The Mercy Seller by Brenda Ruchman Vantrease


In the fifteenth century, with religious intolerance spreading like wildfire across Europe, Englishwoman Anna Bookman and her grandfather, Finn, earn a living in Prague by illuminating precious books–including forbidden translations of the Bible. As their secret trade grows ever more hazardous, Finn urges Anna to seek sanctuary in England. Her passage abroad, however, will be anything but easy.

Meanwhile, a priest in London, Brother Gabriel, dutifully obeys church doctrine by granting pardons . . . for a small fee. But when he is sent to France in disguise to find the source of the banned manuscripts finding their way to England, he meets Anna, who has set up a temporary stall as a bookseller. She has no way of knowing that the rich merchant frequenting her stall is actually a priest–just as he does not know that he has met the woman for whom he will renounce his church.

It is only in England, which is far from the safe harbor once imagined, that their dangerous secrets will be revealed.

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As I read this book I thought it is funny how often I take things at face value and don’t dig deeper.  As this book is about the attempts to be rid of the Wycliffe Bible (the Wycliffe Bible is the translation of the Bible into different languages so the whole world can have access to God’s word in their own language).  While I have known about the Wycliffe Bibles for years, supported their cause, and been to their benefits to raise funds when they have been in our area, I had no idea there was such controversy over the Bibles.

And at this point I really ask myself why did I not see that?  Of course there had to be controversy – and if at this point you are thinking, “but uhhh….. Sheila, wasn’t the book you read fiction”?  You would be right.

However – it gave me cause to dig.  Certainly John Wycliffe’s journey had not been without its bumps and bangs?  And with very little digging at all I found this:

The conspiracy theorists who believe that [Wycliffe] is a simple front for the CIA will find little support for their views [...] It is true, however, that [Wycliffe] has influential ties to capitalist enterprise, politicians, and military figures in the United States and in the developing countries in which it works. [Wycliffe] is not an “empire” per se, but foreign missions such as [Wycliffe] are part of the larger political process in which powerful nations export political, economic, social, and ideological patterns to the relatively weaker and poorer regions of the world. Today, people in many developing countries are debating whether some aspects of this process should be limited or controlled.

I digress.   Set in 1410, the book is filled with wonderfully vivid images and characters that are thrust deep into the book and into me.  They are colorful and real.  Anna is hit left and right in this book with the reality of what happens to those who go against the laws.  Her belief in the Bible puts her in real danger.  Then we have Friar Gabriel who is set upon a mission to disguise himself in order to search out the Bibles that are considered unlawful. It is interesting to find myself in the center of this religious intolerance of the Roman Church of the 15th century.

As Anna and Gabriel find themselves entwined in the depth of this book, Gabriel is put through what I would call his own crisis of faith. Their story is really – the story and what pulls all the pieces of The Mercy Seller together.

In the beginning the book is heavy with details bringing us up to the story.  I at times felt a bit overloaded with data.  Yet as the pages turn Brenda Rickman Vantrease sorts through the background and pulls us into the real heart of what I would describe as an adventure I am glad I embarked on.

Wycliffe Bible Translators is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making a translation of the Bible in every living language in the world, especially for cultures with little existing Christian influence. Wycliffe was founded in 1942 by William Cameron Townsend. There are currently branches in over 50 countries.[1] The organization is named after John Wycliffe, who was responsible for the first complete English translation of the whole Bible into Middle English.[2]

Wycliffe bases its philosophy on Townsend’s Protestantism which regards the intercultural and multilinguistic spread of Christianity as a divine command. This type of Protestantism adheres to the principle of sola scriptura and regards Biblical texts as the authoritative and infallible word of God.

In a Wycliffe mission, Wycliffe senior workers first request permission from the government in charge of a region. After the organization receives permission to operate, several small teams research a region’s linguistic populations. Based on this data, teams are sent to each linguistic group.

The team introduces itself to a group, usually with the aid of bilingual helpers. The team lives on site, and attempts to speak the language. Formal recordings, word lists and grammars are kept, usually on computers, backed up periodically to the national mission.

When the phonology is understood, the team develops a scientific writing system similar to those in use by related, regional, or national languages, or according to standards set by the government. At some point, the team begins to translate short portions of the Bible into the native language. The translation is tested and corrected with native speakers, as well as the existing lexicographies and grammars. Once the Bible is translated, printings are arranged, often through one of the United Bible Societies. The length of the entire process varies depending on the portion of the Bible being translated; it can take longer than twenty years.

My Amazon review

I read this book as part of the Social Justice Challenge.  January’s theme was Religious Freedom.  Looking through the books that were suggested for this challenge there were several that I had read before:

In the Presence of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham (memoir–Christian)  (Pre Blogging)

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Safely Home by Randy Alcorn

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

A book I am still hoping to read was special ordered for me by our library but as of this date is not in yet:

Between Two Tigers:  Testimonies of Vietnamese Christians by Tom White

As part of the Social Justice Challenge we are encouraged, as we feel called to, to take action steps towards these issues.  While we do not have to take these steps for each of the months, January’s theme of Religious Freedom spoke to me.  If you would like, here are a list of action steps one can take.  I am looking into writing letters to prisoners and am working on this yet this afternoon.

About Sheila (Book Journey)

Bookaholic * Audio Book Fan *Bike Rider *Rollerblader *Adventure Seeker *Want To Be Runner*Coffee lover *Fitness Fan * Movie junkie

Posted on January 31, 2010, in Book Review and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. Wow! Amazing post! I think you were the one that got me interested in The Mercy Seller a little while back. I put it on my Goodreads wish list, and I’m also hoping to read The Heretic’s Wife.

    Thanks for the time/effort it took to write all that– nice!

    Laura Hartness
    The Calico Critic

  2. This one sounds really great! Thanks for the review.

  3. Very interesting. Didn’t know that about Wycliffe and am curious to know more!

    • Natalie – Wycliffe is really amazing. I first heard about it when I listened to a speaker talk about that movie The End Of The Spear when the missionaries were killed. What an incredible story.

  4. This sounds fascinating-I did not know at all about Wycliffe.

  5. I didn’t know about Wycliffe at all either – don’t you love how much you can learn from books (and especially these challenges)?

  6. Very interesting…I’m always looking to expand my knowledge!!

  7. This book looks good. I loved In the Presence of My Enemies as well.

  8. Interesting post. Thanks for the information on the Wycliffe Bibles. I had heard of them, but didn’t have all the facts.
    THE MERCY SELLER sounds like an informative book as well as a good read.

  9. Hi, Sheila! I’m always in the mood for historical fiction. I think I’ll be on the lookout for this one in our local bookstores. I just love reading about what went on during the 14th century!

  10. I tend to take things at face value as well. Even without digging deeper, I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned by reading fiction.

    Great review Sheila!

  11. Wonderful review – thank you. This book stood out for me in one of your Monday posts and now I know it’s a must read.

  12. Okay…this book is sounds like a read for me. I am going to request it from the library…right now.

    You said, “As I read this book I thought it is funny how often I take things at face value and don’t dig deeper.”
    When I read that I thought….”I do that! I do that!”
    Really….I do not go into all the layers a book offers on a first read…only if I re-read that I do. I also am amazed at how many times I do not search out more answers…I am glad that you did with this read.Still…I seem to always learn something from a well written book. I am very interested in this story. I look forward to reading it. I am thinking that I may not do my “surface reading” with this book.

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