One-Minute Book Reviews

October 14, 2012

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’: 10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel

By Chris Beha

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may use it in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A young convert to Catholicism faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man in the first novel by Chris Beha, an associate editor of Harper’s. Sophie Wilder fell in love with Charlie Blakeman in college and drops back into his life when they are both in their 20s and have had books published. Sophie has re-entered Charlie’s life, it seems, to tell him about her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s life from his perspective as a New Yorker who has abandoned traditional religious practices. Told from two alternating viewpoints, the novel raises such questions as: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? And at what point does an investment in a “story” become irreversible?

10 Discussion Questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder:

1. A lively debate has occurred online about whether Sophie’s conversion to Catholicism was convincing. How plausible did it seem to you?

2. The publisher of this novel says that it is about “the redemptive power of storytelling.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. The novel tells Sophie’s story from two alternating points of view. The odd-numbered chapters give Charlie’s first-person point of view. The even-numbered chapters use third-person narration. Who is telling the story in even-numbered chapters? Some critics believe they represent Charlie’s attempt to tell the story from Sophie’s perspective. Do you agree?

4. The phrase “What happened to?” has more than one meaning. It can signify curiosity (whatever became of?) or alarm (what went wrong?). In this novel, the phrase has a third, metafictional meaning: What happens to Sophie Wilder at the end of the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder? What do you think happens to her at the end?

5. Did you find the ending of the book — really, two endings — satisfying? Why?

6. A critic for Publishers Weekly said it’s hard to sympathize with Sophie even when she’s trying to do the right thing, “because she’s so blatantly indifferent to the harm she causes.” What, if anything, did you admire about Sophie?

7. Chris Beha dealt indirectly with a meaning of the title of the novel in the online magazine the Nervous Breakdown. He wrote: “What Charlie does discover about what happened to Sophie has nothing to do with the success of her first book or her failure to write another. Instead, it has to do with the time she spent caring for her husband’s dying father, and the way the watching him suffer has changed her. That is, it has to do with the world’s hard realities.” Did the novel convince you that Sophie’s fate had more do with Bill Crane than with Charlie or with her writing career?

8. This novel has conspicuous literary symbols, such as the Victorian glass aquarium in the Greenwich Village townhouse in which Charlie and his cousin Max rent rooms. What does the fish tank represent? Who or what are the tropical fish? You might interpret the tank in either a secular sense (it’s an expensive object from earlier era) or in a sacred one (in some contexts, fish symbolize Christianity).

9. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” Charlie says at the end of the novel. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.” He’s talking about the aquarium he and Max were supposed to tend, but his words may have more than one meaning. What you think he’s saying in these lines?

10. What Happened to Sophie Wilder has drawn raves from some critics, such as David G. Myers of Commentary, who said that it is “a remarkable first novel” that “should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature.” The book has had mixed reviews from others, including Sarah Towers, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “In places the novel suffers from too much distancing exposition — the price of so many flashbacks to Charlie and Sophie’s college days. And yet, like Charlie, I found myself absorbed throughout with the mystery of Sophie.” How would you sum up the novel?

Extras:
These questions relate to the religious ideas in What Happened to Sophie Wilder:

1. Sophie begins to read her dying father-in-law the story of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, found in the Bible in John 11:1-44. (“Now Jesus loved Martha …) He cuts her off. Why did Sophie choose that passage? Why did Bill reject it?

2. The Bible says that Christians will receive the gifts listed in Galatians 5:22: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering [i.e., patience], gentleness, goodness, faith.” Which, if any, of those traits does Sophie show? Does it matter, in a literary sense, whether or not she shows any?

3. Sophie converted to Catholicism after reading the monk Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and each of the two main sections of the novel has seven chapters. (The title of Merton’s book refers to the mountain of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy.) Does the division of the novel into seven-chapter sections have meaning? If so, what is it? In what ways is Sophie in her own purgatory?

Vital statistics:
What Happened to Sophie Wilder. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95. Published: May 2012. A review of the novel appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2012.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a frank discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to those commercial guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers or authors, and all of its reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. You can avoid missing the guides by subscribing to the RSS feed or following Jan on Twitter.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the Plain Dealer book editor and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 22, 2011

Religious Motifs in ‘Room’ — Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:25 pm
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Critics have all but ignored the obvious religious motifs in Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, including its many references to God, Jesus, and Christian saints. But Donoghue talked about the spiritual framework for her bestseller in an Economist interview about the book, which tells the story of a mother and her 5-year-old son held captive in a backyard garden shed. Here is an excerpt from her comments:

The Economist: Both Ma and Jack pray and, especially in the case of Ma, find comfort in their faith. How does faith figure in to Room?

Emma Donoghue: I’ve always been religiously inclined but it doesn’t come up in most of my books. I always knew it would be central to Room because prisoners cling to whatever tatters of faith they’ve got: look at those Chilean miners and their daily prayer groups. Between you and me, I’m not sure how literally Ma believes in all that, but it certainly makes sense that she would have taken whatever vague Christian framework she had and offered it to Jack as part of her system for making meaning of their days, and keeping hope alive. Kids delight in “magical thinking,” whether in the form of the Tooth Fairy or the saints: whether you see these as comforting lies or eternal verities, they are part of how we help kids make sense of the world. I think that’s why the religious element of Room does not seem to bother non-religious readers; they can just put it on a par with Santa. But for me, Room is a peculiar (and no doubt heretical) battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus. If God sounds absent from that triangle, that’s because I think for a small child God’s love is represented, and proved, by mother-love.

You can read the full interview on the Prospero blog for the Economist. And you can read more about the religious motifs in a One-Minute Book Reviews review of Room and in a reading group guide to the novel.

May 23, 2010

David Wojahn’s ‘Pentecost’ – A Poet Honors His Father’s Task of Guarding Ezra Pound in a Wartime Prison in Italy

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:20 pm
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It’s a brave poet who writes about Pentecost – often called Whitsun in Britain – in the wake of Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” one of the greatest poems of the middle decades of the 20th century. But David Wojahn succeeds beautifully in his “Pentecost,” which you can listen to in a podcast on the Poetry Foundation site.

“Pentecost” at first appears to be about the human inability to comprehend the divine. An American soldier in Pisa in 1945 sees in a piazza a light “infinitely brighter than the light he woke to” and imagines that he has “the power to speak in Greek, Italian, and Chinese.” But he blames “the oddness of his thoughts” on grappa he’d been drinking. He can attribute his glimpse of transcendence only to the Italian brandy.

But Wojahn says in the Poetry Foundation podcast that some of the inspiration for “Pentecost” came from his father’s wartime task of guarding the poet Ezra Pound, who was imprisoned for treason in a wire cage in an American detention camp near Pisa and had a nervous breakdown there. So “Pentecost” is also about the link between what are perceived as spiritual and mental “derangement” : What is the difference between the speaking in tongues that occurred on the first Pentecost and the strange words that Pound uttered in his cage, or wrote in his Pisan Cantos?

Quotations are from the podcast — I couldn’t find a copy of the poem to read — and line breaks or other elements may differ in the printed version.

March 30, 2010

John Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’ Answers the Question, How Should Christians Talk About the Resurrection?

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:52 pm
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A novelist makes the case against turning the event into a parable

“Seven Stanzas at Easter.” A poem by John Updike. From Collected Poems: 1953–1993, Knopf, 387 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

As a young writer, John Updike submitted “Seven Stanzas at Easter” to a religious arts festival at the Lutheran church he attended on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He won the “Best in Show” award for the poem and returned his $100 prize to the congregation.

Fifty years later, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” has become perhaps the most famous Easter poem of the second half of the 20th century. In some ways, its popularity is surprising. The modified-envelope rhymes of the poem are subtle enough that you might miss them. The seven stanzas might invoke any of many Christian associations with the number seven — the days of Holy Week, the gifts of the spirit, the sayings of Christ on the cross — but it isn’t clear which. And all of the 35 lines in the poem deal with a question that can make Christians squeamish: How should we talk about the Resurrection?

Updike speaks directly to the reader from the first stanza onward:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

The poem goes on to reject the idea of talking about the Resurrection in literary tropes that mask or deny the corporal realities of the Crucifixion:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable …

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” is about the body of Christ in more than one sense, and its theme appears unambiguous: In for a dime, in for a dollar; if you talk about the Resurrection, you can’t turn it into a Jungian projection of a collective unconscious. But it’s a mistake to read “Seven Stanzas at Easter” a tract. The poem doesn’t weigh the historical or theological evidence for or against the Resurrection. It less about what happened or didn’t happen at the tomb than about how to talk about it. And its message is more equivocal than Job’s “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

Updike tips his hand with the “if” in his first line: “Make no mistake: if He rose at all.” That “if” modifies all that follows and turns the poem into a variation on Pascal’s wager, the idea that although the existence of God can’t be proved, a person should live as though it could be, because that position has all the advantages. Updike tells us to avoid sanitizing the Resurrection for our own comfort or because we can’t otherwise conceive of it. To mythologize the event, he warns, is to being “awakened in one unthinkable hour” and find that “we are embarrassed / by the miracle, / and crushed by remonstrance.”

In the first quotation above, the line beginning “the amino acids” should be indented six spaces, which this template won’t allow. The full text of “Seven Stanzas at Easter” appears on the site for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, where some lines break in different places than they do in Collected Poems. The Lutheran recounts how Updike submitted to the poem to the Religious Arts Festival at Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 10, 2009

‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’ — A Review of Rhoda Janzen’s Memoir Coming Soon

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:37 pm
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In middle age, Rhoda Janzen reconnected with the faith of her childhood after facing setbacks that included a hysterectomy and the news that her husband was leaving her for a man he met on Gay.com. Janzen describes the experience in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, which One-Minute Book Reviews will review soon. In the meantime, you’ll find an excerpt and more on the site for its publisher.  On Nov. 8 I put up a couple of tweets on Twitter (www.twitter.com/janiceharayda) about the use of “shoe-in” for “shoo-in” and “timber” for “timbre” by Janzen, who teaches English at Hope College.

November 9, 2009

Mitch Albom Gets Religion – A Review of ‘Have a Little Faith’


The author of
Tuesdays with Morrie says he has learned that he is “neither smarter nor better” than other people

Have a Little Faith: A True Story. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 254 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum achieved bestsellerdom with All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a small book that offered twee advice such as, “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you” and “Flush.” For Mitch Albom the font of wisdom appears to have materialized in what is euphemistically called “midlife.”

In his bestselling Tuesdays With Morrie and the new Have a Little Faith, Albom assumes the posture of an innocent who became a man of the world without having learned the basic lessons that Fulghum seems to have picked up between games of dodgeball. He is not, it appears, a quick study.

Albom said in Tuesdays With Morrie that during his talks with a dying former professor, he learned that “love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.” He writes in his new book that he has learned fresh lessons — about what he calls “faith” — from Albert Lewis, the New Jersey rabbi who presided over his bar mitzvah in 1971, and a pastor to the homeless in Detroit. Lewis told Albom that whenever he looked at a picture of the family he loves, he thought, “This is your immortality.” But if love keeps you alive – at least in others’ hearts – isn’t that what Albom learned from Morrie Schwartz?

No discovery seems too basic for Albom not to cast as a revelation as he and Lewis talk about cosmic and earthly questions: What makes people happy? Why does it mean to be good? How can you cope with tragedy? Albom is amazed when Lewis asks a Hindu health aide about her belief in reincarnation. “How can you – a cleric – be so open-minded?” he asks, as though shocked that the rabbi isn’t a bigot. The news that his old synagogue has extensive files on its history seems to fill him with wonder. “I didn’t know there were files,” he tells the woman who informed him of it. Imagine: A synagogue that keeps good records!

Under the rubric of “faith” Albom writes about religion in such a generalized feel-good way that you’re not sure how his view differs from the God-is-love school of theology or even New Age psychobabble. You wonder if he knows. Albom says he wrote Have a Little Faith “in the hope that all faiths can find something universal in the story,” and it’s full of pseudoprofundities such as, “we all want the same things: comfort, love, and a peaceful heart.” But the view of “immortality” that he seems to advocate – that you find your afterlife in the memories of others – is far more Jewish than Christian (not to mention, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim). Certainly few Christians would disagree that people “live on” in others’ minds. But Christian theology holds that things like “comfort, love and a peaceful heart” are not the ultimate aim. They are the byproducts of a larger goal, which is salvation through Christ.

Albom tries to keep the book from tilting toward his religion by interweaving chapters about his old rabbi with sections on Henry Covington, an ex-drug dealer who began a ministry to the homeless after a spiritual plea bargain: One night when he thought killers were trailing him, he decided that if he survived, he would devote his life to Jesus. But in these sections Albom keeps his distance from theology and focuses on matters such as whether the pastor’s church can keep the lights on, so the spiritual heart of the story lies in Lewis, who set the book in motion by asking his former congregant to give his eulogy.

Like Albom’s recent novel For One More Day, his new book is written at third-grade reading level, according to readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word.* Have a Little Faith is more interesting than that homespun parable in because Lewis is a bit of card – he kept a mock parking sign in his office that said, YOU TAKA MY SPACE / I BREAKA YOUR FACE — and the book has excerpts from his sermons. It also includes the fine eulogy Albom eventually gave for Lewis that may inspire you if you have to give a similar talk. Otherwise, you are well-advised keep in mind something Albom says he learned while writing this book: He is “neither smarter nor better” than others, just luckier.

Best line: The first line of the Twenty-third Psalm, quoted by Lewis in a sermon: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Worst line: No. 1: “January arrived and the calendar changed. It was 2008. Before the year was done, there would be a new U.S. President, an economic earthquake, a sinkhole of confidence, and tens of millions unemployed or without homes. Storm clouds were gathering.” Yes, when January arrives, the calendar usually does change. No. 2: “What do you do when you lose a loved one too quickly? When you have no time to prepare before, suddenly, that soul is gone?
“Ironically, the man who could best answer that question was sitting in front of me.” This is a misuse of “ironically.” Nothing “ironic” is happening here.

About the reading level of this book: To figure the reading level of Have a Little Faith, I entered into a computer the full text of pages 24–25, 124–125, 224–225 and pages 164–165, then ran the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, which shows you the Flesch-Kincaid reading level at the bottom of the stats window. The reading levels for the pages averaged Grade 3. 7 and ranged from a low of Grade 2.8 to a high of Grade 6.5. The passages entered include only words written by Albom, none by Lewis. A comparison of Albom’s level and that of other authors appears here.

Published: September 2009

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 29, 2009

Is ‘The Lost Symbol’ Is ‘Offensive’ to Christianity?

Crosses and other religious symbols help to drive the plot of The Lost Symbol. Are the images used in an offensive way? Philip Hensher writes in a review of The Lost Symbol in the Spectator:

“The plot, naturally, is all to do with the concealment of wisdom within sacred texts, and as it unfolds, it becomes first moronic and then somewhat offensive. Moronic, because it seems to believe that wisdom and knowledge are things which are acquired by placing a bit of gold on top of a bit of stone, and then wiping off some wax. Brown’s heroes remind me of Hardy’s Jude, who thought that you could understand Greek if you cracked a simple code in the dons’ safekeeping:

“Don’t you see? These [Biblical phrases] are code words, Robert. ‘Temple’ is code for body. ‘Heaven’ is code for mind. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is your spine. And ‘Manna’ is this rare brain secretion.

“Not just moronic, but offensive, because the whole historical point of Christianity was that it celebrated its rites entirely openly, unlike any other religion to that point. The huge enlightenment to come, trailed by Brown, doesn’t convince, because he can’t really imagine what it would be, apart from some previously secret beliefs being made generally available. What that would mean, apart from people saying ‘With my temple, I thee worship’ at wedding ceremonies, Brown cannot limn.

“This is taking a bit of fluff all too seriously, but tales of conspiracy are worrying when they become as massively popular as Brown’s stories have done. God knows how many of his readers think there might be some truth in any of this. But even if there were none, it is depressing to see the point to which the bestseller as a form has sunk. Vintage have recently reissued all of Nevil Shute, and to read a hugely popular book of 50 years ago next to The Lost Symbol is to witness a painful decline in quality and sheer class. A novelist like Brown would never risk an extended set-piece like the motor race in On the Beach, or the details of capital investment in A Town Called Alice. Or, come to that, the thrillingly extended card game in the first part of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. These are novels which, though aiming at popularity, respected their readers and were possessed of a decent level of craft. Nowadays, we are reduced in our thrill-seeking endeavours to listening to Dan Brown, whose idea of giving a reader a good time is droning:

“Franklin Square is located in the northwest quadrant of downtown Washington, bordered by K and Thirteenth streets. It is home to many historic buildings.”

August 13, 2009

James Rollins’s ‘The Doomsday Key’ – Blarney About Celtic Myths and More

An elite military unit has to grapple with codes and ciphers to find an antidote to a bioweapon

The Doomsday Key: A Novel (Sigma Force Novels). By James Rollins. Morrow, 448 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

What if the ancient Egyptians had brought to the British Isles the antidote to a deadly fungus that was threatening to wipe out the world in the 21st century? And what if their knowledge had passed to the Celts and early Christians, who left clues to the remedy in codes, symbols or conspiracies that involve the Vatican, a U.S. Senator, and shadowy global terrorist group called the Guild?

These questions underlie James Rollins’s latest technothrilller, a book that shows that you can write better than Tom Clancy and still serve up blarney. Rollins doesn’t trade in Clancy’s jingoism and alphabet-soup of acronyms, and he shows more respect for the English language than many authors who have left their mark on this paranoid genre.

But he has his own problems in his sixth novel about Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force, a fictitious unit of the U.S. Department of Defense. Rollins allows a subplot about genetically modified foods to sputter out about 75 pages before the end, which slows the pace and works against satisfying resolution to the plot. He gives the same emotional weight to so many events – a firefight, a reunion between ex-lovers, an avalanche above the Arctic Circle – that you can’t feel all you should for any of them. And only a conspiracy theorist or the most ardent fan of The Da Vinci Code might love his mishmash of real or historical figures, places or objects: Merlin, druids, Stonehenge, Celtic crosses, Queen Nefertiti, the Domesday Book, the Knights Templar, Saint Malachy, Princeton University, the Abbey of Clairvaux, Pope Benedict XVI and more. A few of these might have been intriguing. As it, when an off-kilter Freemasonry symbol appears near the end, you wonder: Will a reference to the Kennedy assassination be next?

Best line: “In Israel, botanists grew a date palm from a seed that was over two thousand years old.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Her methods were brutal – like murdering the Venetian curator – but who was he to judge? He had not walked in her shoes.” No. 2: “So in other words, we’re looking for a bunch of pissed-off Druids.” No. 3: “Her apartment was on the third floor. Though small, she did have a nice view of the Coliseum from her balcony.”

Editor: Lyssa Keusch

Listen to an audio excerpt from The Doomsday Key.

Published: June 2009

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 31, 2009

Kate DiCamillo’s Allegory of Christian Faith and Resurrection, ‘The Miraculous Journey of Edward to Tulane,’ With a Key to Its Biblical Parallels

This review appeared in January 2007, right after the American Library Association gave that year’s Newbery Medal to The Higher Power of Lucky instead of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, regarded as a favorite for the award.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. By Kate DiCamillo. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick, 200 pp., $18.99. Ages 7 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Edward Tulane spends “40 days and 40 nights” in a wilderness, is nailed to a cross, dies after a shared meal, and is resurrected and reunited with a parent figure. Sound like anybody you’ve heard of?

How about if I added that Edward is a rabbit, a symbol of Easter? And that he is loved by a girl named Maggie, which can be a nickname for Magdalene?

That’s right. Edward Tulane is a symbol of Christ, his story is a Passion narrative, and this novel is an allegory of Christian faith and resurrection.

If you’ve followed the publicity for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, you may have heard denials of all this. So here are a couple of facts:

1) Anyone who has a financial stake in this novel may have to deny its religious motifs, even though the book includes a striking full-page picture of Edward’s crucifixion. Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, and the award helped to make her books among the most popular in American schools. The Christian imagery in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may have cost DiCamillo 2007 Newbery Medal, which the American Library Assocation awarded to The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. A blunt acknowledgment that Edward is a Jesus figure might also keep the book off school reading lists.

2) The religious themes in the book do not appear once or twice or in ways that might have been accidental. They appear in the title, the artwork, and throughout the story. DiCamillo is too careful a writer to insert such motifs casually, which would violate the reader’s trust and well-established dramatic principles. At the end of this review are some lines that are identical or closely parallel to lines in the Bible. In DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, the main character’s father was a preacher.

Children can enjoy The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane without understanding its religious themes just as adults can love Animal Farm without realizing that it is an allegory for Stalinism. But some children will sense that DiCamillo’s book has more than one level of meaning. To deny this could undermine their confidence in their ability to make intelligent, multi-layered judgments about books. All children benefit from learning to grasp a story on more than one level. DiCamillo has given them a chance to do this in a moving and suspenseful novel, beautifully illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Children of any faith can enjoy its story. How unfortunate if the novel were kept out of schools because it might help them appreciate the many layers of meaning that a good book can have.

These are three of many passages in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane that have parallels in the Bible:

DiCamillo’s lines appear below in a light-faced font. The parallel lines from the King James Version appear in bold.

Edward begins his journey by leaving “a house on Egypt Street” where he is in bondage to his inability to love. “Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage …” Exodus 13:13

Edward spends “40 days and 40 nights” in a garbage dump surrounded by rotting food. “… he had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights …” Matthew 4:2 Also: “I will cause it to rain upon the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.” Genesis 7:4

A shopkeeper tells Edward: “I brought you back from the world of the dead.” “… he rose from the dead.” Acts 10:34

Many names in the book also have religious connotations. They include those of three female characters: Abilene (once a region of the Holy Land), Natalie (which means “birth of the Lord”); and Maggie (often a nickname for Magdalene).

Published: February 2006

Read an excerpt from The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane on the Candlewick Books site.

Furthermore: Kate DiCamillo’s “Mercy Watson” series for beginning readers was reviewed on this site on Feb. 10, 2007. DiCamillo’s new novel for children, The Magician’s Elephant, will be published this fall, and an excerpt appears on her Web site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 13, 2009

St. Valentine Is #58 on List of ’101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:17 pm
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A while back I reviewed a quirky book called The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived (Harper, 2006), which ranked fictional characters in order of their social and historical importance. The Marlboro Man took the No. 1 spot for his role in changing how people saw a cigarette formerly marketed to women: “Marlboro’s new image boosted its sales four-fold from 1955 to 1957, and by 1972 it had become the top cigarette brand both in the nation and the world.”

Where does St. Valentine rank? He comes in 58th, say Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. As if you didn’t know, they argue in part that he boosts the economy by contributing sales of “flowers, greeting cards, jewelry, and condoms.” They also give a good summary of one of the better known stories about him:

“The most frequently told legend holds that in 270, during the time of Emperor Claudius II, a priest named Valentine lived in Rome. Claudius felt that married men made poor soldiers because they would not want to leave their families for battle. The emperor needed soldiers, so Claudius is reported to have issued an edict forbidding new marriages.

“Valentine supposedly violated the ban and secretly married couples. For this, the Romans threw him in jail. While there, Valentine allegedly fell in love with his jailor’s blind daughter, and it was said he miraculously cured her. But when their illicit love affair was discovered, the Romans had him beheaded. On the morning of his execution, the 14th of February, he purportedly sent the girl a farewell message signed, From your Valentine. Sometime later, the miraculous cure helped qualify him for sainthood.

Who are the other fictional characters who made the Top 5 along with the Marlboro Man?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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