“What is a soul?” In the beginning of Ellen Cooney’s One Night Two Souls Went Walking, the narrator, a hospital chaplain, brings our attention to this curiosity and, throughout the novel, explores situations that shed light on this inquiry as she interacts with her patients and coworkers in the medical center. As Cooney takes us through the young chaplain’s journey on her night-shift rounds, the reader takes a look at some of the hypotheses to that very question: What is a soul?
One Night Two Souls Went Walking is written in a diary-entry-esque form where the narrator expresses herself in a straightforward, conversational manner. At times, this style of writing was difficult to understand, causing me to go back and reread a sentence or phrase; but it gave the narrator an authenticity that felt natural in speech.
Each chapter is written like its own short story; most chapters, specifically the ones in the beginning of the book, have the ability to stand on their own and give potential readers a gist of what the book is about.
From exploring the pasts of broken spirits to absorbing, observing, and appreciating the present, the chaplain immerses herself in the stories of others, as well as sharing her own story with the readers. The book starts with the story of how the unnamed narrator came to be a chaplain, so to speak. She explains how, as a child, she had always been curious about the concept of a soul; she was always trying to find the explanation and the physical presence of a soul in her body. When she was eight, she met a priest at a birthday party and explained to him that she felt this “calling” to become a preacher just like him. The priest laughed at her, saying only men can become priests and asked, “Don’t you know what everyone calls a priest?” This does not discourage her but only fuels her desire to further understand what a soul is.
I appreciate that Cooney developed the narrator’s curiosity as a child into her adult career as a chaplain, sparking her journey as someone who searches for the existence of a soul. I found the chaplain to be relatable, where she is constantly searching for meaning and questioning everything in its existence. Being someone who had felt a calling to become a pastor as a teenager, I have experienced many similar thoughts and feelings about the world around me and about life itself. It is interesting to see these experiences laid out on the page through Cooney’s book.
In the following chapter, when we see the narrator as a chaplain in her first month on the night shift, the reader sees the “adult changes” in the narrator but still feels the presence of the curious little girl who so desperately wants to know, “What is a soul?” The description, “My body has the shape of a pear,” makes the reader aware of the maturity and changes in the narrator’s body. But in another description, “I wear a white collar, a full one, and lightweight clerical blouses in colors that more or less match fruits and vegetables: peach, celery, plum, cranberry, asparagus, yam, lemon,” the colors of the blouses bring life and light to the little girl in the narrator.
As we see the chaplain prepare herself for her rounds, she makes the statement: “I believe in expecting light, even when it feels like a lie, because the eyes of souls see what plain old eyes do not.” This statement has stuck with me since I finished the book because it perfectly describes life and death: “expecting light” is life and living, while “the eyes of souls” is death and ceasing to exist. We also feel a sense of hesitation and lack of confidence when the now-adult narrator expresses:
“In my early days (of being a chaplain) I was frozen all the time with stage fright: all those people in all those beds, and what was I supposed to say to them? As if I’d forgotten my lines… I like to think I know so much, and then I don’t know anything. What to say when there are no words?”
Ellen Cooney does a great job of expressing the unassuredness of the young chaplain as she makes her rounds, praying: “May I not screw up anyone worse than they are already. May I do no harm that can’t be undone, probably by someone else.” This brings me back to thinking about the little girl and how confident and determined she was in finding out what a soul is. This expression shows readers how complicated it is when the narrator finally puts that curiosity into action.
I noticed that throughout the book the chaplain often referred to herself as “the new baby chaplain.” This seems to indicate the narrator has some doubts about herself and her ability to be the spiritual guide that she and everyone expects her to be, but she underestimates her natural gift of being a comforter. Through each account that the chaplain experiences and recalls, the reader sees her strengths and her capabilities to say the things that need to be said and do the things that need to be done.
While the doctors and nurses mend the bodies of the injured and sick, the young chaplain tends to the souls of the patients and the staff. Some of the patients are everyday visits; others request a visit just to talk or get something off their chest. From her frequent visits to a librarian to her one-time chat to a lawyer to her short-lived call from a mason, the chaplain interacts with a variety of souls that need healing and guidance.
Throughout her night-shift rounds, the chaplain experiences the final moments and the reflections of each patients’ life and caters to their needs as their soul prepares for the afterlife, or for a new beginning. One great example is the first patient the reader meets in the book: the baggage handler.
Perhaps one of the shorter visits in the chaplain’s rounds, she meets this patient who talks about how he has never flown in an airplane before, despite working at an airport most of his life. When ruminating about death, he says to the chaplain, “When I leave my body and walk to the plane, I’ll have a free ticket to fly anywhere I want, forever.” Moments before his passing, the chaplain whispers into his ear: “a blue sky, all clear, all systems go.” This emotional send off shows the chaplain’s compassion for her patients, their souls, and their stories.
Each account that the staff members share with the chaplain also aids the reader in getting a fresh glimpse at a new approach to solving the puzzle of what a soul is. For example, the resident doctor that visits the hospital chapel–“Doctor Brown Hair” the narrator calls her–tells the chaplain a story about an incident at a ski resort.
The doctor explains that she was going to spend the weekend at the resort to relax and pamper herself. Shortly after she arrived, an announcement over the loudspeaker asked for a doctor to come to the scene of a skiing accident. In a hurry, she left the resort without acknowledging the call and spent the rest of her weekend in town, shopping and staying at her friend’s cabin. She talks about how she avoided watching the local news and acted surprised when her friend told her about the accident.
In the conversation, the chaplain asks the doctor if she felt she had “committed a crime” by not helping. The doctor’s response: “Not a crime. A sin.” The expression of guilt and the amount of weight this action–or lack thereof–had on this doctor shows that the soul, just like a conscience, knows what’s right and wrong. The doctor felt so much liability that, at the end of the story, she confesses that the new boots she bought that weekend–a reminder of what she did–ended up in Goodwill.
While I enjoyed the novel, I was a bit unsatisfied with the ending. I appreciate how Cooney gave most characters a happy ending, but feel like some of the last few chapters were attempts to tie up loose ends. The very last chapter feels like a cliffhanger to a sequel, but I have a feeling that no sequel is coming.
Overall, One Night Two Souls Went Walking is a good read. Cooney does a nice job weaving together the general complexity of working in a hospital and the chaplain’s duties and internal conflict, creating a fluid narrative that breathes authenticity. The patients that the chaplain interacts with builds the story from the very beginning and adds depth and perspective to the original inquiry: What is a soul?