Sisters of the Last Straw: The Case of the Haunted Chapel.

Author: Karen Kelly Boyce

Illustrator: Sue Anderson Gioulis

Publisher:  St Benedict Press

Age Range: 9 or 10+ (parental guidance for younger readers)

This is an entertaining and refreshing book filled with imperfect but likeable characters.  Some parents and teachers may not approve of some of the content.  One sister struggles with swearing, another with smoking cigarettes. There is no swearing in the book, “Holy… Sputtering Spooks!” is about as bad as the language gets. Another sister sneaks downstairs and smokes cigarettes in secret.  Each of the sisters in the story has had trouble finding an order of nuns who will accept them.  Each sister has a particular weakness and hopes that she will be able to stay with the Sisters of the Last Straw.

I would say the age range for readership could be 9 or 10 +.  In many ways the story is enjoyable and suitable for the whole family, and many parents will happily let their younger children read these books.  The problems the sisters deal with may be considered unsuitable by some parents, although it may also present an opportunity to discuss smoking and addiction with your children. That is why I would suggest parental discretion.

The vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the sisters are endearing and the reader will relate to their struggles to control their temper, or their swearing or they’re need for perfection. I cared about the characters almost immediately and recognized a little of myself in all of them. Who doesn’t vow never to do something again, only to find oneself doing that very thing over and over…?

The story is very short and entertaining.  There are nuns chasing goats in the mud, exploding jam jars and grumpy neighbours.  Oh, and there’s also a haunted chapel.  Slapstick humour can be found in every chapter with nuns slipping in mud puddles and on polished floors or getting jammed into doorways. The pacing is fast and the final resolution gratifying.

Catholic values are ever present in their daily lives,

“Each morning they would praise God and give honour to the Name of Jesus. They would ask protection for themselves, their home, and the people nearby.”

There is no shortage of direct Christian advice:

“Mother Mercy continued, ‘I want each of you to go to the chapel and pray. Spend some time with the only One who can help.  Spend some time with Jesus.’”

Ultimately the strongest theme is of homelessness and acceptance. Individually the nuns have struggled to find somewhere to call home.  It turns out that the chapel is being ‘haunted’ by a homeless family who ultimately find refuge with the nuns.  And finally, another hopeful nun arrives on the last pages,

“You are welcome here, … You are as welcome as Jesus.”

I found the ending to be moving; after so many funny trials and tribulations the Christian message was simple yet powerful – despite our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, we are still welcome.

Every review I read wanted this little book to be longer. There are now FIVE other books to the series, and all have very positive reviews. In each of the books, there is a ‘mystery’ to be solved.  It occurred to me several times while I was reading the first book that the characters, setting and premise along with the visual humour lends this story to being made into a television series. Wouldn’t that be great?!

Karen Kelly Boyce

I’d encourage you to purchase this book if you have older or middle years children, or if you are a teacher of pre-teens. You can’t help but love it.  It is so very easy to read, and the Catholic message is simple and straightforward.

Sisters of the Last Straw books are available from Amazon.com, or Tan books.

Teacher/Homeschool Resources: 

The book would be suited to some general comprehension exercises for younger readers.

I found a “Teachers pay Teachers” product for this first book of Sisters of the Last Straw.  Unfortunately it can’t be linked so you need to go to the website and type in Sisters of the Last Straw into the search bar. The resource is suitable for younger children and includes comprehension questions after every chapter.

For older readers, twelve years and over, there is scope for discussion of the themes of the book and also some creative writing exercises:

Why not write a short play with children playing the characters from the book.  I know my daughter and her friends would have loved writing the comic parts, playing them out and generally enjoying themselves.

Class discussions could centre around getting along with everyone, nobody is perfect, accepting people for who they are, forgiveness.  Middle years learners could write an essay on one of these topics.

The characters of the different sisters are a joy to read in this book: you might ask students to create some new sisters for the book: what ‘problem’ would the sister have?  How does it impact on the other sisters and herself?  How might the other sisters help her?

A seventh book in the series is soon to be released:  What are some ideas for new ‘Mysteries’ that the sisters might need to solve?  (It might be helpful to read through the titles in the series to prompt thinking?).

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