4.5 stars out of 5
Wednesday, 18 September 2013
The Children Shall Be Blameless by W. Jack Savage
By Raymond Mathiesen
4.5 stars out of 5
4.5 stars out of 5
Do the right thing…
Richard Smith had a life before he lived at St. James Orphanage, St. Paul, Minnesota, but that was too long ago to remember. Even his first days at the orphanage seem hidden under a strange cloud of forgetfulness. One thing Richard does remember is that, no matter what, he must not eat the “cornmeal mush” (Ch. 1 and following) the nuns serve for breakfast. Refusing this meal is against the Orphanage rules, and Richard’s insistence over the years, as he grows up, marks him out as a trouble-maker. Faced with the harsh bureaucracy of the Catholic Church Richard decides that all talk of God is a fake, but he is determined to do what is really “right” (Ch. 1 and following) by people, regardless of what the church says. From a very early age ethics, rather than morals, interests this young thinker. As Richard grows up he changes in some ways, but in many ways he stays the same. What will the course of his life be?
The Children Shall be Blameless is a story about real life, taking a very practical and pragmatic view of things. It is, however, also a ‘spiritual’ (rather than religious) story asking deeper, philosophic questions about how to live and how we find meaning. Richard does not claim to have all the answers, and neither does W. Jack Savage, but if you find yourself often wondering ’what is the right thing to do’ this is the novel for you. Savage’s story is interesting and in parts very exciting, and the novel is not in any way preachy.
The plot of the novel is divided into basically two parts. The first part covers Richard’s early life and his adult search for his birth family, and also for a partner and family of his own. The second part takes a new direction as Richard finds himself involved in the intrigues of crime, though the themes and plot arc of the first part is never lost. Chapters 1 to 3 cover Richards youth, narrating his growth as an individual. This is a section of increasing complexity of story and themes. Chapters 4 to 5 describe Richard’s early adulthood, particularly his time in the army. This section is unfortunately in large part rather a hiatus, in some ways simply repeating the themes and plot devices of the first section. It should be pointed out, though, that this ‘dull’ section is a necessary character device which provides the motivational impetus for the next section. Chapters 6 to 8 narrate Richard’s journey of discovery as he delves into his distant, ‘forgotten’ past. Chapters 9 and 10 form the midpoint of the novel and are marked by a peak of adventure and danger both in terms of character development and events. Chapters 11 to 14 involve the new plot direction of crime and adventure. Much of this section works well, however, in parts we feel Savage is struggling for plot line. When Richard is knocked unconscious and loses his memory for a third time we feel it is one time too many. Chapter 15 serves as an epilogue. This last Chapter is too compressed in narration, with too many events happening all at one time (especially in one short section). We feel that Savage is rushing to get the story completely finished, and is perhaps under editorial direction concerning page numbers. This is an unfortunate end to a very good book, but does not spoil the overall effect of the novel, which is for the most part finished anyway.
Virtually all of Savage’s characters are likable, though imperfect, and the reader immediately relates to them as ‘real’ people. Even the ‘bad’ character, Shirley Stanton, is in many ways likable in perhaps a dangerous way. We are beguiled by her ‘charm’ and double dealing. Richard is good, tough, practical and pragmatic, and hides a remarkable athletic ability. His failing is that in many ways he is ignorant of his own motivations, especially where his life’s direction is not going right. His character has some mystery as he keeps to himself in some circumstances, but is extroverted in others. Father Allen Brown, Richard’s mentor, is good, but not rigid in his ethics, as well as practical and loving. Sargent Bill (William) MCaully, a friend Richard makes in the Army, is very tough, but extremely harsh in his self-judgement and depressed in his attitude to life. He expresses the kind of emptiness, ennui and “nihilation” that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre so effectively described ( Richard Appignanesi. Introducing Existentialism: Icon Books, 2001, p. 128-133). As the story continues Bill evolves into a more happy character. Shirley Stanton, as we have said, is an ambiguous character, and is certainly an interesting element in the novel. She could have been the stereotyped, beautiful ‘hussy,’ but she is a much more complex character than that. This gives her a ‘reality’ which is difficult to achieve in a villain. As an example of a more minor character, Teddy, a small town reporter, is motivated to do good, determined and capable, but haunted by an alcoholic past. Savage’s novel is a fictional biography and so has many characters that we only get to look at briefly. Particularly in the second half of the novel, though, Savage displays a flair for summarized biographies in which he gives us a lively glimpse into some minor character’s lives and personality. Greg, in Chapter 12, is a good example of this.
Savage’s novel is for the most part realistic in style, though in Chapter 10 the plot takes on a macabre, larger-than-life aura, which is spiced with more than a twinge of humor. This style continues on into Chapter 12, which is very aptly titled “Dickens.” Dickens is of course the master of slight hyperbole and character study. Other parts of the story have less surreal humour, and there are occasional moments of bitter irony. There are quite a few “Oh my Gosh!” moments and surprise chapter endings to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. I must warn that there is occasional foul language and mild references to free sex. This is completely in line with the characters and plot circumstances, but it may offend conservative readers.
Justice and ethics, in the broadest sense of those words, is the central theme of the novel. Richard develops a set of personal values throughout the novel, which guide him in his actions. He is interested, at the most, in guidelines, rather than a set of rules for correct behavior. These values include stepping up for the down-trodden (Ch. 1), equality (Ch. 2), tolerance (Ch. 3) and loving the people you find yourself with (Ch. 8). Most of us want to do our best, what is right, but why is this so important to us? We could simply let the whole problem slip and say, “Who cares!” Our need for connection, the next theme to be discussed, seems to propel us towards “goodness” (Ch. 2 and following). These moments of “goodness” have great meaning to us and repeatedly in the novel we hear that certain events “changed me” (Ch. 1 and following). Criminal justice makes an appearance in the second half of the book, but the theme is never fully developed. The issue of criminality is rather dealt with in terms of the personal values we have just been talking about. None the less we face issues such as: (1) are the law enforcers necessarily good, (2) is justice necessarily always done, and, (3) what is our correct response to crime?
The importance of family is the second major theme of The Children Shall Be Blameless. What is family and why do we seem to need it? In the 1950’s life seemed simple and we all knew that a family was a mother and a father and two children. Now we have fractured families, blended families, birth families, adopted families, single parent families and LGBTIQ families. Indeed, some of these types of families appear in the novel. In keeping with the ‘spiritual,’ rather than religious, attitude of this novel the approach to families is “non-traditional” (Ch. 7). We all, even orphans, have families of some kind, but it is tempting to romanticize the notion: we dream of the ‘ideal family’. Richard very much likes movies, but must learn that while they reflect life, and give us ideas to think about life, they are not life (Ch. 2 and Ch. 8).
Bureaucracy appears as a strong minor theme. We seem to need some rules and organizations, but they in themselves can become the source of injustice. This injustice is very easily denied and swept under the carpet when it is an embarrassment. How can we be “spontaneous” (Ch. 2) in the face of bureaucracies? There is also a sub-theme of the horror of war. This is not exactly an anti-war novel, but it is also not war affirming. How should we treat soldiers and veterans? Can those who do not go to war ever really understand what it is like?
Much of the novel is set in the late 1960s and early 1970’s, which allows Savage to capture the role of women right at the Twentieth Century changing points. Sister Carmella, the Head of the Orphanage, represents the traditional 1950’s view of women in its very conservative role. Sister Carmella is caring and to a certain extent proactive about helping the children in her care, but we detect a restraint about her that limits her effectiveness. Indeed the nuns in general support their ‘establishment’ and those who do not fit in with it are ‘bad’. Far be it from a nun, a woman in a male hierarchy, to question the establishment. Only Sister Michael Ann (Ch. 2) seems to have any individual spirit and we wonder if such a woman will have a smooth path in this rigid female order. Overcome by a sense of ennui after his time in the Army Richard finds himself entering whole heartedly into the ‘free love’ attitude of the Counterculture, but that era was actually a time when the new morality was easily diverted towards using women for physical pleasure, then throwing them away, and vice versa. Richard wonders why he never finds a permanent partner, but this ignorance is typical of the era. As the plot moves into the 1980’s the reader finds imperfect, but dynamic women achievers emerging. Teddy is an over-comer who has got past both “bipolar disorder” (Ch. 7) and alcoholism (Ch. 8) to become a successful small town reporter. Teddy has a special nose for the news and goes out of her way to get the story. Her namesake, but no relative, Shirley Smith, is the boss of a regional wing of a drug smuggling operation. In many ways the reverse of Teddy, she is still a go-ahead, no nonsense operator, also very good at what she does. Over all Savage’s novel gives an accurate and interesting picture of the history of the role of women and the effects of Feminism.
The history of male gender role is also depicted and delved into. The character of Father Brown represents the type of man who began to emerge in the late 1950’s, and who initiated the Vatican 2 reforms of the Catholic Church. He is less driven by a sense of ‘authority’ and more interested in interpersonal relationships. Rigid systems are viewed with doubt, and caring, goodness and development are valued. This is the kind of thought that later resulted in the development of ‘relational theology’ (Bruce Larson. No Longer Strangers: An Introduction To Relational Theology: Reprint ed.: Word Book, 1974). Bill McCaully represents the men before the Father Browns of the world. A career soldier he is dedicated to the authoritative, male power structure to the hilt. This partly satisfies him, but only partly. The whole space of relationships opens up to him like a vast, unsuccessful vacuum, and when he is not occupied by the structure only alcohol will suffice. Feelings are “unmanly” (Ch. 3). But Bill will change and evolve as the story progresses. Richard very much represents the new man: practical and tough, but caring (Robert Bly. Iron John: Men And Masculinity: Rider, c1990). Richard is a ‘New Age man’ long before there was a late Twentieth Century New Age Movement. But, as we have seen, Richard’s relationships with women do not run smoothly. He must grow and evolve, find his footing in uncertain territory, and this novel is valuable to Twenty-First Century men who, despite all the development in male gender roles that have occurred, still find themselves uncertain as to how to be a good man and a partner.
LGBTIQ roles make an appearance in Savage’s novel, although the main character, Richard, is at times at pains to point out that he is not gay. The traditional derogatory attitude to gay men is clearly depicted early in the book (Ch. 3), but later we see the very minor character of David Gannon, a successful, gay restaurateur, depicted without any animosity (Ch. 4). A more prominent character is revealed to be gay quite late in the book, however, I will not go into details in order to avoid spoiling the story. This character allows Savage to display a much more accepting attitude to gay characters. Lesbian relationships are much more prominent in the book and acceptance is equally prominently displayed. At first we come across Danika Gusard and her lover Deputy Donna Mills and “Rosie’s [ … ] a gay bar” (sic.). Mills is of course a successful woman and this relationship is never depicted in a derogatory way. Next we see Edie Charboneau, a capable nurse, and her neighbor, Norma Haslett, mutually attracted, and described in a sympathetic way, though at this point the story certainly has overtones of a 1950’s attitude. Then later in the book we see Edie, once again, and Teddy in a lesbian relationship, this time fully sympathetically depicted, and allowing love to bloom. This is an important dimension in a novel dealing so much with relationships, and the book would have been very much less without these plot lines.
The aged first appear early in the book in the character of Monsignor Poferal. The Monsignor is represented as having been a vigorous worker, but now ‘tired’ (Ch. 1). The Monsignor is quickly eclipsed by the young Father Brown. This is in some cases a realistic picture of the elderly, but hardly flattering to this much ignored and often derided group. Much later in the novel we come across an aged Bill McCaully. This time we are presented with a determined, smart man, though he is physically limited. This aged McCaully is to a certain extent successful in his objective, though unfortunately not completely so.
Minorities make very brief appearances. Very early in the book we meet Maya, a Mexican descent girl who experiences bigotry in the playground (Ch. 1). Richard stands up for her but parents of the bullies describe her as a “dirty little Mexican” (Ch. 1). Later, Clete, an African-American soldier, does not need defending and is an amiably described co-conspirator in R&R shenanigans. African-Americans are positively described as having an astute awareness and practicality. They are described as having a “seemingly innate ability to stay in and even celebrate the present.” It should be noted though that the word “innate” may be greeted with ire by some, no matter how well intended. Later again the Black Rights campaign is touched on as Richard notes and stands against discrimination in his job at UPS (Ch. 5).
From the point of view of Structuralism we note the obvious opposing “binary pair” (Boris Wiseman. Introducing Levi-Strauss and Structural Anthropology: Icon Books, 200, p. 87, 96 & 149) good/evil, however, this dichotomy takes a decidedly Postmodern slant early on in the novel with the “black and white” (Ch. 3) dichotomy being abandoned and a much more complex view of ethics being adopted. The young Richard comments to Father Brown that ethical questions are “not always that simple” (Ch. 2). In terms of character comparison we see the complimentary pair of Richard/Father-Brown, though there is some opposition there with the Father being ‘inside’ the traditional system and Richard firmly out of it. Sister Carmella and Brown are complimentary in that they are ‘insiders’ who try to rise above the system, but they are opposing in that Carmella is more ineffective in opposing bureaucratic wrong and Brown considerably effective. Shirley and Teddy at first appear as opposing pairs. Teddy having come from a difficult background ends up an upright citizen, but Shirley, coming from a similar background, chooses a life of crime. Later, however, the contrast is nowhere near as clear. Teddy displays weakness in facing her past, while Shirley experiences extreme doubt about her whole life. Finally there is a Richard/Shirley dichotomy: he on the side of right and she on the side of crime. Once again though, as the plot continues this clear spit becomes fuzzy. Richard chooses to help the person, rather than, for example report crime, and Shirley, as we have just seen, proves to be less firmly set on the side of crime. In this last case we should note that Bertrand Russell has observed that both strong contributors to society and criminals often spring from the same personality type, the difference being that one has a chance to express their creativity in an approved way, while the other is denied this (Bertrand Russell. Authority And The Individual: Unwin Hyman, 1977, p. 41-46).
Levi-Strauss has proposed that myth is a kind of inherent process which the mind imposes on reality and that deep down we all view the world in this way (Wiseman, p. 135). Any novel dealing with ‘spiritual’ ideas further lends itself to this kind of interpretation and The Children Shall Be Blameless, despite all its hard headed practicality, can be viewed in this way.
Turning to traditional knowledge, therefore, it can be noted that the Tarot card of The High Priestess, also called the “Female Pontiff” (Arthur Edward Waite. The Pictorial Key To The Tarot: U.S. Games Systems, c1971?, p. 13) is important to the opening chapters of Savage’s novel. Sallie Nichols (Jung And The Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1980) comments of this card that the Priestess represents the idea that “Pure Spirituality is pure nonsense” (Nichols, p. 72). She further notes that: “She wears the ceremonial robes and trivia of the Church” and holds a “no doubt [ … ] holy book” (Nichols, p. 72), which Waite identifies as the “Tora” (Waite, p. 71). Yet, of course, the Priestess is a woman, making a mockery of the whole institution. Nichols further links this card to the medieval Pope Joan myth, which The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (Curious Myths Of The Middle Ages: Jupiter Books, 1977, p. 69-73) links to views that the Catholic Church was corrupt and lost to God. This whole description is very close to the young Richard’s view, and, as we have noted Sister Carmella, while contemplating good is less effective in actually fighting evil. None of this is to say that Savage views the Church as completely wrong, but rather that taking itself too seriously (rules and bureaucracy) is its downfall (Ch. 1).
On the positive side it should be noted that Richard takes from his Catholic Orphanage upbringing a serious concern with the ‘good’. This is the central topic of the Church and, though he disagrees in detail, this is Richard’s central touchstone. Nichols comments of the Tarot card The Pope that it represents “man’s striving for connection with the godhead” (Nichols, p. 119). She further notes that according to Carl Gustav Jung “the religious aims to unite the opposites” (Nichols, p. 119) and that the “prelate .. twins” who kneel before the Pontiff “symbolize par excellence [ … ] the dual aspects inherent in all life” (Nichols, p. 122). As has been observed above the dichotomy of good/evil tends to undergo a Postmodern collapse in the way in which Jacques Derrida claimed it would (Mary Klages. Literary Theory: A Guide For The Perplexed: Continuum, 2006, p. 59-60) when the center shifts to relationships and ambiguous people, rather than rules.
As we have seen, Richard is guided in ‘spiritual’ matters by practicality and pragmatism. For this reason the Tarot card Temperance applies to the novel as a whole. Nichols describes the card in this way: “the Angel Temperance blends two opposite aspects or essences, producing life-giving energy” (Nichols, p. 249). Richard’s dynamism comes from the combination of his very down to earth realism and his desire to act by higher, more ideal values. Writing further Nichols notes of the card: “The liquid which flows between the two jars [one blue and one red] is neither red nor blue but is pure white, suggesting that it represents a pure essence, perhaps energy” (Nichols, p. 250). Except for the directionless and possibly depressed period after his time in the army, the adult Richard pursues his life-plan with a great energy and vigour, and the reader is left with the sense that this character truly knows how to ‘live life’ and achieve. In order to create a successful mix of opposite elements Nichols suggests that: “As in any conflict situation, a creative first step towards resolution is to find an arbiter – someone whose wisdom and understanding can encompass both sides” (Nichols, p. 250). Again and again throughout the plot Richard refers back to Father Brown, the equally pragmatic spiritual mentor who first befriended him in his youth. Speaking of encounters with angels Nichols writes: “Such visionary experiences mark dramatic turning points, personal and culturally” (Nichols, p. 250). As has been noted, we repeatedly hear that particular events “changed me” (Ch. 1 and following). This is a story of personal growth. It is, though, also a story of cultural change. As has been noted above the cultural shift in the roles of women, men and LGBTIQ people is documented in the novel. Nichols comments on the relationship Temperance has with the astrological sign of Aquarius (Nichols, p. 249). Nicholas Campion (Zodiac: Enhance Your Life Through Astrology: Alhanbra House, c2000, p. 161) notes of this traditional wisdom sign that: “Its strengths are its inventive genius and its strongly held ideas.” Very early in the story Sister Carmella notes that the young Richard is “aggravating” because of his firm ethical ideas and wonders who has been tutoring him in these advanced notions. Writing further of Aquarius Campion notes: “Its weaknesses are its failure to understand its emotions and its refusal to compromise with signs that do not share its vision” (Champion, p. 161). Father Brown repeatedly observes that Richard is ignorant of, or does not want to face, his true motivations, and, particularly in his early romantic relationships we see an inability to negotiate with, or come to a compromise with, women concerning his need for a family. Aquarius represents the problems which Temperance must solve. Pragmatism and temperance, as revealed in the card Temperance, and the sign Aquarius, can indeed be seen as the summing up of Savage’s message.
W. Jack Savage’s The Children Shall Be Blameless manages to successfully achieve the difficult task of combining high adventure with ‘spiritual’ insight. It takes the themes of ethics and family and places them in a story of both personal development and cultural change. The roles of women, men, LBGTIQ, the aged and minorities are depicted and examined in some depth. The characters are likable and of enough complexity to be related to as ‘real’ people. At 410 pages this is probably not a book suited to a weekend read, but those who pick it up will find from the first pages that they have encountered a beguiling and interesting novel. These qualities will certainly sustain the reader through this longer read. I am happy to rate this book as 4.5 stars out of 5.