Review of “The Nightingale”


The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a truly compelling historical fiction novel: inspiring, humbling, thought-provoking, and devastating in turn. The story follows two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, from the time the first rumbles of World War II begin to affect France to immediately after the end of the war. By focusing on these two sisters’ very different but equally difficult paths through the war, The Nightingale succeeds in powerfully conveying the reality of the horror, the magnitude of the losses, the utter wrecking of lives in World War II. This book does not spare the reader from the awful depths that man can sink to. Yet the depravities man conducts are but a foil to the heights of heroism to which everyday people can rise. The Nightingale offers inspiration and hope with its themes about unbreakable love, heroic sacrifice, and the miracle of children.

The Nightingale is an affirmation of the power of all the forms of love to survive and thrive in the worst conditions imaginable.

The bonds of friendship are a potent force. In her small French hometown, Vianne and her best friend Rachel encourage and help one another to keep supporting their families, whether that is with words or by sharing the last morsels of food. When Jewish Rachel is taken away to a concentration camp, Vianne risks her own life to save Rachel’s son.

The love between sisters also survives the horror of war. Vianne and Isabelle had a tumultuous relationship growing up, but during the war each strives to protect the other as best they can. Vianne attacks a German soldier to save Isabelle. Isabelle distances herself from her sister’s family to protect them from the repercussions of her underground work. At the end of the war, Vianne searches tirelessly for her lost sister and brings her home.

The Nightingale depicts the love between parents and children as particularly beautiful and powerful. Vianne and Isabelle’s father Julien eventually gives his life to save Isabelle’s. Vianne repeatedly reflects that the only reason she continues struggling to survive is out of love for her children. Vianne’s husband Antoine writes to her from POW camp that she must remain strong for their children.

Love between man and woman also gets its due, mostly through Vianne’s clinging to Antoine’s memory through the years of war, and determination to rebuild their relationship afterwards. Isabelle’s relationship with Gaetan also illustrates the power of love to endure torture, sickness, and imprisonment.

The Nightingale is a paean to sacrifice, a tribute to the countless simple folk who made unimaginable sacrifices to help save lives during World War II.

At first, parents sacrifice for their children, townsfolk for their neighbors. But soon, the war make each person question what they truly believe about the sanctity of human life and how much they will risk to preserve it. First, Vianne saves and hides her Jewish friend’s son Ariel. Later, she helps save the lives of 18 other Jewish children, hiding them in an orphanage and forging identity papers for them. Her actions are all a heroic sacrifice, since they seriously endanger her life and her children’s lives. When asked how she could risk so much, Vianne tellingly says she does it for her daughter Sophie: what would she be teaching her daughter if she did not help save lives?

Her sister takes an even more risky path to help save lives. Isabelle envisions a way to help the English and American airmen escape from occupied France into neutral Spain. Although she realizes that she will almost certainly be captured eventually, tortured, and killed, she begins the “Nightingale Route.” She leads over 27 groups of airmen across the Pyrenees Mountains to safety before her capture.

One of the most beautiful sacrifices in the novel is after Isabelle is captured, when her father chooses to enter SS headquarters and confess to begin the ringleader of the “Nightingale Route” so that her life will be spared.

The Nightingale offers a strongly pro-life message about the blessing of children.

Returned POW Antoine says it most plainly: “This child… is a miracle.” All the main characters believe and live this truth throughout the novel: children are a miracle. They are the reason to keep going during the darkest years of the war. They are the cause for hope in a shattered world at the end of the war. Their existence is the healing as rebuilding begins.

The Nightingale is surprisingly clean with few exceptions.

As with any novel that attempts to accurately capture the atmosphere of occupied France, The Nightingale has its share of brutal violence. Vianne sees pregnant women shot, and experiences beatings and rapes herself. Isabelle is tortured and endures concentration camp life. The focus is not on the violence, though, but on the will to endure and survive the sisters exhibit.

There is little to no language. The only instances are the rare curse  in French or German.

As far as sexual content, there is only one rape scene described, and it is short and easily skimmed over by sensitive readers. There are references to a husband and wife making love, but no descriptions. The most problematic content from a Catholic perspective is that Isabelle and Gaetan do sleep together despite being unmarried. Again, there is nothing graphic described, but parents should be aware if considering letting their teens read this book. I personally think it is too intense for any but very mature older teens.

The Nightingale is a sobering yet gripping novel which I highly recommend for Catholic adults.

This book leaves you reeling, yet inspired. It’s an important book because World War II needs to be remembered. The unspeakable evils committed and the heroic virtue shown both need to be kept in memory. Laugh, cry, enjoy this fantastic novel.

Review of the “Prince Martin” Books

Have a 6-12 year old who loves high adventure? Check out Prince Martin Wins His Sword, the first in Brandon Hale’s epic series of Prince Martin adventures. In the first book the reader meets Prince Martin, a young boy whose wise father the King of the land sends him on quests to learn virtue and build character. In order to win his sword, Prince Martin must demonstrate friendship and loyalty.

A major theme in the Prince Martin books is positive portrayal of the virtues of loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice, and compassion.

In Prince Martin and the Thieves, Prince Martin helps save a wolf from a trap; later the wolf saves the prince’s life. Further on in the story, Prince Martin chooses to give away his reward money to a poverty-stricken beggar instead of buying a new weapon.

Many times in the stories, Prince Martin must choose between running for safety or standing his ground and sticking with his friends in the face of fear. In Prince Martin and the Dragons, Prince Martin and his three friends choose to risk death by fighting the dragons in order to save their country. Prince Martin is a hero boys can both relate to and want to imitate.

These books are mini-epics, reminiscent of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

Like great epics like Beowulf, Odyssey, and The Iliad, these terrific tales are cleverly written in rhyming cadence.  I loved how author Hale used epic conventions such as beginning in medias res in the second adventure, Prince Martin and the Thieves. There are many other examples of epic conventions, such as cataloging of weapons, formal speeches, and enemies of superhuman proportions. These epic qualities bring authenticity and excitement which will captivate kids. They also make the Prince Martin books a great early preparation for reading classics like The Odyssey in high school or college.

Overall, these are eminently enjoyable epic tales that will appeal especially to boys.

This is not to say girls will not find them inspiring too! Adventure-loving girls will be thrilled that the newest book in the series, Prince Martin and the Cave Bear, features a female character: Prince Martin’s cousin Meg. If you have a 6-12 year old, check out all four books, available for purchase on Amazon!

Review of “The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature”


What is the real magic in fairy tales? Why are they timeless and what do they teach us? Literature professor Mitchell Kalpakgian sets out to answer these questions by analyzing some of the themes repeated throughout classics children’s literature with a particular focus on fairy tales. The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature is a wonderful book for parents to read. This book clarifies so many of the enigmatic themes in children’s stories, empowering you as the parent to point out these themes to your children in stories from Cinderella to Pandora’s Box. It also helps Catholic parents understand the importance of exposing our children to these classic stories as a type of faith formation in shaping their hearts and imaginations.

What is a children’s classic?

Kalpakgian believes that a classic explicates one of the mysteries of life for children (and adults). A great story illuminates the connection between the spiritual and physical. Kalpakgian writes: “Dreams and fairy tales are as useful and necessary as windows which join the outside realm to the inside world, which bring heaven to earth and draw the human world to the divine world.”

Kalpakgian draws on a wide range of literature, poetry, fairy tales, and myths to exemplify the unfolding of each mystery for children to understand.  Examples of great stories in The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature range from The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald to Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book to The Wind in the Willows. From A Child’s Garden of Verses to Little Women. And after reading The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, the parent is empowered to recognize noteworthy themes in children’s books beyond those Kalpagian cites.

The themes in children’s literature can sometimes seem mysterious and contradictory.

For example, what’s the deal with wishes in fairy tales? Why do they sometimes come true, and sometimes don’t? Why are the consequences of wishing in fairy tales sometimes positive, like Cinderella receiving fairy help and a happily ever after, and sometimes negative, like Midas’ daughter turning to metal?

Kalpakgian classifies wishes in stories in four distinct categories: whims, fantasies, temptations, and true wishes. Whims are random, thoughtless wishes. Fantasies are “excessive, uncontrollable desires for gold or power that reflect the sin of pride, the worship of money, and self-delusion.” Temptations in children’s classics are false promises of excitement which entice innocent children to disobey. But true wishes begin in the deepest longings of the heart and reflect desires associated with genuine human happiness such as true love or the blessing of children.

Children’s classics help form an appreciation and desire for the transcendentals.

Kalpagian devotes three chapters to the Mystery of the Good, the Mystery of Truth, and the Mystery of Beauty. The transcendentals- the good, the true, the beautiful, and the one- are attributes of God. Each transcendental is intimately connnected to the others and points us to the others. For example, true beauty draws are heart and mind to truth and goodness. Kalpagian writes, “The mystery of beauty in children’s literature evokes a love and desire for knowledge.” Beauty drawing the beholder to truth and goodness can be seen in many fairy taeles such as Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White.

Looking at the connection between the transcendentals from another angle, inability to appreciate beauty correlates with blindness to truth and goodness, as in Anderson’s Swineherd. These chapters on each transcendental and also the inextricable bond between them were the best in the book in my opinion.

To quibble a bit, I found Kalpagian’s chapter on The Mystery of Luck slightly lacking.

Of course, I didn’t agree with every part of this book. To nitpick, I wish Kalpakgian’s treatment of “luck” had a more overtly Christian tone. He treats luck or fortune as a mysterious force that brings gifts to some and ruins others. I found this treatment not so much incorrect as incomplete; as Catholics we believe that all events are part of God’s plan. What agnostics call luck, Catholics call Divine Providence or blessings from God. In The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, Arthur Ransome uses this Christian understanding of luck: “This is a story that shows that God loves simple folk and turns things to their advantage in the end.”

Kalpakgian actually does have a wonderful chapter on Divine Providence in children’s stories. He points out the mysterious yet very real motif of Divine Providence seen in the form of fairy godmothers, guardian angels, and mysterious elves in books. His explanation of Irene’s grandmother in The Princess and the Goblin is really exceptional as an example of Divine Providence as that invisible thread also seen in Chesterton’s Father Brown. But for some reason, Kalpagian doesn’t also see Divine Providence as represented by “luck” in children’s literature.

Classic stories help children develop a strong moral compass.

By reading or listening to classic stories at a tender age, children’s imaginations and hearts are formed to accept simple truths about virtue and life. Goodness, when done out of a generous heart and without desire for reward, is exalted and repaid twofold. The simple folk with no deviousness in their hearts are blessed. True wishes for genuine human goods are granted. Beauty leads to truth, which leads to goodness. Divine providence is a mysterious, but real and powerful force.

Not only are the pure of heart rewarded, the wicked or selfish are punished. Fairy tales and fables teach that ultimately good does triumph over evil. Often good triumphs in this life, but sometimes not until the next. For example, in the original Little Mermaid tale by Hans Christian Anderson, the Little Mermaid doesn’t get to marry the prince and dies, but she is lifted up by the sky fairies at death and given the opportunity for immortality, which is the real desire in her heart.

The great writer G. K. Chesterton explains in Orthodoxy that the lesson he retained from fairy tales and stories from his childhood had a profound effect on his eventual conversion. I conclude that as Catholic parents we can not do better than to  nourish our children’s minds, hearts, and imaginations with truly worthwhile stories that impart the lessons Kalpagian writes about in The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature.

 

 

Review of “The Awakening of Miss Prim”


The Awakening of Miss Prim is one of those rare, delectable books that you find yourself savoring, trying to spin out each chapter to the utmost. This novel by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera was first published in Spain in 2011 and translated to English a few years later. The English translation is professionally done, and I could almost believe the novel was set in England, except for the Spanish character names. Spain or England, The Awakening of Miss Prim has a cozy, old world charm about it that makes it the perfect book to curl with of an evening, beverage of choice in hand.

What is beauty?

What is marriage? What is peace? What is the purpose of education? What is friendship? What is truth? What is love? What is beauty? These are the questions pondered in The Awakening of Miss Prim. Miss Prim, a young woman with a string of impressive scholarly qualifications, comes to the tiny village of San Ireneo in search of “refuge.” Refuge from what? She can’t quite say.

San Ireneo is a village some might call backwards in its way of life. It ascribes to a distributism of Chesterton, the courtesy of old England, and the educational principles of the Greeks. People from around the world with a shared vision of creating a utopia, a The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, have created a unique society and culture in San Ireneo. Miss Prim is at once charmed, bewildered, and offended by San Ireneo and its people, but soon finds herself forming unexpected friendships.

In The Awakening of Miss Prim, friendship is the key to changing hearts.

Naturally a deep thinker who prides herself on her acumen, Miss Prim feels consternation when both her employer and new friends habitually challenge her every presupposition about life, religion, and literature. For example, at first she is mortally offended when her friends in the San Ireneo feminist society speak of finding her a husband. Over time, through her friendships with some of the members, Miss Prim realizes their intentions were loving, and even becomes open to listening to their views on how marriage is liberating.

The most important relationship Miss Prim forms is her unlikely friendship with her employer, enigmatically referred to as the Man in the Wing Chair. A dead language expert with a formidable intellect, he seems to delight in poking holes in Miss Prim’s pet theories about education, religion, and literature. Yet even as he exasperates her, his courtesy and genuineness lead her to contemplate his arguments with an open mind.

Rather than providing all the answers to the “what” questions, this novel offers food for thought.

Is the redemption a fairy tale? Or is it The Only Real Fairy Tale? Is marriage a harmony? A drawing together of opposites? Or both? Is beauty a painting, a field of flowers, a feeling? Does absolute truth exist?

The Awakening of Miss Prim provides trails of breadcrumbs leading the reader to what truth, goodness, and beauty is. Or rather, as the wise old monk advises, “Don’t be surprised if, in the end, you find beauty to be not Something but Someone.”

Perhaps in keeping with the theme of raising questions that aren’t quite answered, the book ends quite abruptly, leaving the reader to imagine the ending. This precipitous farewell to Miss Prim and San Ireneo is, in my opinion, the only real flaw in this imminently enjoyable novel.

This book is refreshingly clean of all objectionable content, and can be safely read by teens, though I think adults will appreciate it more thoroughly. On the other hand, the abundance of references to master writers like Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Virgil, and more may inspire teens to read some of these other great works.

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Norcia, Italia where Miss Prim went in search of beauty.  Photo credit to my husband.

 

Review of “Girl Saints for Little Ones”

If you are looking for a simple, beautiful introduction to popular female saints, check out Kimberly Fries’ Girl Saints for Little Ones and Girl Saints for Little Ones Volume 2!

Each volume features a dozen saints, mostly well-known heroines of our faith like Saint Rose of Lima, Saint Kateri, Saint Agnes, and Saint Gianna. These books do not include dates or feast days, instead focusing on details about the saints’ lives that little ones are more likely to grasp and retain, such as family relationships, feeding the poor, and miracles. This makes these books great for a cursory introduction, but if you are looking for more in-depth information about the saints, consider the Life of a Saint series from Ignatius,or other saint biographies featured inMy Book Lists.

Each saint page concludes with an inspiring quote from each saint about following Jesus and living a strongly Christian life. For example, the quote from St. Claire of Assisi is: “Totally love Him, who gave Himself totally for your love.”

What makes these books shine are the beautiful original paintings for each saint which will capture the attention of young children. Each painting contains a special symbol the child can associate with the saint. Some symbols are the traditional ones, such as the lamb of Saint Agnes. Others are original, such as green seeds to show the seeds of faith Saint Kateri sowed in the New World.

There is also a brother book, Boy Saints for Little Ones. This book features a dozen inspiring male saints such as Saint Augustine, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and Saint Patrick.

Overall, these books make a worthwhile addition to any Catholic family’s library. For more great Catholic books about the saints, the Blessed Mother, and more, check out my list Good Catholic Books for Catholic Preschoolers and Kindergartners !

Review of “The Happy Hollisters”


The Happy Hollisters by Jerry West (Andrew Svenson) is the first in a completely charming series of books featuring a joyful, adventurous large family. In each book in the series, the Hollister family is confronted with mystery and adventure. Working together, the children and parents find solutions and bring justice. Svenson wrote 33 volumes about the Happy Hollisters, which makes this a great series for voracious readers!

A Different World

Mr. and Mrs. Hollister and their brood of five children live an idyllic life by a lake with Dad working a flexible schedule at his hardware store and Mom staying home with the children. The girls wear dresses, and the boys say “Gee, whiz!” Yes, these books are a bit archaic in terms of dress, speech, and gender roles. They were first published in the 1950’s, which rightfully feels like a different century to our 21st century sensibilities.

Despite the book’s old-fashioned trappings, children today will still love reading about the Hollister family adventures because the essential things in the books are timeless. There are still bullies, and the difficulty of moving to a new town, and sibling relationships to navigate, and nature to explore. Children today will also enjoy the parts of the book all children wish would happen to them: a mystery, an adventure, and a chance to save the day.

Mystery and Adventure

The Happy Hollisters captivates young readers quickly because of it’s cliffhanger style chapter endings. Each chapter brings a small adventure such as a lost child, a bear sighting, a parade, or a contest. Meanwhile, the book as a whole builds up the overlying mystery of why a strange man keeps breaking into the Hollister’s house.

In future books in the series, the family travels a good deal, finding adventure wherever they go. Through this, the reader gets some great geography exposure as the Hollister family explores the United States and beyond.

Wholesome and Inspiring

The best part of The Happy Hollisters from a parent’s perspective is its focus on encouraging virtue. The Hollister children model a variety of positive character traits such as responsibility, kindness, fairness, and generosity. When they fail to choose the best course of action, their parents are always nearby to correct them. Overall, the Hollister books are full of beneficial messages about protecting smaller children, being kind to animals, obeying your parents, and sticking up for your siblings.

Full of Fun Illustrations

One reason my children love The Happy Hollisters is the plentiful illustrations in every single chapter. The illustrations give faces to the characters and depth to the stories. There are over 70 illustration in this book, which is only 187 pages, so you get a half of page of illustration for every 2-3 pages. This really helps children hold the interest of younger children when reading aloud. The wealth of illustrations also helps retain the interest of reluctant readers who struggle with chapter books.

Who would enjoy The Happy Hollisters?

As far as intensity of adventure goes, these books are gentle enough for 6-12 year olds. Some 4-5 year olds will also enjoy this as a read-aloud, though very sensitive little ones may find the cliffhanger style story-telling too anxiety-producing. These books really do make a great read-aloud, since the range of ages in the Hollister family make these books relatable for children ages 4-12.

Try it for $1.95!

If you want to try the first book, The Happy Hollisters, at an amazing deal, the publisher has a free trial of The Happy Hollisters Book Club running right now. For $1.95 and free shipping, you can receive The Happy Hollisters, and if you enjoy it and continue with the club they offer 80% off subsequent books. Check out The Trading Post at TheHappyHollisters.com!

Review of “The Mysterious Benedict Society”

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart looked like a fairly simple book. I had recently finished reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton, which in typical Chestertonian fashion is absolutely amazing but also leaves you feeling like your head may explode from his awe-inspiring insights. Anyway, I wanted a simple book to review and ended up choosing The Mysterious Benedict Society at the library. I soon realized this book was a poor choice if I wanted a straightforward subject. In no time, I found myself dusting off my Theology major cap and delving into the Catechism, Aquinas, and Augustine trying to ascertain the exact position the Catholic Church holds on spying and lying while spying.

A STRAIGHTFORWARD PREMISE

The plot of The Mysterious Benedict Society is fairly simple. Four lonely but gifted children (Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance) are recruited by a benevolent genius (Mr. Benedict) to assist in foiling a plot by an evil genius. The evil genius aspires to control the minds of all humankind via his hi-tech invention, “The Whisperer.” The children are chosen because they have a particularly strong love for the truth and therefore a certain immunity to The Whisperer. Reynie and his friends have to go incognito into the evil genius’ organization to uncover his plans and foil them. On the surface, it’s a classic conflict of good versus evil with the reader rooting for the good guys.

LYING AND SPYING

The potentially troublesome scenario which this book creates is placing the four children undercover, in situations where they may have to lie, cheat, and otherwise practice deception. The children are repeatedly described as special because they have a strong love for the truth. This doesn’t jibe well with portraying them as lying, cheating, and so on.

The first question I had when analyzing the morality of the children’s actions was: are all the scenarios where the children tell lies under coercion or in order to preserve their secret identities? Mostly yes. Mostly. There are one or two occasions where Sticky tells a completely unnecessary lie, such as when he lies about his parents in the beginning of the book. These occasions are quite indefensible. It is up to you as a parent to decide if your child has the maturity to recognize these lies as deplorable and know not to imitate.

The rest of the lying and cheating is in the context of the children preserving their secret identities. What does the Church have to say on the morality of deception in this context? Not much, actually. There isn’t an infallible teaching about the morality of spying. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas’ argument would preclude lying when spying. But Aquinas isn’t always right.

In a fascinating article in First ThingsEthics professor Janet Smith provides a round-up of various Catholic positions on the lying and spying question. She notes that the lack of an official Church teaching on this subject points to it being a moral gray area, rather situation dependent. She draws an analogy to taking human life. Killing is wrong, but in order to defend oneself or another innocent, one can kill. Similarly, she says, lying is wrong, but in particular situations such as to save human life, one can lie. I recommend reading her article for a more thorough understanding of her argument.

Whatever your position on the question of lying and spying, the inclusion of such a tricky subject definitely makes this children’s book more complicated than your average adventure story. I would highly recommend discussing the morality of the children’s lying in the story. In fact, this makes for a great book report topic or family discussion!

UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS

To counterbalance the lying question, I found a plethora of redeeming themes in The Mysterious Benedict Society. Watching four children with diverse personalities coalesce into a team is a great lesson for the reader. Sticky is shy, Reynie is a natural leader, Kate is independent, and Constance is contrary. Their only similarity is a shared love of truth and common mission. Which is plenty to form a team and eventually friendships!

OVERCOMING FEARS

Another great theme throughout the book is overcoming fear. Sticky particularly struggles with overcoming his fears to do the right thing. The Whisperer soothes his fears and makes him feel happy: a seductive evil to resist. Reynie and Sticky both find themselves tempted to succumb to The Whisperer. Reynie thinks:

“The Whisperer’s version of happiness is an illusion – it doesn’t take away your fears, it only lies to you about them, makes you temporarily believe you don’t have them. And I know it’s a lie, but what a powerful one!”

Reynie and Sticky overcome The Whisperer’s seductive pull by relying on their friendships with each other and Kate and Constance. Reynie also turns to an adult, Mr. Benedict, for his wisdom. Through the help of other people rather than a machine’s lies, Sticky and Reynie learn to push past fear to complete their mission.

TV AND TRUTH

A third theme that will make most parents smile is the juxtaposition of TV and truth. The four children are chosen because they love the truth. What is one of the primary signs of their attachment to truth? They dislike TV and its messages. Now of course, in the story the evil villain is piggybacking poisoned messages on TV waves. We don’t have that in our world… or do we? Are the messages our children ingest from the media a positive or negative in forming their moral imaginations?

RECOMMENDATIONS

Weighing the pros and cons, I found The Mysterious Benedict Society to be an enjoyable adventure story with overall wholesome themes. After a discussion of the morality of lying and spying, this book is quite appropriate for children ten and older. Younger children could also enjoy it if they are mature enough to grasp the concepts of spying, mind control, and temptation.

Review of “The Wingfeather Saga”


Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga consists of four volumes: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North! Or Be Eaten, The Monster in the Hollows, and  The Warden and the Wolf King. I recently enjoyed reading all four books for the first time, and was quickly captivated by Peterson’s realistic characters and the fascinating world of Aerwiar. The Wingfeather Saga is the story of a family: the former royal family of Anniera, now in hiding  from the great evil one, Gnag the Nameless. Each of the three children- Janner, Kalmer, and Leeli- has a special gift and role to play in saving their world from the great evil. Children and teens who love fantasy will certainly enjoy these novels with a subtle yet decidedly Christian world view.

CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW

In the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Wingfeather Saga is not overtly pushing a Christian agenda, yet details throughout reflect the author’s Christian worldview. “The Maker” is referenced repeatedly throughout the series as the creator of the world of Aerwiar. In times of need, the children call on the Maker for aid, and sometimes receive it. There are many references to all things ultimately being in the Maker’s hands. There is even a major theme throughout of the Maker bringing good out of evil:

“Gnag bends things for breaking, and the Maker makes a flourish! Evil digs a pit, and the Maker makes a well! That is his way.”

There are also many parallels to the Biblical story of Creation in the history of Aerwiar: a first couple created by the Maker, evil entering the world through misuse of free will, and so on.

SELF-SACRIFICE AND REDEMPTION

In line with the Christian worldview, major themes in The Wingfeather Saga are self-sacrifice and redemption. Janner is repeatedly placed in situations where he must choose between self-preservation and protecting his siblings. At first he resents this duty to sacrifice himself, but by the end of the series recognizes his selfishness and embraces the Biblical ideal of laying down one’s life for one’s brother.

There are several characters who undergo redemption of various sorts. For example, Kalmar is “fanged” (changed into an animal) when in a time of weakness he loses hope and succumbs to the desire for power. With Janner’s help, Kalmar repents of his sin and regains humanity in the end. Another notable redemption is of the villain in the series, Gnag the Nameless. Peterson accomplishes the difficult feat of portraying Gnag as utterly evil, yet by a strange concatenation of circumstances redeeming him in the last seconds of his life.

PRO-FAMILY

Another wonderful aspect of The Wingfeather Saga  is its positive portrayal of family love and loyalty. The three siblings overcome jealousies and resentments to forge a close bond. The relationship between the brothers, Janner and Kalmar, is particularly noteworthy for its loyalty and sacrificial aspect. Their mother, Nia, is truly awesome: loving, supportive, protective, always willing the good for them. Their father, Esben, is believed to be dead, but eventually comes into the story and (here’s the self-sacrifice theme again) gives his life to save his children’s.

THE POWER OF MUSIC

Music as healing, music as an art form, music as a weapon. Music comes into the book over and over as a powerful force for good. Leeli is a skilled whisle-harpist, and her music saves lives, tames animals, and can carry messages. The pure of heart are roused to courage and imbued with energy when they hear her music. The evil cringe and cover their ears at the beauty of her music.

MAGIC

One of the trickiest parts of finding good fantasy novels is evaluating the “magic” factor. What does the author mean by magic? Does he equivocate about whether magic is good or evil? Does he encourage children to dabble in magic?

I found that Peterson had a unique approach to the magic question. In The Wingfeather Saga, there are no spells, potions, or witches’ hats. Instead, Peterson uses the term “magic” to be more synonymous with “mystery.” Nia explains the magic of Leeli’s music to her children:

“What’s magic, anyway? If you asked a kitten, ‘How does a bumblebee fly?’ the answer would probably be ‘Magic.” Aerwiar is full of wonders, and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker- it isn’t something Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn’t seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing, the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit. … The music Leeli makes has great power, but it is clear the Maker put the power there when He knit the world.”

Portraying magic as synonymous with a mystery may be slightly confusing for younger readers, so I would discuss how Peterson portrays magic with my children when they read this book.

DRAGONS

I ascribe to Michael O’Brien’s views on dragons (see my post Concerning Dragons), so I approached a series which I knew contained dragons with major misgivings. I found Peterson’s views on dragons slightly nebulous. He doesn’t try to make them good, portraying them as having done many dark deeds such as sinking the mountains and destroying the countryside. The primary dragon character, Yurgen, is vengeful, destructive, and lusts for power. But Peterson also doesn’t consider all dragons as inherently evil. Upon hearing Leeli’s music, a few dragons are even moved to contrition for their past evil deeds and end up helping in a final battle for Aerwiar.

Overall, the dragons come into the story fairly infrequently and are not major characters. The question is whether the “redemption” of a few dragons is a form of demythologizing? Does it contradict the centuries of western tradition which use the dragon as a symbol for evil? I think Peterson does unintentionally contradict tradition here a bit. But given how overwhelmingly Christian and wholesome these books are as a whole, this is another time where I would discuss the dragon question with my children when they read the books.

WHO SHOULD READ IT?

Overall, The Wingfeather Saga is refreshingly clean from any sexual content, adult humor, and language. There are, however, loads of violent battles. Note that the descriptions of the battles are not graphic like in “The Maze Runner” or “The Hunger Games”. But still, you have Janner and Kalmar killing many fangs in self-defense. A couple beloved characters such as Leeli’s dog and grandfather also die. Given the violence and the need for a nuanced discussion about magic and dragons, I would recommend this book for those over 12.

Review of “Water for Elephants”

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a very popular novel about circus life in the Great Depression. Jacob, 93 years old, retells his adventures one life-changing summer when he happens upon a job as a veterinarian for a traveling circus. The story bounces between Jacob’s frustrations with life in an assisted living facility, and his circus memories of meeting his future wife and the animals he learned to love. A depression-era traveling circus is an intriguing and colorful setting for a book, and one that held a lot of promise. But on several levels I found this book unsatisfactory.

First of all, an integral part of the plot is Jacob falling in love with his future wife, Marlena, who just happens to be married. At first, Jacob expresses guilt over his feelings for a married woman. But once it emerges her husband is abusive and schizophrenic, the implication is he is free to succumb to his feelings for her. Which he rapidly does.

Enter problem two with this book: a truly ridiculous amount of sexual content. Jacob spends way too much time talking about his desire to be rid of “the burden” of his virginity. I would even describe it as a minor conflict point: when and to whom will Jacob lose his virginity? There are also descriptions of masturbation, fornication, adultery, strippers, pornography, and more. It’s bad on a moral level, and also unnecessary on a storytelling level. Honestly, even if I hadn’t been repulsed by the blatant sexual content, the amount it interrupted the flow of the plot ruined the book.

A relatively minor quibble is I found what I call the “unforgiving, judgmental Catholic parent” theme, which I see often in popular modern books. A Catholic character (in this case Marlena) makes a blunder by the so-called Catholic standards of her parents. These supposedly Catholic standards are often not even in line with Catholic teaching; in this case Marlena is disowned for marrying a Jew. The parents then utterly disown and refuse to help the character ever again period. This drives the character out of the Catholic Church and also justifies all his or her future morally questionable actions. I really dislike this portrayal of Catholics as irrational, unforgiving people.

I was so disappointed with this book overall. The focus on the sexual content resulted in the circus itself really got short-changed. The enjoyable parts of the book were about the animal performers and the friendships Jacob forms with the other crew members. I wanted to read more about the elephant, Rosie. And the liberty horses act. And the other performers and crew members. If this book had focused more on the circus and less on an adulterous relationship, it might have been worth reading. But it didn’t. So my advice is don’t bother reading it, and given the graphic sexual content definitely do not allow your children to read it.

Review of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson was an international bestseller, garnering awards in Sweden and Britain and a coveted spot at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It was published in 2005, but libraries are still promoting it as a must-read book. I read it out of curiosity, pure and simple, not even intending to write a review. This book is part thriller, part mystery, part social commentary. With a cast of memorable characters, an intriguing “locked room” style scenario, and a cold case, it is easy to see why this book gained popularity.

The plot is complex, but to try to summarize in a paragraph: a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is asked by wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger to investigate his granddaughter’s probable murder many years previously. Blomkvist ends up enlisting the help of computer-hacker Lisbeth Salander, a strange young adult with a troubled past and serious personal problems, to solve the mystery. Together, they uncover the dark family secrets at the root of the Vanger girl’s disappearance.

WHAT’S TO LIKE

As Catholics, there are a few themes in this book with which we can easily agree. Yes, of course abuse of women is indeed terrible. It’s terrible that rape is under-reported and there is such a stigma of shame for survivors. Abuse of the disabled by persons in positions of authority is a terrible injustice. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo does indeed draw attention to these evils.

For lovers of children’s literature, there are a lot of fun references to Astrid Lindgren, best known in America as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books. She wrote many other children’s books which are popular in her native Sweden, and I loved Larsson’s obvious appreciation of her skill.

And, I ran out of positive things to say. So, the negative.

GLORIFICATION OF VICES

I certainly do not require protagonists which are models of virtue, but I do hope that their flaws are acknowledged as such, and that there is some growth or redemption. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson fails in both these areas. Both protagonists are deeply flawed, yet portrayed as admirable, and there is no positive character development.

Lisbeth is on the one hand drawn as a girl with a dark, troubled past and some anti-social tendencies, yet at the same time Larsson clearly admires her. He praises her promiscuity as freedom from inhibition. Her anti-social tendencies are explained as due to greater than average rationality and self-reliance. Her eye-for-an-eye ethics is portrayed as fair.

Mikael Blomkvist is clearly supposed to be the “good” guy. Larsson repeatedly harps on his reputed honesty and thirst for justice. It’s easy when you’re reading to park a character described like this in a box labeled “good.” But when you examine Mickael’s actions, you wonder whether he really is a very good person. He ascribes to the philosophy that the ends justifies the means. To him, lying is okay if it saves a life, or even if it is just more convenient for him at the moment. His adulterous relationships and affairs are another major problem in this purportedly “good” character.

In both Lisbeth and Mikael’s cases, the problem is not their character flaws and vices, but the fact that these very vices are often presented in a positive light. For example, take a look at how Mikael’s affairs are portrayed.

AFFAIRS AND ADULTERY

I think Larsson intentionally makes the most “stable” relationship in the book a completely unconventional and amoral one. Mikael has a long-running affair with his married co-worker Erika Berger, an affair which her husband is aware of and allows. Larsson paints a very positive picture of this bizarre arrangement where Erika chooses on a nightly basis whether to sleep with her husband or Mikael. Supposedly this is liberating for Erika, and loving and enlightened on her husbands part. Of course Erika is also completely understanding and enlightened about Mikael having affairs with two or three other women over the course of the book. And Mikael? Well of course he’s a good guy because he only sleeps with one woman at a time.

I found it notable that the traditionally married couples in the book fared poorly in contrast. The twisted, horrible family situation with the Vangers involves incest, rape, and torture. Horrible, but it is raised to a new level of dreadful by the fact that the mother knew what the father was doing and ignored it.

GRAPHIC SEXUAL VIOLENCE

On the subject of rape, there is a truly brutal rape scene that no one needs to read. This description of the graphic violence her guardian inflicts on Lisbeth is unnecessary and voyeuristic. Then there is another brutal rape scene, less thoroughly described, where Lisbeth takes revenge on her guardian. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is really inappropriate reading for Catholics simply taking into account these graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

DISHONORABLE MENTION TO CHRISTIANITY

Larsson gives Christianity just enough recognition for a dishonorable mention. Religion and God are by and large are ignored. The only mention comes in when Mikael and Lisbeth discover the rapist murderer justifies his actions as Biblical. The villain uses twisted interpretations of Old Testament passages to rationalize raping and killing women. Mikael shakes his head over this, and worries that his teenage daughter will get involved in “religion.” The “gods” worshiped in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are “freedom” (read the ability to do whatever one feels like), not hurting others, and a vague sense of justice.

NOD TO NIETZSCHE

I believe Larsson’s worldview must have been strongly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. Lisbeth is remarkably like the Ubermensch ideal found in Nietzsche. Larsson holds up certain qualities as admirable in Lisbeth: her extraordinarily strong will, complete reliance on reason, disregard for the common good, lack of herd mentality, independence and so on. These happen to be the qualities that perfectly coincide with Nietzsche’s Ubermensch ideal. Nietzsche’s philosophy is inherently irreconcilable with Christianity, beginning as it does with the assumption that there is no God or objective morality. Perhaps it is purely coincidental that Lisbeth appears to fit the Ubermensch model so well, but perhaps Larsson was intentionally promoting Nietzsche’s ideal.

A DARKENED WORLD

Overall, Larsson has a dark, disillusioned worldview. Governments, businesses, and individuals are nearly all manipulate, deceptive, and basically self centered. I felt like I was reading an dystopia. And realized that without a belief in God, without hope, this is indeed a dark, depressing world we live in. Larsson seems to see all the evil without being able to offer any hope or redemption. I was waiting for some sort of turning point of redemption, and even skimmed the rest of the series, which is more of the same. There is never redemption. There is no sunrise. This is a dark and deeply problematic book, and definitely not one I recommend for Catholic teens or even adults.