“One Night Two Souls Went Walking” is Ellen Cooney’s 10th novel and it’s filled with characters who are rich with stories and eager to tell them.
Set in a medical center and told in first-person voice, the novel is narrated by a compassionate interfaith chaplain who works the night shift and visits regularly with dying patients or those who come very close to that moment of death.
There’s nothing like sitting with a chaplain in the middle of the night at the end of one’s life to stir up a rush of regrets and memories which, for readers, makes for some great stories.
Our unnamed chaplain tells us of her wild teenage years with accompanying family conflicts, and of her one lost big love, which continues to haunt her emotional well-being. Despite those distractions she found her calling early on, as we learn in the book’s opening line: “Once when I was small I asked my parents, What is a soul?” Her father’s response didn’t satisfy her and throughout the novel she seeks the answer, which for her is a lifelong quest and, as it turns out, is understandably on the minds of the many terminal patients she encounters.
Cooney is brilliant at observing and describing quirky characters — people like ourselves, really — and her truly memorable chaplain moving from patient to patient is perfect for this storytelling approach.
The patients and their situations are often heartbreaking. There’s a young man, a California surfer, who was paralyzed after a stone ledge broke loose at a quarry where he and five old friends were swimming; he was the sole survivor and he has no visitors except for the chaplain.
There’s a librarian, an older Black woman who in recent years had lived in assisted-living housing. In a moment of trying to reclaim her independence from her declining body, she had a bad fall and now shows signs of a blood clot. She’s tough, but — like all of us — vulnerable.
She first encountered the chaplain on a hectic night when she was admitted to the medical center: “ ‘Minister Girl,’ she said to me, a stranger. ‘I never saw anyone more weary. You go find an empty bed and lie down. I might need attention to my soul in here.’ ”
“One Night Two Souls Went Walking” builds up to a particularly busy night at the medical center after a building suddenly collapses because of heavy snow. The chaos introduces new stress to everyone but also, as the book’s title suggests, causes a supernatural occurrence during which our chaplain has an out-of-body experience, accompanied, possibly, by the soul of a recently deceased hospital therapy dog named Bobo.
Cooney has no trouble turning this tall tale of a flying chaplain into a wonderful and memorable novel that lingers long and deep in the mind of readers, making us reconsider our concepts of faith, kindness, and what exactly a soul is, anyway.
Jim Carmin is a freelance critic in Portland, Ore.
One Night Two Souls Went Walking
By: Ellen Cooney.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 199 pages, $16.95.