Monday, December 14, 2009

Not another "angels" book!

Angels and Other Strangers
by Katherine Paterson, 1979

I confess, when I was first given an attractively bound little book with “angels” in the title, I cringed inwardly. More sentimental, mass-produced, contrived plots with bad theology? Forgive me, Bob and Ruth, my reading friends, I should have known you better than that. I realized my mistake when I read the back of the book, which told me that Katherine Paterson is the author of Bridge to Terabithia. Oh, this lady can write! Maybe I should re-examine her angels book.

Turns out the stories were written, one a year, for Paterson’s Presbyterian minister husband to read to his congregation at Christmastime. The first year, when the minister requested a story, Paterson went to the library to find one. But she could find only sentimental, contrived plots with bad theology. And she said to herself, “I could do better than this!”

So, expect lots of tragedy lurking round the edges of these nine Christmas stories. Some are quite dark and others are dark and funny, but all take a redemptive turn before the end.

Perhaps because Paterson’s children were small when she was writing them, children appear in all nine stories, and six of the nine feature babies. This made the stories especially poignant, not to mention suspenseful, for the mother that I am. I went through each story hoping nothing bad was going to happen to the baby. Sometimes it did. One story deals with a mother grieving after the stilbirth of her daughter, and one with a Japanese minister whose wife, son and baby were killed (before the story opens) when a bomb hit their house. But no such tragedy takes place “on stage,” so to speak.

Paterson’s fictional children aren’t all little angels, either. Their very immaturity and sin even drive the plot in some of the stories. This, whether it’s tragedy or just immaturity, is a part of the fallen world that Christ came to save.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rainbow Garden

by Patricia St. John, 1960

Perhaps Patricia St. John’s best-known book is Treasures of the Snow. It has been made into a movie. But she has written many excellent books for children. I have read only three of them: Treasures of the Snow, The Secret of Pheasant Cottage, and most recently, Rainbow Garden.

Despite its somewhat namby-pamby-sounding name, and despite the many scenes of beauty within it, Rainbow Garden is not a sentimental book. It’s not about hippy, New-Agey, All-Is-One-style rainbows. In fact the rainbow makes only one appearance, very vivid but very brief, as is the way of rainbows.

Elaine has lived a pampered, but lonely and urban life in London with her mother. Then she is sent to live with a vicar and his family of six children in rural northern Wales – near both the mountains and the sea. In January.
Naturally it’s quite an adjustment. Elaine is not used to being asked to pitch in and do her share of the household chores, as the Owens expect her to do. She is no good at running, throwing snowballs or climbing trees as are the Owen children. One rainy day in the early spring, she looks out the window and notices a very bright rainbow which seems to have its foot behind a stone wall. She quietly leaves the house, runs to the wall, and follows it until she finds a low place where she can scramble over. By the time she does so, the rainbow has vanished. But Elaine has discovered a deserted garden that becomes her place of solace when she needs to get away from the difficulties of her living situation.
Patricia St. John excels at describing scenes of natural beauty in an evocative but not overdone manner. It is clear that she herself loves nature and draws great nourishment from it. And spring in North Wales gives her plenty to describe.

But Elaine is not just being calmed and nourished by nature; she is pursuing a mystery. On her first visit to church with the Owens, she saw an old, ivy-covered gravestone with some words that intrigued her. “In … [indecipherable] … is fulness of joy.” Fulness of joy! … the words stick in Elaine’s mind. She realizes that she longs for fulness of joy. She begins to try to find out where is it is found. She asks Janet, with whom she shares a room. Janet thinks it’s “In heaven is fulness of joy.” But she’s wrong. As Elaine finds out later, the words are from the end of Psalm 16: Thou wilt show me the path of life, and in Thy presence is fulness of joy. This is good news, because she does not have to get into heaven in order to find fulness of joy. She can begin now to discern and follow the path of life.
I cannot remember seeing a verse of Scripture handled so well in a novel. The verse reverberates throughout the story, unfolding gradually and naturally in a way that allows us to feel the mystery, richness and relevance of it, and what a gift it is.