The Belief in Angels
A Novel by J. Dylan Yates
She Writes Press April 2014
The Belief in Angels by J. Dylan Yates
A gripping, heart-rending family saga that explores the darkest side of human nature—and the incontrovertible, uplifting power of hope.
Jules Finn and Samuel Trautman know that sorrow can sink deeply—so deeply it can drown the spirit. In The Belief in Angels, by J. Dylan Yates, these two wounded souls—one struggling to survive her childhood with her sanity intact, the other haunted by memories from his past—must decide: surrender to the grief that threatens to destroy them, or find the strength to swim for the surface.
Growing up in a volatile hippie household on a tiny island off the coast of Boston, Jules’s imaginative sense of humor is the weapon she wields as a defense against the chaos of her family’s household. But somewhere between gun-waving gambling debt collectors and LSD-laced breakfast cereal adventures, her younger brother Moses dies—and it’s a blow from which Jules may never fully recover.
Jules’s grandfather, Samuel, wants to help his grandchildren, but he’s wrapped up in a sad story of his own. Once called Szaja, Samuel is an orthodox Jew who lived through the murderous Ukranian pogroms of the 1920s, as well as the Majdanek Death Camp—but his survival came at an unspeakable price.
In their darkest moments, Jules and Samuel receive what could only be explained as divine intervention—serendipitous experiences that give them each the hope they so desperately need. Ultimately, however, they both must look inside themselves for the courage to come to the rescue of their own fractured lives.
Vividly drawn and breathtakingly insightful, The Belief in Angels is a beautiful, heartbreaking exploration of human nature at its worst—and its best.
(Excerpt from Chapter One)
Jules Finn, 18 years | August, 1979
Sometimes in order to tell a story well, so it’s truly understood, you have
to tell it out of order. My story tells like this. It unravels . . . and ravels up again.
My name is Julianne, but everybody calls me Jules. I was named after my
Great-Uncle Jules on my father’s side. That’s what my father, Howard, told me. My
mother, Wendy, told me I’m named after a dead racehorse trainer.
It’s hard to know what to believe.
For now, I live here in Withensea, a seacoast town north of Cape Cod, an
island that thrives on summer tourism. In two weeks I will leave for college and
never come back.
Many people I went to school with will stay, however. A kind of Withensea
tradition. They’ll move down the road with their high school sweethearts, who’ll
become their spouses, and settle close to the homes they were raised in.
Sometimes a place can be as much a part of you as the people you grew up
with. I won’t miss most of the people here, but I’ll miss this place. The ocean, for
me, holds the power to turn a moment mystical. Accompanying my memories
of childhood there are always ocean sounds—sometimes faint, sometimes louder,
the waves crashing and beating their own score. When I picture the breathtaking
beauty of our cliff, the ocean, it almost masks the memories of the things that
were not picturesque. I’ve spent eighteen years soaking up every beautiful part of
Withensea, hoping to crowd out the memories of the painful parts of my life—of
guns, of violence, and of loss. A kind of glass-housed chaos, tolerated by the
community in order to feed the starving brains bred in small towns.
My life, so far, has also been an existence filled with secrets. Two kinds of
secrets. First: the kind that need lies to keep them hidden. Second: the kind our
brains create to cope with sorrow.
Still, perspective offers me solace enough to not measure my own sorrow
against another. What I understand now about survival is that something in you
dies. You don’t become a survivor intact. Survival’s cost is always loss. This is my
What follows is a collection of memories I’ve saved. I’ve learned memories are
lost more often than objects. I will keep whole parts intact in my telling, where I
feel it’s important. In a way, I think it will keep me intact to tell the truth of it this
way. It’s my evidence—a way of documenting to keep the truth in my sight line.
There are parts of my life I’ve been absent from. These I will tell from where I am
now along the bend of truth. I will call these parts belief.
It’s all left me with this weird love for the moments after something good
happens. I call it delayed joy. I hear an achingly beautiful song, and when it’s over
I enjoy the immediate moment, the quiet, more than I did the sounds of the song
playing. I taste a buttery lick of Butter Crunch ice cream, and after the flavor is
gone I savor the loss of the deliciousness in my mouth.
It’s like I’m wired backwards inside my head.
Withensea harbors a scrabble of townies who live in salt-beaten homes scattered
among swanky summer estates. Winters on this island are brutal to homes, cars,
skin—anything exposed to the elements. But in the spring, after the last of the
gray-brown clumps of snow have melted, and before the tourists hit town, everything
enjoys a fresh coat of paint and not much more. Rather than shoulder the
emotional and physical cost and energy of upkeep, all things considered
non-essential are left to deteriorate or grow wild. Deferred maintenance is a practice
applied to most everything in the town, including the people.
My brothers, David and Moses, and I are kind of like the town. We started out
sturdy, with a semblance of familial structure to support us and a new coat every
September when we started school. But, eventually, with neglect, we were left as
straggly as those other non-essential elements.
In the long run, this may turn out to have been a blessing.
From the turn of the century until about twenty years ago, Withensea was
gorgeous. It used to be a summer vacation destination for Rose Kennedy’s family.
But the Kennedy family seems to have forgotten about their ancestral home, which
sits, in its dilapidated glory, across from a seawall by the ocean, close to where I live.
Townies call the people who come to live in the estates along the beach “the
summer people” and have a general disdain for those who can’t or don’t have to
brave the winter by our ocean. The ones who can, the ones who stay, manage to eke
out a living working a year-round business, make their money off summer tourists,
or travel inland toward Boston—sometimes by ferry—to find work. Many of them take a
nine-month detour to the bottom of a bottle. Alcoholism
in this mostly Irish/Italian Catholic town is more a winter industry than an
When I was six, my father— a short, Irish, orange-haired, pink, and doughyfaced
man—owned a bar called the Little Corporal. It did a booming business in
the summer months, and the winter industry provided enough support to warrant
staying open year-round.
From outside, in the summer months, the Little Corporal’s vivid green doors
separated long, tall panels of clear glass windows through which you could see
several pool tables. The glass panels continued on the south side of the building,
turning two sides of the bar into a pool table terrarium. The tables floated, lily pad
green felted over a gray concrete pond. In winter, all the windows were covered in
cheap, shamrock green-painted plywood to protect the glass.
The building squatted at the intersection of a small interstate highway and the
boulevard that flows into Withensea’s one main avenue. The boulevard flows in the
other direction onto a land bridge that grips it to the mainland, tight as a choke
hold. This intersection is the only way to enter or exit Withensea without a boat.
All the cars slow to a crawl to navigate the sharply curved, signage-laden rotary,
which spits them out again in either direction, going in or coming out.
In the summertime, pedestrians paraded from the surrounding parking lots
down the wide sidewalk with their whiny, strollered babies and cotton-candied
children, headed for the public beaches or Aragon, the amusement park anchoring
the southern tip of the town. The day trippers and the townies who worked the
other bars, restaurants, and amusement park arcades, all pushed in or passed by the
wide doors and terrarium windows of the Little Corporal.
In the winter, people parked their cars right on the snowy sidewalks that
wound around the Little Corporal to avoid the icy winds that whipped up over the
seawall and across the avenue.
Inside the bar, a long expanse of intricately carved dark oak ran the length
of the back of the room; an ornate gold-leaf mirror hung on the wall behind it.
Above the mirror, a late-eighteenth-century, crudely-carved, wooden ship
figurehead thrust herself from the wall, her peacock-blue robe draped
under the curve of her bare breasts. Serene and anachronistic in the space,
she gazed with detachment out beyond the walls of the bar, beyond the cars,
beyond the imprisoned stroller babies and the laddered heights of the roller coaster to the sea.
To the landlocked fishermen, the career drunks in their thiamine-deficient
stupors, solitary and stranded on the stools at closing, she was a familiar meditation.
For me, she served as promise of another, better, life out there, beyond
Withensea. A beginning to a life that had, thus far, been mostly about endings.
About the Author
Raised on a tiny, New England peninsula, in Hull, MA., J. Dylan Yates pursued her BFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The Belief in Angels, Yates’s debut novel, was written over the course of many years while she attempted a number of BFA-related jobs, including: waitressing, teaching, corporate training, directing, acting, producing, real estate, nursing, interior design, library science, parenting and reluctant housewifery.
Yates’s next novel, Szaja’s Story, focused on the character created in The Belief in Angels, invites the reader back to the Ukrainian orchards of Szaja Trautman’s tragic childhood, tracing his ultimate journey to America via the desperate Ukranian refugee work camps of the ’20s, his amazing survival of both the Majdanek death camp and the torpedoing of refugees aboard the Mefkura, and his fascinating experiences in the post-war Parisian couture houses.
Prior to publication, The Belief in Angels won the Alexis Masters Scholarship Award at the February 2012 San Francisco Writers Conference as well as a Los Angeles Book Festival Award.
Yates worked with Boulder County’s Voices for Children program as a CASA volunteer for 15 years and now volunteers as a mentor with the Girls Rising program in San Diego. She lives in San Diego with her partner and a talking cat.
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