The year is 1941 in Millvale, Pennsylvania. As fifty-two-year old Maxo Vanka paints on the ceiling of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, he is mindful that his beloved country of Croatia is being ravaged and its people persecuted by the Nazis. In fact, his latest mural that he calls Mati Croatia (Mother Croatia) aptly reflects his sentiment. The painted woman in chains is "a bleak reminder that Croatia was now embroiled, harness, bound...in a world war not of her making, but from which she was helpless to escape."
Committed to eleven similarly themed murals in eighteen weeks—just in time for the Feast Day of St. Nicola Tavilic—Vanka works long into the morning hours. He is not alone, though. A sudden chill reminds him of his first commissioned work at the church in 1937 when a person dressed in monk's attire loomed in the center aisle and then unexpectedly disappeared. Vanka learns that no other parishioners have mentioned a church ghost. Now, four years later, the specter turns to look in Vanka's direction before vanishing into thin air. Vanka comes up with a plan to figure out why this apparition visits only him. To complicate matters, someone or something begins to vandalize the church, Vanka's tools and, worse yet, one of his murals.
Behind every great story, there is another great story—one that tells why an author feels inspired to write. In the case of The Muralist's Ghost, it took a tour of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church for debut author Karen Mocker Dabson to conclude that she had the needed elements to create a novel. At that small quaint church, Dabson was introduced to the life and breathtaking murals—earmarked as his most important works of the mid 20th Century—of the real Croatian-American artist Maksimilijan (Maxo) Vanka.
A dabbler in art, I was first drawn to Dabson's book because Maxo Vanka was a new name for me in the art world. I am grateful for the list of websites Dabson provided in her book, not only to learn more about the life of this gifted painter, but also to view (on the Internet) the murals that lace the ceiling and walls of a seemingly insignificant church in the middle of nowhere. I was immediately awestruck by the online Sistine-Chapel-like paintings. Unlike Michaelango's murals, Vanka's Renaissance-styled depictions go beyond biblical representations. He includes scenes that reflect social activism amid the persecution of his people during World War I and II and their immigrant experiences to an industrialized America.
One can certainly read Dabson's third person narrative and capture the essence of Vanka's works without ever actually seeing them. Indeed, Dabson does a stellar job describing scenes, such as Mati Croatia, Justice, and Battlefield. But viewing these murals alongside Dabson's meticulous imagery illuminates the heart and soul of this little-known artist. Obviously, there is more to The Muralist's Ghost than just murals. Again recalling a ghost story the docent told from the church tour, Dabson incorporates the occult to unfold a fictional tale of what might have happened while Vanka arduously set to completing his commissioned task. While each chapter portrays the artist's daily routines at the church and his periodic yet chilling experiences with a hooded specter, Dabson keeps her plot moving by deftly alternating the dark aspects of war and Vanka's childhood with happier moments of his frequent daydreaming, his close relationship with another real figure, Father Žager, and his interactions with parishioners.
Kudos to Dabson, whose fascinating debut has not only produced a memorable piece of historical fiction, but also a tribute to an artistic genius.
The Muralist's Ghost is Karen Mocker Dabson's first novel. Some of her short stories and poems have appeared in the anthologies of the Columbia Chapter of the Missouri Writers' Guild and several editions of the Story Circle Journal. She has received writing awards from both organizations. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she now resides in Columbia, Missouri with her husband, Brian, and Jack the Dog. Visit her website.
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