Friday, June 4
by Pete Hautman
Simon & Schuster 2004
A teen boy questions religion by playfully inventing one of his own based on a water tower, but things get out of hand as everyone who participates views the new religion differently.
This is a book I've started several times over the last three years and only now finally managed to read it straight through. It's no fault of the book or its author, I've simply had my attentions diverted elsewhere every time I tried to pick it up again. This time I had a hard time putting it down. Sometimes books have to find their moment.
Jason's tired of boring Catholicism. It doesn't speak to him, and attempts to reach out with youth ministry only push Jason further toward atheism. One day while helping his science nerd friend Shin hunt snails under the two water tower the boys run into Henry, a charismatic bully who would just as much read sci-fi as knock a kid down. While musing over the ideas of religion Jason wonders if it isn't possible to start a new religion with the water tower as their god. The idea, meant to provoke others, takes root in his friend Shin and Jason finds it serves his purposes to promote the new religion with Henry and a cute girl named Magda. Jason's real desire is to climb to the top of the water tower and he wields his new position as founder of the religion as an excuse to get Henry to show him how to climb it and to perhaps win the attentions of Magda.
But Shin's obsession over creating the bible for the new religion push his rational thinking aside, and Henry's bad-boy behavior does more to win Magda to his side as the new religion fractures, and in the end the kids find themselves in trouble when they discover the can get inside the tower's reservoir and pollute the town's drinking water.
This idea of teens inventing their own religion as a way of exploring what exactly it means to have faith is both rich and organic – I was part of a group in high school who playfully did the same thing as a way to explore the elements of religion with which we found common ground. In the end, of course, everyone reverted to the religion they were raised with, and the idea quickly lost its hold. Jason comes out the other side of his ordeal in much the same way I did, which was to realize that having religion is different than having faith. He clings to his invented religion because within it he can define right and wrong in a way that makes sense to him, in way that allows him to not simply accept the moral contradictions placed on members of many other organized religions.
Hautman does a nice job of keeping the theology light and allowing enough room for a reader to draw their own conclusions. A good choice for the National Book Award for Young Readers back in 2005.
Wednesday, June 2
Illustrated by Tanitoe
First Second 2010
A graphic novel exploration of the other half of the Lincoln assassination story, of its key player John Wilkes Booth, that lacks a very crucial element: motivation.
For as much as people refer to the United States as The Great Experiment in Democracy the simple truth is that it's history is marred by a pair of gaping wounds that will never heal out of willful neglect: racism and the Civil War. Until we can have a frank and open discussion about these rifts, and can come to a place of peace with them, the Great Experiment can never be considered a success.
Historian Colbert presents a pastiche of the life of John Wilkes Booth in an attempt, perhaps, to show us the other side of the story surrounding Lincoln's assassination. We first learn of the Booth acting dynasty and the rift between brothers John and Edwin standing in the shadow of their master Shakespearean father. Edwin, the prodigal, has the talent, but John has the looks, and the brothers are equally divided in their political loyalties once the War Between the States emerges. While Edwin is content to gain accolades for his acting, John's attentions are split between the stage and his political activities helping the South. At it's simplest, Booth presents John as a racist, separatist villain with no respect for democracy, and his particular brand of theatrical arrogance finds favor among those who would use his access to political figures via his fame for their own ends.
But why does he do it? How do a pair of brothers raised in the same house come to be divided over their politics during one of the most contentious periods of American history? Is it that Booth identifies with the South on an emotional level – be it an inferiority complex, a sense of entitlement, or simply an adolescent break from the parental confines – or is he nothing more than a pawn in a political game of chess? What drives the disgruntled beyond grousing and into the realm of sedition? These are the questions Booth doesn't answer, and given the ability to use the graphic novel medium to present a fairly large canvas it doesn't seem wrong to expect something more than backroom meetings and casual philandering for a shot at starring in the role of a lifetime. We see a surly, angry Booth but we never know why or what has pushed him to this point. Indeed, we aren't really shown anyone's motivations beyond the most one-dimensional of explanations.
Which brings me back to the point I started with, this idea that we are a nation scarred by the things we refuse to address. History is as full of conspiracies and plots and schemes as it is honest efforts and high-minded ideals, but these things all come about by the will of people, and people have their reasons for doing the things they do. If we cannot discuss their reasons, and do not engage in dialog through the ages over why people were motivated to do the things they did, we risk furthering old grievances and hatreds and misunderstandings. With a change of scenery and dialog, Booth could easily be refashioned into the story of Lee Harvey Oswald. I'm not saying the stories are identical, but that their backgrounds are equally murky and their motivations oversimplified. And we risk the possibility of allowing history to repeat itself with every successive generation so long as we continue to not discuss these divisive issues.
While I applaud Booth for wanting to address the idea that history has more than one side I find it lacks the necessary depth required for comprehending a difficult time in history.