Pros: Premise; detail; writing; development; faith-based elements; appeal to broad audience.
Cons: Like a scratch on the baseboards at the back of a closet--not noticeable.
"Sometimes, I just pressed the third pedal--the one that made everything echo--and slowly struck all the keys, making for the biggest, richest, and most complex chord I could invent. I held it, so large and sweet, until the sound disappeared. It made my eyes fill." --Joni Eareckson, The God I Love, p. 57
I know what it is to experience such music--not with one great, rich chord, but with many and not on the piano, but another instrument... but the performer's event was something that is better kept in the heart than provided elaborate detail here. Just once, I had the opportunity to listen to several classical pieces with my whole being. Until then, I had no idea that it was possible to infuse so much passion and such intricacy into a composition, note by beautiful note. I didn't realize that music could surpass the ears and gracefully dance its way into the heart. "Just once", I say, this honor was mine--and everyone deserves such a "just once".
Yes, dear reader, music is capable of doing wonderful things for a person. We've known this since Biblical times, when Jubal first began to play upon the harp and flute. Surely, though, such incredible beauty is limited to music...
It was, until Marilyn Sue Shank penned Child of the Mountains. I wish I had adequate words to portray this compelling book. It is a long-held chord, rich in its very simplicity. It is a soaring mountain range, pointing to the majesty of God. It is pictures as vivid as the best possible artists, only made more striking because letters and words and phrases are involved rather than delicately-mixed colors or fine brushstrokes. It is innocence and tragedy and pure joy, culminating in faith so strong it can almost strengthen your own, vicariously. If asked to examine every book that has ever been penned since, let us see, 1684, then to choose the perfect book from the past 328 years, I wouldn't hesitate. The best-loved classic prose and poetry, the most informative scientific findings, the most scholarly philosophical works, and the best Pulitzer Prize-earning works would all crumple into a sagging heap in the face of Shank's book.
How could I possibly feel so strongly about a children's book? Consider this, dear reader: Most books have one outstanding feature--they're profoundly informative, beautifully-written, adept at capturing some universal human truth, faith-based in some precious way that causes the heart to soar in praise to the Lord, or otherwise noteworthy. "Or" being the operative word. Most books have one of these elements, two if the authors are particularly talented. Child of the Mountains seamlessly incorporates every one of these elements, and likely some I've overlooked. So... yes... the protagonist happens to be eleven years old. Must all books that appeal to adults be happily or unhappily married, in their thirties, and undergoing accounting- or law-enforcement-related crises? That sounds like a book that knows how to do one thing very well--that is, appeal to a large audience. Marilyn Sue Shank appeals to an audience just as broad without resorting to genre typing. Ah! One more thing she does well! In all seriousness, though, this is a book for anyone who appreciates lyrical writing--readers aged nine or ten, and up. I would think it was a dreadful shame to limit yourself, because this has just as much for older readers as for younger ones.
"On with the story," you insist a trifle impatiently. Well, I can move in that direction, but this book doesn't deserve to be reviewed in the style of a second-grade book report, and the whole endeavor must be experienced like a brisk walk, not reluctantly jogged through like a workout on the treadmill. So, let's begin by introducing you to the protagonist. She is, as I've said, eleven years old, and her name is Lydia Hawkins. Lydia! In Acts Ch. 16, Lydia is described as a woman from Thyatira who sold purple goods--obviously not like our present protagonist. Lydia is also, however, described as one whose heart the Lord opened to hear His word--a devout worshiper of God. She was a very hospitable person and invited Paul and those with him to stay in her home. Certainly, someone whose kindness and faith are well worth emulating. Thyatyran residency and purple cloth aside, the description of Lydia's heart does ring true for Shank's Lydia Hawkins. Biblical allusions! And so well-accomplished that may people would have missed it. Isn't subtlety beautiful, in its own quiet way?
What of this Lydia? Well, it's 1953 and her life is filled with anguish. In the past two years alone, she has lost her beloved grandmother to old age and her seven-year-old brother to cystic fibrosis. Her mother is in prison for a crime she didn't commit, and Lydia must now live with her cantankerous Uncle William and her rather shallow Aunt Ethel Mae. Her father, to hear Lydia put it, has been living in heaven since she was four. I love that factual tone--that firm-foundation grasp of spiritual concepts. This is no tentative introduction for readers--it's just the way things are. How glorious is utter forthrightness!
Throughout the book, readers slowly learn about Lydia's present life with her aunt and uncle, while flashbacks gradually reveal her former life with her mother, grandmother and brother, BJ. With words so encompassing that they make readers live the story, Lydia explains how she herself discovered that BJ was ill; how BJ learned to read at the age of three which, in the context of this book, is not nearly as improbable as it sounds; how his clever yet mischievous antics got him into trouble; and how he ultimately had to stay in the hospital for months at a stretch. We hear of Gran's wholehearted, home-grown "lovin'"--the mustard plasters and other homeopathic treatments she devises for BJ, the nature walks on which she embarks with Lydia, the hymns they all sing as Gran sews. And then there's Mama--Mama, with her gentle beauty and even gentler faith, which is firm enough to never waver and merciful enough for all of Lydia's questions; Mama, with that lyrical way of explaining things and her hope chest filled with beautiful gowns; Mama, who really doesn't deserve to be in jail. Don't worry, I shan't spoil the story, but let's just say that Lydia is a reliable narrator and when she says that something "ain't right", her reasons are more than valid. Even as Lydia's childhood unfolds in the literary background, she must find a way to cope with everything she's currently facing. How will she ever deal with the cruel girls who taunt her because of her mother's perceived crimes? Why does Aunt Ethel Mae get so many migraines? Who is Uncle William, and what has caused his heart to harden so? Most importantly, who is Lydia? What is the true meaning of family, and who is hers? And why, oh why, can she never seem to be quite as strong as Mama or BJ?
Life may be filled with both terror and tears, but even Lydia's bitter moments begin to take on a certain sweetness when her teacher, Mr. Hinkle, asks to learn the truth of her situation. With his help, a lawyer's fierce determination, the unconditional love of her mother's closest friend, and even the rough yet loyal support of Uncle William, Lydia finds that there may just be a way to keep hoping--and perhaps even to get her mother acquitted. Oh, and did I mention that Lydia eventually finds companionship in a huge brown dog by the name of Ears? You may consider this somewhat insignificant in the scope of such loss, but nothing is trivial as far as Shank is concerned. Instead, Ears provides just enough friendship and comic relief to ease the reader through some of the most poignant parts.
And, make no mistake about it, this book is so incredibly exquisite that it tends to break the heart in multiple places, from myriad angles. It's filled with such a series of challenges, yet tempered with such unbelievable sweetness, that you can't help wishing there were an audio copy. Sadly, no audible edition is available, so I have been reading and rereading this book the old-fashioned way. Yes, rereading. I seldom do this--if I've read a book once, I will remember its basic premise, writing style, fine points, and often parts of the dialogue for years to come. This book, though, is an exception to my rules. I may have heard it all before, but how can I possibly ignore such magnificent writing and the lovely resolution, which develops through mounting hope rather than through Existential despair. I can imagine your protests: "But Nicole, life doesn't always have rosy, happy endings." No, but sometimes it does. In recent years, the literary community has focused on the "life-isn't-fair" principle to the exclusion of all else. While life will never be the same for Lydia, it can still be triumphant.
An audio version is surely necessary if the reader wishes to hear and absorb all the possible nuances in this story. As the title might imply, Child of the Mountains is set in the Appalachian Mountains and both setting and dialogue ring true. The extensive author's note at the end of the book describes each pertinent fact about the characters' coal-mining lives, and the book itself describes a number of lost arts no longer seen or cherished today--things like the secret of a pumpkin pie that tastes as light as clouds, or the correct combination of plants and kitchen agents that goes into making various dyes.
Then, there's the writing itself. I love the way that each chapter begins with the words "it's about": "It's About My Problem", "It's About Missing Home and Them Girls at School", "It's About My Daddy", etc. Somehow, this lends a credibility to the story--the idea that you really can't argue with personal experience. Yet, even though you know exactly where you stand in the story and with the characters, the writing between chapter titles never becomes prosaic. Instead, wonderfully-employed flashbacks tell us all we need to know at a slow, conversational pace--as if Lydia really doesn't want to reveal it all at once. The book is written as a journal of sorts, so the chapter that begins "It's About Solitaire and Solitary", Lydia watches her uncle playing a card game, which triggers a memory of the day BJ left them--solitary. Never are the associations and shifts in time used as a trite literary device, and not once do they become confusing. It takes talent to accomplish so much.
The voice and the setting complement one another until the two are virtually inseparable. Told entirely in Lydia's voice, the prose is downright poetic and really must be read aloud, if at all possible. Like this: "The sun cozied up to us and spring finally started to peek out of the ground and the trees. The sweet smell of honeysuckle blowed a kiss to us from the side of the house" (p. 240). Or this: "We listened to the thoughts inside us for a while" (p. 249). Or my personal favorite: "I come to think that being strong ain't about being tough or holding things all bottled up inside when you have real bad times. It's just about leaning on Jesus and the folks He puts around you and putting one foot in front of the other until you cross over into some better days. You done that just fine" (p. 249). No, the grammar isn't standard, but that doesn't make it any less perfect or vivid. For Shank's intents and purposes, it's beautiful.
Now, back to "my personal favorite". I read this entire story for the first time, rejoicing at what seemed to be such strong references to God's love but trying desperately to quell any joy in Lydia's consistent, well-integrated ponderings on Scripture. My reasoning was simple: Years ago, I had read a similar book, also set in the Appalachian Mountains and equally well-developed as far as tone and voice went. The author, whom I shan't name, "developed" her character right out of credibility and into a false sense of intellectualism that caused her to abandon and mock the Christian faith. It was enough to knife the heart. So, I really didn't want to take any chances as far as Shank's book was concerned for fear that Shank would use the fictional platform to persecute the devout. I wish I had never harbored such a notion! The author's note describes her own faith as integral to her life and something she treasures. I'm not spoiling anything here, dear reader. If you agree with Shank's premises, I'm sure you would like to know that she is sincere; if you don't, wouldn't you like to know that Lydia will be dynamic is intelligence and strength but remain very consistent in her principles? Either way, shouldn't you have the right to know? I assume that Shank announced her own views at the end of the book rather than the beginning only because she felt that Lydia's character should speak for itself and that anything said about the Lord should be par for the course--but, oh! what a relief to make the discoveries I did! From a purely faith-based perspective, nearly everything is doctrinally sound with the exception of a little talk about magic, which makes me rather uncomfortable. However, that inclusion is so brief that I can overlook it in the scope of the overall story--and, trust me, I've been accused of being much too sensitive to this, so most other readers won't find this a problem.
It isn't a question of whether I recommend that you, your children, and any other interested loved-ones read this book--it's a question of how many times. Read it once for the writing, twice for the character development, and a third time for the information you'll glean. If you like, read it a fourth time just to focus on the mostly-subtle yet ever-present elements of faith. Read it again if you need a little hope, again if you need someone to cry with you and have no personal connections in the middle of the night, and again if you're so filled with joy you could never hope to express it. Just read...
May 13-June 17 is National Family Month. No book better exemplifies the meaning of family unity than Child of the Mountains. This has been an entry in my Carpe Diem Write-Off.