Francis of Assisi is the world’s most popular saint. His life, his joy and his connection to creation has inspired millions of people. His commitment to the poor and the least of these offers a radical challenge to our materialist age. There are many biographies, collections of stories and children’s books which pay homage to the great saint, but none quite like this.
Cartoonist Jay Stoeckl was an aspiring cartoonist. After traveling to Assisi he became a secular Franciscan. Saint Francis and Brother Duck is his graphic retelling of the life of Francis. In these pages we meet the young Francis who dreams of being a glorious knight. His father sends him off to battle arrayed in fine clothes and armor. But before he sees much battle he rescues a duck from some cruel boys. He hears a voice telling him that he misinterpreted his ‘dream.’ In Stoeckl’s retelling, the duck he saved returns home with Francis and remains his companion for the nearly twenty years. The duck narrates this story and in the end this is as much his story as it is Francis’s.
Stoeckl revisits most of the famous Francis stories: the rebuilding the church of San Damiano, his trial before the bishop where he gave the clothes off his back, back to his father, the first followers in Gubbio, Francis preaching to the birds (including a duck), Clare joining the order, Francis’s overcoming brother wolf, Francis preaching to the sultan, and his receiving the stigmata and more.
Brother Duck is a simple and earnest character. He is a faithful friend to Francis and goes with him everywhere but doesn’t always understand Francis. Sometimes he asks probing questions which allow Francis to share his grand theological vision. Other times Brother Duck provides comic relief by being just as slow to understand Francis as the rest of us. In the end the Brother Duck is a faithful interpreter of Francis’s message and legacy.
The back cover says that this graphic novel was ‘designed to inspire ages 8 & up.’ My children are a bit younger than that, and a lot of this book is beyond them; however I found it a fun and imaginative read, full of good humor. My favorite piece of dialogue between Saint Francis and Brother Duck is the following:
Francis (F): Brother Duck? What if all living things were brother or sister to me?
Brother Duck (BD): That would make one really big family!
F: Yeah! and Earth would be our mother.
BD (after a pause): What about alligators? If alligators eat ducks and a duck is your friend would you say, “Brother Alligator, you just ate my best friend brother duck”?
F: I suppose I would simply say, “Brother Alligator, I am so sad you ate my best friend Brother Duck.”
BD (another pause): What about mosquitoes? What if big, hairy creepy Brother Spider catches obnoxious blood-sucking Sister Mosquito–who had just bitten Brother Rattlesnake as he is slowly digesting slimy, disease-bearing- Sister Rat?
F: And the Lord God made them all!
I would recommend this book to any lover of St. Francis. The childlike-faith of Francis is showcased in this format. Young readers and old readers will appreciate what they find in these pages. I give the book four stars: ★★★★☆
Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. Click here to read an excerpt from this book.
4 thoughts on “Brother Duck’s Tell All Tale: a book review”
This book contains major theological and historical errors. It depicts St. Francis as having used the practice of “Sortes Sanctorum” (opening the Bible at random and putting one’s finger on a passage) in order to come up with his Rule. Since this practice, which is akin to divination, had been forbidden to clerics under pain of excommunication by the Synod of Vannes in 461 and condemned again at the Synod of Agde in 506, it is inconceivable that Francis would have used this method. The Council of Orleans in 511 extended the penalty of excommunication to anyone who engaged in the practice.
More to the point perhaps is that it is incredibly silly. Someone with Francis’ depth of spirituality would be so intimately connected with God that it would never have entered his mind to consider basing a decision of such importance on the random result of a superstitious practice. He would have taken the matter to prayer, having prepared with serious fasting, and listened for the promptings of the Holy Sprit.
Bizarrely, this graphic novel not only presents the practice of Sortes Sanctorum as legitimate and useful — it tars St. Augustine’s pivotal “tolle et lege” moment as an instance of the practice as well! It is incredibly disappointing that Paraclete Press is not more discerning about what they print.
The book also projects an anachronistic (progressive) view of the Crusades onto Francis. Hardly anything is known about the episode of Francis going to meet the Sultan, but it is unlikely that he went as antiwar pacifist who was more concerned about saving lives than souls. The book portrays Francis as seeing the Crusades as senseless violence — incredibly ironic since it was the Franciscans who became the guardians of every site we still have access to in the Holy Land. No, Francis would have understood well what was at stake and why Christians were risking their lives to do it.
As Dr. Benjamin Vail writes, “St. Francis was a man of peace, but there is no evidence that he opposed the crusades. The notion that the crusades were contrary to Franciscan spirituality is belied by the fact that one leader of later crusades was St. Louis IX, the king of France, a Franciscan tertiary who is now patron saint of the Secular Franciscan Order. Obviously, he and the Church saw no contradiction between Christian faith and morals, or Franciscan principles, and fighting a war of defense against Muslims.” (https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2016/10/31/debunking-the-myth-of-st-francis-as-a-modern-ecumenist/)
Postscript: I apologize; I was wrong to say there was no basis in fact for Francis having opened the Bible three times. But the characterization of the story is important. To describe sortes sanctorum as a legitimate way of discerning God’s will is something an author should take care not to do since the practice has been condemned.
We were given this book by someone cleaning out her library. I thumbed through it and thought it looked okay and first glance and thus gave it to my son to read. Later he came to me asking if it was okay to find out what God wants to say to you by opening the Bible at random and reading the first passage you put your finger on at random. I told him it wasn’t, and he responded that St. Francis had done it! Then he brought me the book.
So while the episode may have occurred, how we present it to children matters. https://www.catholic.com/qa/the-apostles-werent-superstitious
Also make sure your son is careful when approaches wolves (or ducks).