Saturday, February 21, 2015

Settling Down

Time flies so fast. This month marks 10 years since we moved into our current home.

This is the longest that I have ever lived in any one place. In fact, it has been longer by a good bit. The previous record was all of 7 years. (That’s just how life, jobs, and circumstances worked out.)

I was thinking about this lately, because I am not one who embraces change. I am, shall we say, a bit of a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to the foundational elements of my life. I like adventure, but I like my home to be there when I am done. I am not a natural risk taker, as my wife had noted quite often. I am a “plodder,” not a conqueror. (The fact that I actually started my own law practice has to be a surprise to anyone who knows me - myself included.)

So, it is interesting to find myself in middle age, having attained a degree of stability that I probably always craved, but never truly was sure of having.

It isn’t just the house, either.

I grew up (mostly) in the Los Angeles area. San Fernando Valley to be more specific. (Think Moon Unit Zappa’s “Valley Girl.” I still talk a bit “like” that.) Still, I lived there from age 3 to 16. (Also from birth to 2, but I don’t remember that much.) That’s 13 years in more or less the same town. I’ve made it 16 in Bakersfield. Time flies.

I realized too that it has been more than 12 years since I opened my office. Nearly two decades in the Symphony. Nearly 12 years since I became a father. And nearly 14 years since I married the lovely Amanda.

The most surprising, though, I think has to be the fact that I have attended the same church for over 15 years. That’s pretty unprecedented. I think the longest our family ever attended the same church must have been 4 or 5 years when I was really young. The others have all been 3 years or fewer. Some of those were due to geographical moves, but more happened because of bad situations. So, I really do have to credit the good people (and good leadership) at our current home as a significant reason why we have been able to stay.

I suppose it does feel a little weird to look back and see a longer period of stability than I expected. I’ve “settled down” so to speak.

Actually, if I think about it, I am - in my own way - living my dream. I did in fact imagine a house in the suburbs, full of the world’s best kids, a beautiful and loving wife, enough free time for books and hiking and field trips and music. We all have our dreams, and mine is perhaps a bit mundane, but it’s mine after all.

Here’s to “settlin’ down” and the ordinary life...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Every year since I started my series of book reviews, I have taken the time in February to observe Black History Month, and read a book by an African American author. Here are the past selections:

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (2014)
The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois (2013)
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (2012)
50 Years and Other Poems by James Weldon Johnson (2011)

This year, I am also reading a few other books related to the African American experience, although they were written by whites, so they don’t count toward my project. These books are:

Red Tails, Black Wings by John Holway

I have also read and reviewed a few related books in the past, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (by an African novelist), and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (whose grandmother was a an Afro-Caribbean slave.)


Kindred was recommended to my by my cousin-in-law, who teaches high school English, and shares a love of poetry and the power of the story with me. She uses this book as part of her own curriculum, and felt that it was good for connecting younger readers with the realities of the past through a riveting story.

I must say, I agree. I enjoyed the book thoroughly (although enjoyed may be the wrong word for a book with a harrowing account of life as a slave), and had difficulty putting it down.

Technically, Kindred is a science fiction book. It managed to be placed in the general fiction section of our library, despite Butler’s reputation as a SciFi writer. She herself felt it was more of a “grim fantasy” because she did not resort to science to explain the time travel elements of the book. While Kindred remains her most popular novel, she won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for her other fiction. SciFi tends to be dominated by white males, so her accomplishments are doubly impressive. 

The plot of the book is interesting. Dana, an African American woman, has recently moved with her white husband, Kevin to a new home, when she passes out and comes to in 1815 Maryland. As she later is able to determine, she is summoned by Rufus Weylin, the son of a slave owner - and one of Dana’s ancestors. It appears that when Rufus is about to die, Dana is summoned to save him. She returns to her own time whenever she fears for her own life. Like many a time travel plot before, she finds little time has passed in her own time.

While in Antebellum Maryland, Dana (and on one trip, her husband) experience the horrors of slavery. Because she is alone and out of her time, Dana cannot directly control her experiences, and must both suffer what comes and compromise with her modern beliefs in her own dignity and humanity in order to survive. Thus, she must submit to slavery and the groveling that goes along with it, suffer beatings, and do what she must in order that she keep Rufus (and thus her future self) alive.

This is particularly uncomfortable because Rufus has to take his slave Alice (formerly free, but enslaved after she helped her husband - a slave - escape) as his concubine. One of their children will be Dana’s ancestor, so it has to happen. But that really requires that Rufus rape Alice, and Dana kind of has to avoid preventing this. Real fun.

But of course, isn’t this the same dilemma faced by slave women? Should they submit? Or should they run or attempt to kill their master, knowing either would result in death? And this is just one of the issues faced. One must survive. And so, as slaves have always done, they adapt to stay alive.

On a related note, Butler portrays the slaves that go along with the system in a sympathetic light too. (Apparently, she did so in response to a young activist who couldn’t understand why the older generations went along with injustice.)

It was striking that both Rufus and his father Tom aren’t caricatures. Unlike, say, Simon Legree, they are not evil incarnate. They are not really worse than average, although they are perhaps a bit uncouth. Tom isn’t gratuitously brutal, but feels he must punish runaways or the whole of his wealth will crumble. It isn’t about about sadism, but about doing what was expected within an evil system. Thus, to a degree, Tom and Rufus are sympathetic, and this is a disturbing problem. They would have been normal, decent people in their time, but they still inflict great damage on their “property.”

I found it interesting the battle between the past and the “present” in both Dana and Kevin. Kindred was written in 1979, and Butler knew well that interracial marriage - even in the California of the late 1970s - was frowned on. Heck, it wasn’t even permitted in most northern states until the Loving Supreme Court case repealed laws forbidding it in 1967 - a mere 12 yeras before this book was written. Still, Dana and Kevin are both progressive sorts, believing in equality between the races - and the sexes. For both of them, it is a serious culture shock.

But what bothers them both is how easy it was for them to accept and acquiesce to the past reality. By necessity, Kevin and Dana pretend that they are master and slave, although everyone (rightly) assumes that they are also lovers. This bothers Kevin enough that after he is stranded without Dana for a five year period, he moves north to avoid having to completely compromise his beliefs. In some ways, he feels that he is at more risk than she is, because he is in a position of privilege.

Butler draws out another key issue by using this tension. Dana fully expects to be treated as a human being. But she is viewed as subhuman by those around her in her trip to the past. Both whites and blacks alike accuse her of “acting white” because she insists on being treated with some degree of dignity. For Rufus, this is maddeningly difficult, even though he knows Dana’s real nature, and Dana repeatedly finds herself in trouble because she cannot bring herself to lower herself at all times.

No one should think, though, that this was merely a problem in the past. As recent events around our nation have proven, it is still deadly dangerous for a young African American male to insist on being treated like a human being - like a man - by authority figures. “Bring it, you fucking animals!” was said proudly on live camera, betraying the still widespread view of blacks as subhuman and unworthy of the dignity accorded to whites. “Acting white” still has its consequences. (Seriously, it doesn’t take all that long to figure it out if you actually listen to the experiences of African American colleagues and friends.)

While Butler didn’t shy away from social commentary on her own, modern times, she also seemed optimistic about the future. Even though Dana’s relatives were unhappy with the possibility that her property could be inherited by and white man, and Kevin’s relatives refused to accept a black family member; despite even the obnoxious behavior of many around them after they became a couple; Dana and Kevin represent the future. A future that we continue to work toward. When my parents married, interracial marriage was barely legal, and for most, unthinkable. The few that did so often suffered rejection by their families. Now, one in twelve marriages is interracial, and the numbers are undoubtedly higher in my native state of California. I see more and more that the stigma is fading, and I believe it will continue to do so for my children, for whom mixed-race friends - and mixed race families - are the norm, not the exception.

Kindred is a compelling and unflinching look at the past. Most of us learn best through stories, and I think that is why this book was so moving. More than any textbook description, even more than the pictures of slaves scarred by beating, a story like this can and will bring out the reality in a way that feels real. Abraham Lincoln once greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe as “the little woman who started this great war.” There is little doubt that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more than any academic argument to stir up opposition to slavery. For those of us seeking to understand the slave experience and its lingering effects today, stories like Kindred are a vital resource, and as necessary to us today as Stowe’s book was 160 years ago. Stories that give voice to the African American female, both the author and the narrator, are even more vital, given the domination of the discussion by white males in times past - and all too often our own.

Note on young readers:

I read a lot of crazy stuff when I was young. So did my wife. I would not consider myself particularly sheltered. That said, I would be hesitant to introduce this book to a younger reader. High school would be a great age. Maybe 8th grade for a mature reader who isn’t too prone to nightmares.

Many things have been called “adult” as a euphemism for smutty. I would label this book as dealing with adult themes, and thus best suited for those who can handle some degree of intensity. It is a real page turner, and yet it is also hard to bear for an extended period. I found myself having to take a turn about the yard to clear my head a few times, because it was overwhelming. Obviously, this is a sign of a well-written story. But it is also a testament to the power with which Butler brings her world alive.

I do intend to introduce my children to this book - but when they are a little older.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

Source of book: I own this.

I have been wanting to read this book for some time, essentially since I started my research on Christian Reconstructionism and its links to the White Supremacist movement.

The longer I have lived, and the more research I have done, the more I have concluded that the United States is NOT even close to over the Civil War. The after effects of that conflict continue to reverberate in ways we don’t always appreciate. Even more so, however, there were serious and vital theological questions that were raised before, during, and after the conflict which most of American Christianity has been unwilling to truly acknowledge, much less address, in the 150 years since the war.

Mark Noll is a professor at Wheaton, and the author of a number of well-regarded books on American history. This book is thoroughly researched, with citations to an incredible number of primary sources both in the United States and abroad. I would characterize this book as a scholarly work, rather than one directed at the average reader for that reason. Noll isn’t writing to convince the reader of a particular ideology or to prescribe a way forward. Rather, he presents the facts - and particularly what was said by theologians of many different viewpoints regarding the war - in a flat and dispassionate way. In my opinion, this makes the book all the more devastating. Noll isn’t stretching at all, or adding much of his own words. From the very words of those at the time, it is clear that there was a foundational theological crisis as a result of the war. One that still hasn’t been resolved.

Although Noll doesn’t go beyond the war itself, a number of others (bloggers, authors, and theologians) have noted that the same issues of Biblical interpretation and view of divine sovereignty continue to drive the current culture wars today. (I’ll look at this one a little more in an endnote.)

I can’t even attempt to summarize this book properly, but let me hit a few highlights.

Although the United States was never a “Christian Nation” in the sense meant by many in the modern Christian Fundamentalist movement, it was primarily a nation of Christians - and a breed of Christian that took the Bible very seriously. From the Puritans on down, there has always been a strain seeking to set up that “city on a hill,” and build society from the ground up in accordance with their views of the teachings of the scriptures. Furthermore, both sides tended to believe, as many do now, that God has a special covenant with the United States, similar to the one it had with Israel 3500 years ago. (I have made the point previously, that I think this is a dangerous and damaging false assumption, and that it underlies a lot of the really awful things American Christians do.)

The Civil War was thus a crisis because both sides took the Bible seriously, and both believed that they were the ones correctly interpreting it. This wasn’t a case of Christian versus atheist or heathen - it was Christian versus Christian. Serious, devout, Bible-believing Christian versus serious, devout, Bible-believing Christian. All of these Christians - like modern ones - were sure that the Bible was clear enough, “crystal clear,” as the author puts it, and that all that had to be done to arrive at the right moral and political solution was to take the scripture seriously.

The problem was, the sides disagreed as to how scripture was to be interpreted - and since there was no “authority” able to resolve the dispute (such as the pope for Catholics), the dispute eventually had to be settled by temporal rather than spiritual means.

The book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the book was rescued not by the book but by the force of arms.

It wasn’t just that there was a disagreement, either, when it comes to seeing the modern manifestations of the problem.

These days, most of us agree that slavery is inherently immoral. (There are some exceptions.) Thus, for most of us, the North won the theological argument, and this is a good thing.

The problem is that we tend to think in hindsight that the “correct” theology was obvious. As Noll demonstrates through pages of quotations, this was not the case at the time. Not only was slavery not obviously wrong to many, it was those who argued the most literally from certain passages of scripture that were most likely to advocate for the slavery side of the question. Because passages in the old testament clearly permitted and regulated slavery, and because the new testament didn’t explicitly argue for its abolition, they considered the question closed. Those opposed to slavery had to argue from a broader sweep of scripture, the Golden Rule, and other less specific parts of the Bible.

Those who took the most literal, specific, and detailed view of scripture as a prescription for society came to a conclusion we now view as abhorent.

I don’t know how much more forcefully to state that.

Today, I hear so many things said by the Evangelical Church that just make me cringe.

“If we would just follow the bible, our society’s problems would be solved.” “People are poor because they don’t follow God’s law.” “[fill in the blank social problem] is God’s judgment on us for not following his rules.” “[liberals, democrats, atheists] disagree with us because they hate God’s law.”

Actually, no.

An increasingly literal and detailed attempt to re-create the rules of the old testament or the advice of St. Paul and others on how to follow Christ in a pagan society would not lead to the best of all worlds. If we are honest, much of what would be necessary in re-creating an Ancient Near Eastern tribal, patriarchal society would be horrid. Likewise, re-creation of the Greco-Roman society would be far worse than what we currently have - at least for slaves, women, and minority people groups. This shouldn’t even be debatable, but few actually seem to know and understand history these days.

What we forget is that the evil of slavery was not abolished by resort to the Bible. The terror against African Americans was not ended by people coming to a firm, indisputable theological conclusion and deciding to do the “right thing.”

The evangelical Protestant churches had a problem because the mere fact of trusting implicitly in the Bible was not solving disagreements about what the Bible taught concerning slavery. The country and the churches were both in trouble because the remedy that finally solved the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms. The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. As I have written elsewhere, it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.

I cannot emphasize enough how strongly I recommend this book to every Christian who takes ethics seriously. Until we understand how and why we failed what was the biggest test in the history of our nation, we cannot hope to avoid making the same mistake again.

Note on some other interesting points:

Other things that I liked about this book: First, it addresses the question that still has not been resolved by our nation. What do we do with African Americans? All seemed to agree that racism was wrong, but it persisted, nonetheless, in practice - and continues today. Even the progress we have made in the last 150 years has largely come, not because of an epiphany on the part of the people, but because of government action forbidding violence, discrimination, and other racist actions.

The second, was the way Noll explored the opinions of Europeans about the slavery question. The Catholic opinion seemed to view the Civil War as the natural result of the Protestant Reformation. Had both sides been answerable to the pope, then the issue would have been settled one way or another. (A fascinating bit was the Catholic belief that Mormonism was a natural outgrowth of Protestantism, a bit of a reaction against the lack of authority.) Some of Catholic thought was a bit self righteous as well. I thought it particularly rich that Italian Jesuits claimed that their version of slavery was better. I suspect the Native American populations of the Americas would beg to differ.  

Noll also explores the opinions of European Protestants, who often came to opposing conclusions as well. It is fascinating stuff, but a little hard to work through, as Noll serves up quote after quote. Nineteenth Century writing is hardly easy to read, particularly when discussing the politics of the time.

Still, it was interesting to see what those outside of the United States thought. Particularly interesting as well was that Europeans generally saw - long before we did - the pernicious effects of our worship of money, greed, and willingness to tolerate oppression and fraud. The more things change…

Why this matters today:

The question of biblical interpretation wasn’t resolved with the Civil War. Rather, it was just ignored. For American Christians, things went on as before internally, particularly within the Evangelical fold. By the turn of the century, the Fundamentalist movement had begun. In my view, this movement has largely taken over Evangelicalism over the last 30 years, so that there are fewer distinctions than there used to be.

For the culture at large, however, huge changes were set in motion. Because the key moral and political issue of the day was not and could not be resolved by theology, theology was considered to have failed. As such, it had little to offer to the political discussion in the decades following the war. This was unfortunate, because there was much good that could have been done to fight racism, the economic oppression of the Gilded Age, and other important social issues that arose thereafter. Instead, theology tended to concentrate on “moral” issues - in reality alcohol prohibition, which was a disaster - rather than focus on the oppressed. I find echoes of this obsession with moralism at the expense of compassion to be a characteristic of the Evangelical Church today. The theologians - and Evangelicals - marginalized themselves by failing to come to a just and moral consensus.

Where it really comes to a head, though, is in the area of interpretation. The same parts of the Bible that support slavery also support ownership of women and a rigid hierarchy of gender. Much of the Mosaic law borrowed extensively from the other codes of the Ancient Near East - most notably that of Hammurabi, which pre-dated the earliest part of the Old Testament by 500 years. St. Paul and St. Peter’s discussions of slavery assumed - and quoted - the domestic codes of the Greco-Roman world. (Please, please, read Aristotle’s Politics before you attempt to make sense of these passages.) It is not an accident that the three relationships listed are Master/Slave, Husband/Wife, and Parent/Child. These are the relationships of ownership and control in Greco-Roman times.

Even though Grant and Sherman convinced us that Slavery was wrong, we still cling to a hierarchy of gender that comes from the very same passages justifying slavery.

I think it also goes beyond this to touch on just about every facet of the “culture wars.” The belief - which never really faded - that America is God’s chosen people continues to poison our dialogue with those outside of our bubble. We feel obligated - and entitled - to insist that everyone must accept and obey our interpretation of scripture. We feel entitled to punish those who do not follow our sexual rules. We believe that our societal problems would be easily and quickly solved if everyone just agreed with the Bible and took it literally.

And, at a personal level, we still haven’t come to grips with the fact that this approach utterly failed to come to a just and moral conclusion in our nation’s most important question.

The Bible is not enough:

I am hoping someday to have the time to explore the problems of “Theonomy” and how our belief that the Bible is an instruction book for relationships and political organizations continues to lead to ludicrous and damaging results.

For now, though, let me just point out that the Bible was not enough to end slavery, one of the greatest evils of our modern times.

It wasn’t enough to take the Bible seriously. In fact, that was counterproductive in some cases.

It wasn’t enough to have good motives.

It wasn’t enough to be well educated in theology.

It wasn’t enough to be devout and good hearted.

All of that failed.

We look back and believe that the solution was obvious, but that is only because of a fundamental shift in our thinking. One that did not depend on the Bible. We came to believe that slavery was immoral and unethical, but we didn’t do it because the Bible taught that. We used our intellect and our consciences.

We were given those two things by God, and I believe we were expected to use them.

There are a number of vitally important moral issues that face our nation and our churches today, and, unfortunately, I believe history is repeating itself. We are ignoring our own intellect and our consciences because “the Bible is crystal clear on this issue.”

We see it today in the doubling down on gender roles and hierarchy. We see it in the conflation of gender essentialism with the “gospel.” We see it in or belief that we have the duty to refuse services to those who don’t share our sexual beliefs. We theologically justified the ownership of human beings, and we don’t understand why we got it wrong. And thus, we not only can, but will be wrong again.

We see the results in the rapid de-Christianization of our nation. I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating:

The problem isn’t that non-Christians just want to sin. The problem is that they correctly view us as immoral and unethical on the pressing issues of our day.

Just like the Southern theologians did in the run-up to the Civil War, we are now focusing on an increasingly literal, detailed, and specific view of scripture in a way that preserves the status quo - and all too often oppressive institutions of the past - rather than operating out of a reverence for the Law of Love and the Golden Rule. I fear that again, the theological crisis will not be solved by theology, but by the Grant and Sherman of a new generation.

Whatever happened to humility?
This is a late addition to the post, but I ran across a quote from President Obama. Needless to say, his suggestion that no religion is exempt from committing atrocities in God’s name drew great anger from his political opponents. However, it is disturbing to see the general reaction of American Christianity - which is also furious that someone suggested that they too could - and have in the past - interpreted their religion to murder and oppress others. I think Obama nailed it, however.

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt—not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

Until this lesson is learned, history will repeat itself.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Reading with my kids: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Source of book: We own this.

Every so often, I run into someone who claims that there aren’t any good children’s books being written any more. This is, of course, a variation on a common theme. All new music sucks, the old books are better, the good old days are behind us, and so on. (For an interesting take on this concept, see my review of The Sense of an Ending.) This tendency to venerate the past and denigrate the present can sometimes be pernicious, as it is when it is used to ignore the injustices of the past - or even long for their return. When it comes to children’s literature, the effect is two fold: first, some truly awful books can be accepted merely because they are old and speak of an older time (see: Dinsmore, Elsie); second, good books of the present time can be overlooked merely because they are new - or because they, in the case of the Harry Potter series, contain some element that freaks out parents.

The Mysterious Benedict Society is an excellent example of a modern book for children which is well written and destined to become a classic.

Like Harry Potter, this book is the first of a series. There are currently three books, plus a prequel that was recently released. Also, like Potter, they are long books, averaging over 400 pages each. In my opinion, this is part of their charm, because the characters have room to develop, along with a complex and compelling world they inhabit. 

The story centers around four children, Reynard “Reynie” Muldoon, Kate Wetherall , George “Sticky” Washington, and Constance Contraire, who is exactly what her name suggests. The four children, all orphaned or separated from their families, are recruited by Mr. Benedict, an eccentric genius with a mission to stop his equally eccentric but far less affable twin brother, Mr. Curtain, from taking over the world.

I won’t spoil the plot, so I will end my plot summary there. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of twists and turns, moments of suspense, and general hijinks: enough to satisfy kids and adults alike. There are also bad puns, vomit as a plot, a number of ingenious puzzles, and some serious philosophy underlying the tale.

In this book in particular, there is the age old question: would you eliminate pain, discomfort, and fear if you could? And what would be the cost? Mr. Curtain’s nefarious machine aims to bring an “improvement” to the world by suppressing fears, giving comfort and pleasure - but at the cost of individuality and freedom.

In some ways, this is version of The Problem of Evil. Would the elimination of all bad in the world require the abolition of free will? Would it be worth it? For Mr. Curtain, it certainly is. He sees control as the ultimate goal, and appears to genuinely believe that everyone would be better off if he could control them. He could eliminate behaviors that lead to unhappiness, and soothe the troubled soul.

This is really at the heart of every totalitarian system, throughout the world, and throughout history. A despot may seek his own power and pleasure, and oppress others to gain his own ends, but his desire to control stops at what meets his own goals. It is only when an ideology - a religion or better yet cult, really - promises an “improvement” as Mr. Curtain puts it, to be gained through subsuming all individuality to the cause, that the great totalitarianisms have arisen. (Make no mistake, Fascism and Communism are religions. Cultic religions. Raymond Aron made a great case to that effect in The Opium of the Intellectuals.) It doesn’t really matter what the religion or philosophy is, because the elements are control and a promise that conformity will lead to happiness.

Ultimately, though, the promise is as false as that of alcohol and drugs. Fears and pain never really go away, they are just suppressed. They must be tamped down, but they keep arising if not given an increasing dose of numbing. And thus, totalitarian systems, like chemical relief, eventually destroy. The system must destroy dissent by destroying dissenters and using fear to keep the others in line.

I find it interesting that this book has been mentioned favorably by religious friends and acquaintances as well as non-religious reviewers. The story is rather universally appealing, and can and should be read in a non-partisan way. But I do sometimes wonder if some readers have missed the broader point in this book that parallels one often complained about in Harry Potter. Authority is to be questioned, and one must learn to think for one’s self. I rather suspect that the same people who found this to be dangerous in Harry Potter somehow missed its presence in this book. Hmm. Ultimately, it is resisting that brings the doomsday machine down. A refusal to go along and agree. A refusal to swallow the script.

The lack of an authority isn’t a new trend in children’s literature, to say the least. A well known trope of the “dead mother” or “dead parents” is and has been present since, well, just about forever. The literary reason for this is obvious. A story that had a child resolve every dilemma by asking a parent would be dreadfully boring, having little for the protagonists to do by obey like an automaton. This would be doubly true for an adventure story, where a good deal of the point is for the reader to imagine him or herself in the situation. (Again, see Dinsmore, Elsie, for an example of how to be boring and preachy on this subject.)

By removing the obvious authority figure, the children are forced to rely on their own wit and judgment. In this case, even though Mr. Benedict is there in the background, he explicitly instructs the children that they are being counted on to improvise and figure things out on their own. And really, isn’t this our goal for our children? Not that they will follow a formula or the commands of an authority figure, but that they will be able to reason ethically, logically, and compassionately on their own?

Another delightful feature of this particular story is the teamwork required. Each of the four children brings strengths and weaknesses to the team, and all four must work together to succeed. Reynie is a natural leader - and a good one. He is concerned for the others, and seeks to utilize everyone else’s talents. There is a lot to learn about leadership from the way Reynie leads the group. The story is told largely from his point of view, and his every misgiving, doubt, and fear is on display. His other great strength is his ability to see patterns and solve puzzles. Kate is physically strong and dexterous. She provides the brawn of the operation, and a level of fearlessness that the others lack. Sticky has a photographic memory and can learn just about anything quickly. Constance is, well, the orneriest person possible, and her power of resistance eventually comes in handy. All of these four have to learn to get along, and cooperate even when they drive each other crazy.

The subsidiary characters are also memorable, from the various henchmen and women of Mr. Curtain to the henchmen and women of Mr. Benedict. “Number Two” was particularly funny to the children, as she has red hair, an ever-present yellow dress, is thin, and eats constantly. Which is a good thing, because she has to be awake all the time to catch Mr. Benedict if an episode of narcolepsy strikes.

My kids loved this book, and have voted to continue with the next one immediately. We had many moments of uncontrolled laughter along the way, and enough suspense that my younger son was on pins and needles on several occasions. It was definitely a page turner, but with a surprising depth. I would particularly recommend this book for later elementary school aged children. And adults.

Note on the illustrator: The illustrations are by Carson Ellis. She has also illustrated husband Colin Meloy’s Wildwood series, but she is probably best known for her work for Meloy’s band, The Decemberists. She not only designed album art, but also sets and websites. 

You knew it was coming: How about a Decemberists video? Hey, a Portland hipster band, making a self consciously hipster (and “lumbersexual”) video. Why not?