For those of us who have followed the life and works of Dorothy Day, one may wonder what more can be added to the exhaustive wealth of literature by and about her. Rosalie Riegle's collection of "portraits" of Day, painted by those who knew her well, is a fresh and welcome addition. Riegle, professor emerita of English at Saginaw Valley State University and founder of the Jeannine Coallier Catholic Worker in Saginaw, MI, has given her readers a delightful insight into a woman who was complex, creative, committed, and, above-all, compassionate. Riegle has accomplished this by conducting over a hundred interviews with fellow activists and workers, writers and readers, personal friends and family members. She, herself, had the opportunity to meet Day in the late 1960s, and admits, "She and the movement she founded 'stuck in my craw'..."(xiii). Anyone who has met Day through her reputation or her own writings will agree. Riegle's work confirms that no one acquainted with Dorothy Day can remain unaffected by her very presence.
The book begins with a Forward by Day's own granddaughter, Kate Hennessey, which is honest, candid, and poignant. Hennessey portrays her grandmother as complex, yet compelling: "She is two people to me—an uneasy marriage of grandmother and public figure" (ix). "Her power and presence grow stronger as I get older, with all the complexities, I hope and imagine, that might have occurred if she were still alive. I believe she grows, after her death, in as complex a manner as she lived her life, and I must resist my tendency to tidy up" (xi). Hennessey shares the awe of her youth and the appreciation of her adulthood of the woman she called "Granny."
Riegle has divided her book into 30 vignettes, each painting a picture of a woman whose life and work not only inspired others but left lasting and life-altering impressions. Noted as an early recruit from Detroit, Justine L'Esperance is quoted: "Meeting Dorothy Day opened my mind to the real world. The average product of a Catholic school...you have sort of a one-dimensional approach to Catholic living. So meeting Dorothy, attending the discussion groups on Friday—clarification of thought and all the rest of it—was absolutely mind-boggling. I spent the entire summer there" (1).
Another interview included in the book echoes the moving intensity of Day's effect on those who encountered her. Johannah Hughes Turner remembers: "Dorothy had the knack for making a place where you just felt absolutely comfortable and protected...She knew how to put you into a rocker or a bed and give you just the right pillows to make you feel cozy and protected" (91). These are but a few of the countless individuals who were touched by Day's life and legacy, and who share their moving testimonies with Riegle and her readers.
Many other interviews are shared as well, grouped together by different facets of Day's kaleidoscopic life and work. On her politics of pacifism, Eileen Egan states, "How did Dorothy come by her pure pacifism? I think she got it right out of the Sermon on the Mount. When WWII was declared, she wrote, 'We will not help the war effort; we will help those who refuse to take part in the war effort.' Which they did" (44). On her prayer-life Jim Forest attests that "Dorothy Day was able to ... find the place where she would be free to be a believer. And when you are with one of those people, it hits you pretty hard" (81). Her daughter Tamar confirms that her mother was passionate and headstrong about her commitment to the poor. In this revealing interview she confides that, at times being the daughter and only child of the exalted Dorothy Day was both a blessing and a curse: "I had confrontations with teachers who wanted me to be just like Dorothy. From the time I was eight or nine, they began to ask me if I was going to take over the Worker when I grew up. I would cringe, because I'm temperamentally the opposite of Dorothy" (111).
In the epilogue, Riegle addresses the current movement to canonize Day. She quotes from an interview with Jim Forest, best known for his work, Love is the Measure: A biography of Dorothy Day. He knew her in her early days as a young writer for a largely controversial newspaper which he edited, and later as a mature activist editing her own. In his own words: "I think it's important for the Catholic Worker not to treat Dorothy as private property. She belongs to the human race" (196).
The author has also collected and inserted numerous photographs of Dorothy Day at work, at prayer, at rest, and, always, surrounded by love and admiration. Her compassion for the poor and the destitute, the lonely and the estranged, the inquirer and the student is readily apparent in these glimpses of her. Riegle's collection of these photos, along with her interviews, confirms what is already known of Day's life and legacy. What Riegle offers new to her readers is insight into the heart and passion of Dorothy Day. She has truly given us a unique and special portrait of the woman who embodies the Catholic Worker.