By Andrea Green
L.J. Hippler’s stunningly well written debut novel Cathedral Street follows the dramatic saga of the Miller family from 1959 to 1999. Set in a bleak and shuttered Baltimore, the novel is the story of a household held captive by a viciously cruel patriarch, the boys’ father Jarvis Miller. Jarvis casts himself as the hero of his own delusional play — crushed down at every turn, object of personal vendettas and denied his richly deserved rewards by everyone around him, including his wife and small sons. Determined to punish his family for their imagined slights again him, the petulant Jarvis turns his household into a war zone, campaigning to drive a wedge between his useless sons and their loving, protective mother, Greta. Beatific Greta bends but refuses to break under the strain of her husband.
But wheels have already been set in motion, and as the last light of hope is extinguished from the household on one black night, the Miller family earns its first dark secret. Unable to recognize that their best chance to break free of their father’s toxic influence is to band together and support each other, instead the brothers find their fraternal bonds snapped and fraying as each son tries to escape his horrible past by abandoning all those with communal ties to it. As each brother stumbles darkly along his unique path, the shadow of their father’s hate and cruelty persistently threatens to seep into their lives
and choke out their dreams. But the warmth and comfort of their mother’s love has not abandoned
them, either, as the boys (now young men) refuse to perpetuate the sins their father heaped upon them and instead strive to create their own brave new worlds.
The eldest brother, Jerry, finds his escape when he is entrusted with the dreams of a classmate who can no longer pursue his sworn path to the priesthood. Jerry agrees to devote his life to the church in this boy’s stead, and finds himself, fresh out of seminary school, thrown into the bloody battlefields of Vietnam. Here he meets fellow chaplain Rabbi Larry Adelson, and this vital and nourishing friendship
offers Jerry a source of solace throughout his life.
Middle brother Buddy chooses industry over faith. Determined to show mastery over his squalid beginnings, Buddy declares his independence through hard work and seeks financial security to overcome his dysfunctional past. He seeks to solidify his happiness with the love of a good woman, but his marriage to the beautiful, but ultimately unsuitable, college sweetheart Brena puts his entire intended future in jeopardy. Adrift and directionless, his dreams begin to falter until finally, in one terrifying moment, Buddy makes a desperate decision that propels him into the secure lifestyle of wealth by a dreadful means. From that moment on, Buddy’s dark secret places his family at risk and threatens to take away that which he holds dear above all else.
Tommy, the youngest brother, sees his brother Buddy remake himself in the image of the modern breadwinner and seeks out employment himself. But the daily toil is hardly satisfactory for young Tommy, who longs not just for financial means but for personal recognition and the validation of those around him. Stumbling upon a local underground boxing culture, Tommy discovers his true self in the roar of the
crowd and the rush of a good fight. Raised to new heights, Tommy forgets that those who climb too far too fast may be in for a swift fall.
Betrayal, darkness, and cruelty swarm around the stormy lives of the Miller brothers, but there is escape from Jarvis Miller’s vile legacy in the presence of Buddy’s only daughter Michelle, who begins to question the family’s policy of separation and secrecy. Her quest to discover the family’s past may dredge up secrets that were hoped forgotten forever, and bring the darkest corners of that history starkly into the light.