Valdosta Daily Times

December 15, 2013

Valdosta author stays true to her faith in ‘Treason’

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — England, the late 1500s, Catholics secretly worship within the shadow of Queen Elizabeth's Protestant reign. Practicing Catholicism is treasonous behavior, punishable by death. Despite the threat of painful execution, Stephen Long listens to confessions and attends to the rituals of mass.

Meanwhile, Caroline Wingate wishes to become a nun but must pretend to be Protestant to hide her Catholicism from her husband, neighbors and nation.

Circumstances bring Caroline and Stephen together and they find their faith pitted against the state.

This is the essential premise of Valdosta-based author Dena Hunt's book, "Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England." A historical work of fiction, "Treason" is a well-written, smartly paced novel with fully developed protagonists, as well as elements of a thriller, a work of faith, and a powerful argument for religious freedom and against religious persecution.

Hunt's religion and interest in history partly spurred her to write "Treason," but it was a trip to England that triggered the book's premise.

"I’d taught British literature for decades and knew the outline of English persecution of the Catholic Church, which continued for centuries, and still exists to a lesser degree today," Hunt says. "But what interested me was – what motivates good, ordinary people to allow this? It wasn’t Henry VIII’s outrageous tantrum that caused it. I think even he did not know the long-range consequences of his actions. It was slow, long and slow, like the 'slow bleeding' described by a character, and completely political in its source, its continuation and its maintenance. I don’t think ordinary people knew how deep, pervasive, and soul-destroying it was until the whole country found themselves in over their heads, and it was too late to turn it around. The loss of religious freedom does not occur overnight. But most amazing to me was how England’s Catholics survived underground, long after all hope was gone."

Already armed with a working knowledge of the era's history, Hunt researched the details to bring her story and characters to life.

"Historical dates and events are easy to research," she says. "The difficult part of research for historical fiction writers consists of such questions as, what did they eat for breakfast? How long would it take to journey on horseback from a point 17 miles north of the Devonshire coast to Somerset on 16th-century roads? Things like that are difficult to discover."

Her first full-length novel, Hunt spent two years writing "Treason." Once she determined the book's plot would occur during a one-week period, she was able to move forward with the writing and character development.

"Transitioning from one geographical setting to another was difficult until I decided to manage it simply by chapter headings," Hunt says. "Third-person omniscient point of view was difficult also, because I’m so used to single character development, but it was the only way to reveal the various characters of that time and place — and that was, after all, the entire purpose of the novel. It’s not a story about a character, but about people in religio-political rural England in 1581."

She could have drawn on her life experience to understand about people and place. A Colquitt County native, she was born in 1942 on a farm. South Georgia was her roots, but she moved to Florida, then Louisiana where she taught English at the University of New Orleans. Converting to the Catholic faith in the 1980s, she returned to her native South Georgia. She taught English at Clinch County High School in Homerville until her retirement.

The return home, teaching in a rural setting and her conversion were conversely interconnected and unrelated.

"I don’t think the 'calling' was part of the conversion, and yet it was. Everyone has a personal Zion," Hunt says. "I had traveled the world, but every time I heard the largo movement from Dvorak’s 'New World Symphony,' I would almost weep. There are places in the heart too deep and private for words. When I was a child, I thought the singing of the pines was the voice of God. A part of my conversion was affirmation of who I was, and where I belong, and since I returned in 1985, I’ve never left. There are certain kinds of pain understood only by its absence. When I returned to Georgia, a friend in New Orleans wrote to ask me if I was happy now that I’d returned. That’s not the point, I replied. The point is that now the pain is gone."

With "Treason" published by the Sophia Institute Press, the publishing division of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and Holy Spirit College, Hunt continues writing. She hopes to release a short-story collection in the coming year, a new edition of "The Lion’s Heart: A Different Kind of Love Story."

"I am contemplating also a new novel set in Savannah about 1863 or so," Hunt says. "I’ve discovered a real attraction to historical fiction since writing 'Treason.'"

Yet, she has no interest in marketing her book. She does not participate in book signings or readings.

Having written a book about the right to openly express one's faith and the persecution many have and do face for such expression, Dena Hunt does not profit from her book's sales. Instead, she donates "Treason's" proceeds to the Thomas More Society for Religious Freedom.