This book follows three teenagers, close friends who are outcasts in their school, during their senior year of high school - a time everything changes. What will graduation mean for each of them? One is weighed down by the sins of his father - a priest arrested for possession of child pornography. Another is excited to start a new life at college and shake off the small-town confines. A third plans to live as he always has, content in his job because it provides him the opportunities to read and escape into his fantasy stories - he even carries a wizard staff and wears a dragon pendant that accompanies him wherever he travels.
** spoiler alert **
There are a lot of beautiful moments in this book. There are some terrifying and heartbreaking moments. But the true magic is the characters and their bond. I was instantly pulled into their stories. In fact, I read this book in three days.
"I read somewhere that a lot of the stars we see don't exist anymore. They've already died and it's taken millions of years for their light to reach Earth," Dill said.
"That wouldn't be a bad way to die," Lydia said. "Giving off light for millions of years after you're gone."
Dill had some very challenging religious questions he was wrestling with. I liked how most of them were handled. There were obvious signs and not-so-obvious signs. He struggles with intense bullying not only from peers at school but also adults around him and most especially his parents. He fights to become more than the sins of his father or the shadow of his grandfather who’s grief-stricken antics over losing his daughter dubbed him “the Serpent King” by the residents of their town. Dill’s path is very difficult, and my heart broke for him, but it’s through the unique friendships he has that help him find courage to see more in himself. And it’s his outlook at the end of the novel about how he overcame his self-loathing and doubt that really won me over. He finds a way to see God in his life and not as a serpent looking to bite him for not having a strong enough faith. It finally gives him strength. I enjoyed the moment before Dill’s talent show performance and how he centered himself not in the negative but in the places and people that encouraged him.
However, there was a lot of small-town bigotry that permeated this story. I think largely the excuse of the bigotry lies in the name of the town itself - named after the founder of the KKK. While I was happy to see the main characters overcome much of the (somewhat stereotypical) prejudice of small towns, I was extremely disturbed by one line in the book. While Travis' dad is angrily questioning if he's gay, his mom makes an excuse that of course he's not "He's a Christian." This really upset me because teens are going to read this book and believe that Christians have this mindset that Christians can't be gay. SO NOT TRUE. People of all race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc., are WELCOME in many Christian churches. Check out the ELCA. It’s unfortunate that teens read lines such as that one and believe they would not be welcome in the Christian church because they’re different. That is so not true. While most of the spiritual wrestling Dill goes through is very well done, this particular line was never counter balanced with an argument to offset it.
To be clear, I'm easily able to find humor is religion. It’s okay to poke fun here and there so we do not take ourselves too seriously. Lydia's discussion about the snakes in the Bible cracked me up!
Lydia appeared to be pondering. 'Back to the snakes. Do you think that's what Jesus really meant? Maybe he was like 'And theoretically, you could probably pick up the snakes,' and Mark's over there writing and he's like 'You should literally pick up snakes. Cool, Jesus, got it!'. And Jesus is going 'Well, calm down with the snake business. Don't be weird; just be a decent person. It's really more of a metaphor'. And Mark is writing, 'Definitely pick up actual literal snakes and drink actual real poison like rotten grape juice or other Bible-y poison.'
That's seriously hilarious. However, when an author sets up Christians as intolerant, that's when I get upset. Yes, some Christians are. But there were so many bad examples of Christians in this book. I had hoped one person would say something to counteract Travis' mom earlier statement. If not for that one line, this book would have gotten 4 stars out of 5. But I would only give it 3 at this time.
As stated earlier, this book's strength is its characters. They were quite multi-layered early on. I loved Travis instantly with his staff in one hand and fantasy book in the other. He made my heart glow with happiness! I also really enjoyed how the author started Travis’ chapters with snippets of his favorite book from this story. I think Travis’ narration was the best developed. His passion for his book, his outward bravery in being who he was, his immensely touching meeting with his favorite author, and his standing up to his dad was all amazingly sensitive and wonderful examples of courage. He was courageous in never hiding who he was. He was courageous in helping his friends whenever he could. And he found a way to stand up to his abusive father when he finally believed in himself. I was so proud of him! He also broke my heart in two. When you read the book, you’ll know why. The narration about heroes falling on the battlefield made the tears flow!
Lydia is also fantastic. Her strength in the face of opposition is refreshing. Her unique ways of fighting back against bullying are great narratives. I hope when teen girls read Lydia chapters, they find something of themselves to be proud of and also project to the world. Be proud of yourself. This is such a strong concept and a theme throughout the book. It’s also extremely welcome that the author narrates a healthy family dynamic, which is so often lacking in YA novels. It was great to read chapters with her fun parents and their loving support of Lydia. As a parent, I very much appreciated the author highlighting good parents and a loving family.
It’s impossible to hide from heart break and tragedies. The main characters learn this profoundly. But it’s how you handle such things that truly make up who you are. It’s not about your past or your family’s past. It’s about choosing which path to take and recognizing the tools around you which can assist, good or bad, to guide one down certain paths.
I received this book through Owl Crate. It’s not one I would typically pick up and purchase, but I’m glad I took a chance on it. I enjoyed so much about it. There are many great moments. There are some frustrating moments and heart-wrenching moments. But it’s worth the journey. Be a decent person. See how God is trying to help you and not hinder you. Find strength with those who will build you up and see the best of you in your most naked (not literally, by the way, teenagers!) and vulnerable. Then draw upon that courage like a knight drawing his sword from a scabbard (that one’s for you Travis) because YOU are worth it.
Rest, O Knight, proud in victory, proud in death. Let your name evermore be a light to those who loved you. Let white flowers grow upon this place that you rest. Yours was a life well lived, and now you dine in the halls of the Elders at their eternal feast.
Just released December 2016: "The Forgotten" volume 2 "Heir of the Heretic"
Reviewed and awarded the
2016 Indie Editor's Choice
by the Historical Novel Society.
Long listed for the Historical Novel Society 2017 Indie Award.
Goodreads profile at: https://www.goodreads.com/JElse