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?

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