Professor funds charitable work through new novel

“My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect Son,” a creative retelling of the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus from St. Joseph’s point of view is the latest novel written by former Truman State University professor Dr. Joseph Benevento. The novel was published during March of this year and Benevento is donating 100% of all royalties to Catholic Charities USA in hopes of helping the Kirksville community.

Dr. James D’Agostino, current associate professor of English at Truman, said Joe Benevento has been an invaluable influence on the programs and students in the English department over the years.

Benevento retired from the English department after teaching for 40 years. During his time at Truman, he taught courses in creative writing, American literature, mystery and Latino/Latina literature.

“He was really an unstoppable force in helping us become the department we are,” said D’Agostino.

He has published many books and short stories, but this most recent novel intends to put a fresh and comedic spin on the Christmas story. More specifically, the book focuses on the perspective of Joseph.

Joseph never actually says a word in the Bible, Benevento said. He never gets to speak at all and he needs to be able to say something.

“I thought it would surely be a difficult woman to have to live with someone so perfect and then your son is God —imagine you’re the third person in that trio,” Benevento said.

The premise of the book was to investigate and fill in the blanks of Mary and Joseph’s lives growing together and having disputes over how to raise Jesus. The Catholic belief is Mary remained both a virgin and sinless throughout her life, said Benevento.

Slowly, Joseph comes to fully value Mary for what she has to do, Benevento said. But, the initial notion was that nobody talks about how tough this must have been for Joseph, if we take the Catholic version.

The front cover of the book shows the Holy Family in a more realistic form, without their usual halos. 

“I chose this [cover] because there are no halos,” Benevento said. “This represents the kind of people I think they must have been — not everything was so easy.”

To write this book, Dr. Benevento did some informal research but also acknowledged the book did not need to be completely historically accurate.

He had to re-familiarize himself with the passages of the Bible, Benevento said. There are four gospels, and only two of them address the Christmas story.

In those two gospels, Luke and Matthew, different details of the story are included, such as the family’s flight to Egypt. Some details are in Luke, and others are in Matthew. Another element in his informal research was finding the places where the Holy Family may have lived. 

“When you’re writing fiction, you can go ahead and use all of them,” Benevento said. 

“In fact, I read about these big projects going on in Egypt at the time, and I imagine Joseph, who was a craftsman — the word used in the Bible in the Greek translation is craftsman — would have worked as a carpenter and would have also been a metal worker. So, I have Joseph as a very skilled craftsman working on a project in Cairo, which was a historically accurate project going on at the time.”

Writing a book of religious fiction like “My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect Son” poses some challenges. 

The most difficult part, said Benevento, was trying to be funny yet not irreverent and to have respect for people’s beliefs, but the most fun part was imagining Joseph as a real person, like someone he may have hung out with.

“It takes a certain kind of imagination to take on the challenge of a story that everybody knows,” said D’Agostino. “Trying to see that in a fresh, new way is so particularly characteristic of Joe’s work and personality.”

Father Patrick Gilger, a theology professor at Loyola University Chicago, wrote in an Amazon review that the book reminded him of Ignatian prayer. Ignatian prayer involves putting yourself in the Bible story and imagining yourself in the story, said Benevento. 

Another element that makes the book unique is the type of language Benevento uses. He uses very normal, accessible language.

They’re not talking as if they’re in the Bible, Benevento said. He had them talk like regular people and found that, so far, people seem really charmed by that.

It was difficult to find a publisher because religious fiction can be a hard sell, said Benevento. Ultimately, he found a publisher who was willing to take a chance on the book. 

Dr. Benevento wanted to honor the book and its themes by donating all the royalties generated from the sales to Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri. 

“I heard about this local chapter of Catholic Charities,” Benevento said. “They do most of their work in Columbia and Jefferson City but are looking to do more work in Kirksville. They’ll help anyone — it doesn’t matter what religion you are or if you don’t have a faith,” Benevento said. “If you have a need, they’ll help you.” 

Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri cover 38 counties to assist in the immediate needs of the vulnerable and needy by providing resources to aid in the long term. Currently, the organization is doing work with immigrants, refugees, women who need protection and much more, said Benevento.

Kirksville has many people who are in need and the food banks are always strained to get people enough aid,  Benevento said.

“It didn’t surprise me at all that Joe would find a really wonderful way to link together his professional life as a writer, his faith and his relationship with the community,” said D’Agostino.

“I needed to feel like I was doing something good for people since it’s a book about saints, and love and family,” Benevento said. “I don’t need the money.”

D’Agostino said his friend and colleague, Joe, has single-handedly solved the holiday gift question for beloved friends and family members.

“My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect Son” is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target and other places online.