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"Never read books you aren't sure about . . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?"

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Nothing to Fear by Jackie French Koller

There seems to be something about the Depression-era that inspires the best historical fiction. Nothing to Fear takes place in an urban setting amongst an Irish-Catholic family hit hard by the economic collapse in America.

Danny lives with his mother, sister and father, until his father leaves home to find a job. Danny takes this hard. In the end, his father never makes it home since he was killed while jumping trains to make it back to his family for Christmas.

Through Danny’s eyes, we get a powerful picture of the Depression and its effect on different people: compassion, unkindness, and the mixture of both. It’s an excellent book overall.

The first safety flag I would wave is to let parents know that there was a reference to a child murdered and found in a basement. Also, Danny runs into old neighbors of his who were evicted and now live in a “Hooverville” shantytown in the park. It’s a stark and tragic depiction of poverty that may be disturbing to some tweens.

I’m adding another caution for the portrayal of the Catholic faith. There are references that make the Catholic setting of the book clear: Danny goes to catechism and mass, and there are pictures of Jesus and Mary on the walls. Despite Danny’s exposure to the faith, there is no discernible depth or richness to it. He never has recourse to it, and his only real encounter with God and His strength is a conversation with an older man Hank, who tells Danny that he believes in a higher power watching out for him.

That Danny isn't encouraged by his faith, or even seems to have much understanding of it, is good for parents to discuss, but more important to me is the one-sided caricature of the faith encountered. Specifically, when Danny goes to catechism class, he gives the Sister back-talk. This Sister is the only one depicted in the story. She appears to be a mean, stern, and humorless sort who then makes Danny kneel during the whole class, then makes his neighbor, a girl named Maggie, do the same when she giggles. Then, Maggie passes a note which says, “I saw you naked last night.” (It’s not clear if she actually did…she opened his chained kitchen door a crack when he was taking a bath and stood there awhile, panicking him.) Now, they have to kneel on rice for the rest of the hour. Sister also assigns them the consequence of 5 rosaries to be prayed that evening.

How do Maggie and Danny handle this? There is no sense of repentance for breaching decorum or modesty. There is no respect for Sister and what she might be trying to teach them, at least through the prayers. Maggie scoffs at the idea of doing the rosaries, and Danny expresses some knee-jerk fear and guilt that if he doesn’t do them, he’ll be in mortal trouble. (sin is never mentioned). For an older adolescent attending catechism, Danny has a poor forming in the faith.

Perhaps this was the experience of a lot of Catholics, and that explains a lot nowadays. Still, it’s something to think about in terms of how much you want to parade this view of Catholicism before your children, at least uncritically. It’s not likely to enrich their faith. I’d want my children to recognize the narrow slice of the pie they are receiving here.

Safety Rating: 2 Vatican Flags

Historical Fiction: 1932; Depression Era; America


Anonymous,  July 2, 2009 at 9:16 PM  

Wow! What an awesome book review! :) Keep-up the great work! :)

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