in the United States last year, and most of them were ignored by The New York Review of Books and the Sunday book sections of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Although these three are heavyweights in the book review business, they have space to examine only two dozen or so titles in an average issue. That means the rest of a year’s new arrivals will go unnoticed unless they attract the interest of some smaller periodical.

That does happen. If there should be, for instance, a Journal of Medieval Icelandic Studies, it will welcome a sprightly monograph on housing in 12th-century Reykjavik.

It is, then, both logical and seemly for America, which describes itself as a Jesuit magazine, to call attention to a biography of a contemporary Chicago Jesuit that might easily be lost sight of in the 2001 cascade of new books.

George R. Kearney’s The Small Things: A Day in the Life of Brother James E. Small, S.J., is a 204-page paperback, with 20 black-and-white photographs, that was published last autumn by Xlibris Corporation and is available at www.xlibris.com or by calling (888) 795-4274.

This is the story of 80-year-old James Small, who grew up as one of the six children of a Chicago policeman. After World War II service in the U.S. Navy, he was himself a Chicago police officer for five years. He then chose to become a Jesuit brother, and in November 1952 he entered the Chicago province of the Society of Jesus.

Since 1969 Brother Small has been a member of the Jesuit community at Loyola Academy, a coed Jesuit high school in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette with a current enrollment of more than 2,000 students.

His main assignment there is that of a carpenter and maintenance man, but besides his basement workshop he also has a studio, where he paints pictures whenever he has a spare moment. Although he occasionally does originals, most of his paintings are copies of celebrated works, like Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or of poster illustrations. Like Grandma Moses, he paints quickly, and when he finishes a picture he frames it himself.

Some of these paintings are commissioned; others are auctioned off at a Loyola Academy fundraiser each spring. In these ways, Brother Small has brought in nearly $500,000 for the school. But his greatest benefactions, as George Kearney makes clear, are his benign presence within the school community and the inspiration of his example.

Mr. Kearney, himself a 1995 graduate of Loyola Academy, deftly braids three strands together in his book. With a novelist’s eye for concrete details and significant incidents, he follows the six-foot-three Brother Small through a typical day, which begins at 4:00 a.m. and ends 18 hours later.

Running along with this chronicle and a vivid evocation of the school world are flashbacks that summarize Brother Small’s pre-Loyola days. When he gathered these materials, Mr. Kearney taped hours of conversation with his subject. The book’s third strand is made up of copious extracts from Brother Small’s reflections on the human condition and on leading the Christian life.

He recalls, for example, that as a policeman he saw the body of a man who had been killed during a holdup. That made him realize, he says, that he himself should become a person who helps other people.

In recording these dialogues, George Kearney often sounds like the Boswell of the Journalsa young man of energetic idealism who is prompted by his friend’s words to scrutinize his own behavior.

It is a reasonable guess that this remarkable book is unlike any other published last year. It takes its title from Mother Teresa’s comment that the love of God can be expressed in small kindnesses.

Readers will conclude for themselves that such small services actually have a greatness quite their own.

John W. Donohue, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

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