Pros: Biblically-based message; well-developed characters; historically and culturally accurate; introduces Bunyan and his allegory.
Cons: I wish our libraries were crammed, stacked, and filled to overflowing with such books!
Oh, the joy of surrendered dependence! Have you ever heard of Dick and Rick Hoyt? They are an incredible father-and-son team who have competed in numerous marathons and triathlons over the years. Why they? Rick Hoyt has cerebral palsy, so his father helps him to complete any athletic activities in which he competes. During triathlons, for example, for example, Rick rides in a wheelchair while his father pushes him, uses a boat to complete the swimming requirement, and rides a specially-equipped tandem bike for the final leg. It takes dedication and love, and the Hoyts seem to have an endless supply.
I first heard of Team Hoyt through a Bible study. At that time, the pastor showed a clip of this courageous team running the race. No, I'm not being simplistic in my phrasing. Literary allusions, my dear reader, literary allusions. Anyway, Dick Hoyt was pushing his son, pulling him in the boat, and generally helping him to complete activities that were beyond Rick's strength. It was a touching film clip that brought us all to tears, even before the pastor asked his penetrating question: "What if, after all his father's training, the son had decided that he was going to do all of this in his own strength? What if he just flung himself out of the boat and decided he would do everything on his own--even after what his father had done to help him? What if... What if we just go on in our own strength--we don't need anyone, we don't want any help, we can do it ourselves? What would that be like for us? Do we ever say it to God?"
Yes, most of us do. Or, we just decide not to trust altogether--not because we have a better way, but because we're afraid. I certainly was. At one time, I had no idea how to serve God, so I just stopped trying--funning the race in my own strength, if I ever saw it. Only when I admitted my weakness before our powerful Lord--indeed, began to boast in it--did I realize that God's strength was made perfect in weakness, and that I could do all things through Christ who strengthens me. --Holy Bible, Holy Bible, and... Holy Bible. I'm going to be feeding you more Scriptures, and if I were to provide all of the references, you would be deluged by numbers and abbreviations to the detriment of the review. Just be aware that I know my Source, in both senses of the word. Or, should I say "Word"? All right, enough with the linguistic worship...
The fact is, we are all dependent. Some of us wish we weren't, and outward circumstances only increase our resolve to do everything without aid from anyone, and especially from God. This is the primary conflict in Wendy Lawton's grace-filled children's work, The Tinker's Daughter. It's about a young girl and a prison, a man with an allegory and a narrow gate off in the distance. Mostly, though, it's about Help.
Can you tell from this description who the tinker is, and who his daughter might possibly be? If you know your British cultural and political history, you may have guessed that I'm referring to a tinker by the name of John Bunyan. His daughter, Mary, is fully fictionalized here but retains one of her most interesting characteristics, from a purely literary point of view. Mary Bunyan has been blind since birth. Obviously, Lawton saw this tidbit in the annuls of the English Separatist movement and decided that Mary's unique circumstances, combined with a profound sense of faith, would serve as the perfect platform for teaching fourth- through sixth-graders about John Bunyan and The Pilgrim's Progress. She was right--and, oh! the result is Mount Marvel! Along the way, of course, comes our protagonist's own Slough of Despond, which reaches a joyous and faith-filled end in its own time.
For years, Mary has thrilled at the thought of her father's word-pictures. John Bunyan is able to vivify colors until Mary, who has never seen them, has a clear understanding of what they all mean. Her own hair, she knows, is the color of warm honey, and she has eyes like her mother's blue silk ribbon. No one in her family can transform visual elements into pure poetry like her father. Her young stepmother is too busy to try, and Mary would rather not associate with her anyway. Her mother's death is still far too fresh in Mary's mind. Mary's younger sister is kind, devout, and compassionate but responsible beyond her years and not terribly imaginative. No word-pictures from her! Seven-year-old Jake can describe things after a sort, but his words are often crass and, rambunctious boy that he is, he often chooses to regale his sister with the most unpleasant sights possible. Three-year-old Thomas is still in leading strings--and, no, Lawton does not develop Thomas as a prodigy who is suddenly able to describe his most colorful toys.
Then, Papa and his lyrical portraits are gone, dragged off to prison by government authorities who have forbidden him to preach. Now, Mary is left to support the family. What will they do about finances, now that Papa's forge has grown cold and silent? Mary has promised that she can do this, and she is determined to do it without assistance from Jake or Elizabeth. But what will happen when Mary encounters Sophia, a girl who hopes not to be a pitying stranger but a true, helpful friend? Surely, Mary can't resist Sophia's family and their extraordinary storytelling skills for long? And what of Gifre, the town bully who torments Mary at every opportunity? For years, Mary has been proclaiming, "I can do all things." Will she ever take into her heart the second part of that Biblical exhortation, "...through Christ, which strengtheneth me?"
Profundity, Part I: This is a Christian book. Profundity, Part II: This is a children's book. (Insert notes of sarcasm somewhere the word "profundity" that flare up from the page.) Now, Christian writers generally like to keep our work optimistic. I speak from personal experience here; I have often refused to write something on the grounds that it was simply too unedifying. Similarly, children's authors don't typically enjoy the thought of plunging their young readers into a deep, dark depression. So, combining these elements will likely lead you to form correct conclusions about this book. Even so, it's not so much predictable, in a pejorative sense of the word, as consistent. There is a difference: a predictable sequence of events was tiresome the first time and only becomes more so as the experiences are repeated; a consistent set of ideas is one that is already laid upon a solid foundation and maintains the sort of oaken stability you can lean upon. "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms..." Wait! That hymn only came into being in the nineteenth century, and I'm supposed to be focusing on the seventeenth.
Throughout The Tinker's Daughter, characters' spiritual lives are always at the forefront. Many of my readers are already questioning whether this book is for them, and I do understand that. However, I have always been most interested in Christian books--even fiction--that were outspoken about loving the Lord. I once encountered a series of books for young adults that actually mentioned the things of God extensively, but the content itself pushed the entire topic into the background. I gave up after one book because the characters, the plot--everything!--became lackluster when a book promoted as Christian failed to expound those principles. By contrast, Lawton's work is firmly, foundationally evangelical. Every few pages or so reveals a new Scripture or an insight into an already-listed passage. There is a clear message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and characters learn valuable lessons about trusting God rather than relying on their own wisdom. Children who have read and enjoyed the works of Isabella McDonald Alden, Patricia St. John, Nancy S. Levene, Elspeth Campbell Murphy, Dandi Daley Mackall, or Sandra Byrd should be both touched and impressed by Lawton's effort.
But, dear reader, make no mistake about it--the rest of the book is exceptional, too, on its own merits. The writing is simple enough to capture the attention of an elementary-school-aged child, but detailed enough to entertain slightly older readers.
Of particular interest to most will be Lawton's development of Mary's environment, personality, and abilities. Mary doesn't claim to be independent in vain. Like modern visually-impaired travelers, Mary employs a long cane and uses her other senses to orient her to her surroundings. She identifies others by their voices, and she is capable of doing anything that typical children of her age achieve. I love the fact that Lawton seems to have done her research, keeping stereotypes to a minimum. For example, those who mythologize Helen Keller often linger lovingly over "the child's" "ever-so-sensitive" hands, never quite pausing to consider that Helen may, in fact, have grown up and that her nose and body were also involved in her knowledge of the world--that her hands were not an insect's feelers. Happily for all of us, Lawton never sinks to that level. Mary's hands are used appropriately--to explore her village, yes, but also to demonstrate affection and participate in household chores. Magnifique!
Of course, Lawton's research extends beyond blindness. It would have to, if she wanted to write a compelling book on seventeenth-century England and the preacher who shaped Protestant thought for centuries to come. Before I get to Bunyan and Lawton's historical accuracy, though, I would like to mention that Mary's friend, Sophia, belongs to the Romani people, sometimes also known as Gypsies. Again, the details provided here are quite accurate. Words taken from the Romani language are carefully interspersed throughout the text, and readers come away with a sense of the people as a whole as well as a well-developed friend for Mary Bunyan. Even I knew very little of the Romani until a kind friend with a compassionate voice read me this book several years ago. This was in the days before Bookshare, scanning, and anything else that pointed even remotely to literary access for Bethesda Lily, so I was grateful to be read a children's book; the momentary glimpse of a more innocent time certainly made some of the things my professors were compelling me to read a bit more bearable.
Now, for the part that you have all been anticipating. The Pilgrim's Progress and Bunyan's writing of it play a minor yet important role in the story. Lawton evidently felt that most of her readers would be unable to fully understand the concept of allegory, and she is right. I didn't quite grasp the meaning of the genre until I was fifteen. Anyway, she does her best to introduce some of the more applicable concepts in The Pilgrim's Progress, such as the Slough of Despond. Readers are left to take what they will from these tidbits. If you're searching for a children's edition of Christian's epic journey or a strictly biographical sketch of Bunyan, you will certainly be disappointed. If, however, you're interested in a work of historical fiction that touches on allegory, you may find yourself just as touched and captivated as any children in your care.
Lawton's extensive research renders her writing so rich that she, comprehending her audience's lack of learning in the realm of medieval English terms, has included a glossary of important terms. Did you know that maslin is a dry bread of half-rye and half-wheat, eaten only by the most impoverished classes during the 1670s? Were you aware that a furlong is a distance of 220 yards? You know it now--and you'll learn a great deal more before you've finished both the book and the glossary!
Now then, you have a choice to make. The Tinker's Daughter exudes warmth, wholesomeness, even holiness. My review exudes words, but as with so many things I've reviewed lately, my review--be it ever so persuasive--cannot compel or convince like Lawton's own words can. This is such a precious treasure of a book, in all of its accurate research and unbounded grace. "Amazing Grace..." There I go again, citing hymns that don't quite match the era!