By Christina Leslie | Staff Writer
Little did Karen Kelly Boyce know, as a student in St. James School, Woodbridge, that the Sisters of Mercy who taught her there would inspire her years later to write a series of children’s books with a distinctly Catholic flavor.
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Boyce, now a resident of Jackson and parishioner in the town’s St. Monica Parish, has won third prize for the Best Children’s Book of 2015 from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada for her book entitled “Sisters of the Last Straw: The Case of the Stolen Rosaries,” the third in a series about misfit but lovable nuns who solve mysteries.
Foundation of Faith
Born in Jersey City, Boyce grew up in Woodbridge where she learned her Catholic faith and love of reading from the Sisters of Mercy. The self-described voracious reader who served as her friends’ ghost writer on school assignments eventually strayed from the Church but never lost her belief she should help others. Boyce graduated as a nurse in 1974, married in 1975, and immersed herself in her career and raising her children.
The seeds of her Catholic faith sprouted once again, and her spiritual journey led her back to the Church in 1990 just as she was forced to retire from her long career as a nurse.
“I contracted a case of Lyme disease. I was in bed for six weeks,” Boyce remembered. “I was bored; all I kept doing was buying things from QVC!”
The ailing woman, looking for a new purpose in life, rekindled her love of writing and accepted an assignment with Canticle magazine to pen the biography of “obscure women saints,” she remembered. After a few more articles for Canticle and Soul magazines, she decided to attempt her first novel: a western romance. “It was terrible,” Boyce laughingly admitted. Following the age-old maxim of “write about what you know,” she turned to a new genre: Catholic fiction.
Boyce’s first three novels, all based on Scriptural passages –“According to Thy Word,” “Into the Way of Peace” and “Down Right Good” – received the Seal of Approval from the Catholic Writer’s Guild. “I can never figure out where the books come from until I write them. I think about the characters first, then write the story,” Boyce declared, then corrected herself. “Actually, the characters write the story. I always base them upon real people.”
The protagonist in “Down Right Good,” a young girl named Angie, was based upon a little boy who lived in a house bordering Boyce’s childhood backyard. The youngster, who had Down’s Syndrome, had been hidden away in shame from the world by his grandmother, but the young Boyce befriended him through the fence which separated them, never actually meeting him in person. In her novel, Boyce gave the child the freedom to ride a bicycle through town and dispense simple wisdom to the customers on her newspaper route. The novel received the 2012 Eric Hoffer award for commercial fiction and was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal.
The birth of her two grandchildren and what she perceived as a dearth of engaging but faith-based books for children prompted the “Sisters of the Last Straw” series.
“When I read the books I was buying for my grandchildren, they were preachy and boring,” Boyce said. “I wanted to make them laugh. People have faults. I wanted to teach the kids to forgive.” In response and recalling the Sisters of Mercy who schooled her as a child, she created the “Sisters of the Last Straw” series of mysteries for children ages six to 12.
Boyce is a columnist for the Catholic Writer’s Guild and blogs from her own website, karenkellyboyce.com. She conducts workshops, is a motivational speaker and participates in panel discussions with the CWG. In a Nov. 2 blog post, Boyce explained that the ribbon of Catholic faith woven into her books stems from the religious who taught her in elementary school.
“With hindsight, I now realize the wonderful education and faith that the Sisters of Mercy gifted me. Most of the sisters were kind, hard-working and faithful. I remember them with great delight and I am grateful for them,” Boyce wrote. “I realize now the sacrifices they made… As an adult, I understand that nuns are human beings with virtues and flaws. Perhaps that is why God inspired me to create characters who work hard to overcome their human failings.
In “‘Sisters of the Last Straw,’…all of [the nuns] are good, all of them human. I can present the sisters and the faith with truth, humor and gratitude. It goes to show that what they taught me must be rubbing off.”
As described in the book synopsis, the fictitious order of nuns in the series is so named by their bishop because they had been dismissed from other convents for their bad personal habits. All have strong faith…. and foibles. Mother Mercy is a born leader who struggles to control her temper; Sister Krumbles loves all God’s creatures, but is disorganized and clumsy; Sister Shiny is vain but keeps the convent spotless; Sister Lovely struggles with cigarette smoking but is kind and generous; Sister Lacey is rough-and-tumble who fights her impulse to curse with silly rhymes and exclamations, and Sister Wanda is always getting lost but never loses her gentle personality.
The series, published by Chesterton Press, details the nuns’ exploits in three novels thus far: “The Case of the Haunted Chapel,” “The Case of the Missing Novice” and the “Stolen Rosaries” book which garnered the CPA award.
Life Imitates Art
A walking tour of her 8.5-acre spread in Jackson shows art does, indeed, imitate life. Boyce’s “Queen of Angels” farm shares its name with the one in the “Sisters of the Last Straw” books and is home to Nigerian Dwarf goats, roosters, horses and a few turkeys. Little angels and Our Lady of Lourdes statues smile from bookshelves and tabletops throughout the 150-year-old house she and her husband, Mike, retired from work in the New York City tunnels as a “sand hog,” call home.
The retired nurse and former city girl showed her resourcefulness when tasked with caring for the animals. “I’m a nurse, which helped me give shots to the goats,” Boyce explained. “I am a ‘Google farmer.’ I learned how to clip the turkeys’ wings from YouTube.” (The humorous tale of those fowls’ recent escape from Boyce’s farm and excursion to a nearby park serves as the plot of the upcoming fourth “Sisters of the Last Straw” book, now in editing at her publisher’s office.)
Climbing a flight of stairs, a visitor finds the author’s writing alcove. The simple space holds the small wooden desk she used as a child and framed book covers chronicling her mission to offer children faith and laughter. Storyboards on the walls reveal her future plans, including a new series of children’s books about a little girl in a wheelchair who dreams about her adventures, “like a Catholic take on Harry Potter,” Boyce said.
Boyce, a member of the CPA and a Catholic writer’s group which meets in St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, shared advice on writing which also rings true with living a life of faith.
“Don’t just think about it, don’t spend the time just talking about it, WRITE. Write every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. The way I view it is, when I was a nurse, I had a task to do and I finished it.”
Admitting her books’ characters have “opened up a whole new world to me,” creating scenarios for them in the Catholic vein is clearly the life’s blood in the Catholic retired nurse, mother, wife, grandmother and farmer. “Writing is a gift God gave me late in life; I started when I was 52 years old,” Boyce said. “I didn’t have anything to say earlier in life. I thought my plans were all well-made, and that was the joke.”
To read an excerpt from Boyce’s novels, go to www.chestertonpress.com, or see the link on the Trenton Monitor website at www.trentonmonitor.com.