Okay, let me get a couple things out of the way right at the outset. The first and most obvious is that I am embarking on a review of a novel written by my son, a story that I think is a real premium can of corn. So to speak. And so someone out there is sure to think, “Well, of course, he’s supposed to think that. And we don’t mind it that he does think it, but that is hardly any reason for us to rush out and buy six for Christmas presents, is it? He would think it was good even if it wasn’t. That’s his job.”
This is quite a reasonable stance, and it is the reason that I am so pleased that the book is being published by Random House, the world’s largest publishing house, and not known for caring what I think. They didn’t sign Nate up for four books in a row because they thought he was a literary slouch. So, in other words, we are at the point in these proceedings where I can just assume we can all agree that Nate has a lot on the ball all by his own self. If this book has merit independent of my paternal opinions, then this sets me free to discuss what some of those merits might be.
The second thing to provide at the outset is a plot description, but with no spoilers. Thomas Hammond lives with his mother Elizabeth, and they live in a house chained to the top of a big rock near Leepike Ridge. His father has been dead for three years, and Thomas is now eleven. He is a strong boy with an equally strong mother. His father is gone, but his presence still pervades the book. Tom’s mother is being courted by a man named Jeffrey Veatch, a man Tom detests. Elizabeth is considering this man because she is lonely, and because she (being strong, just like Tom) doesn’t want to be manipulated by Tom’s dislike of Jeffrey.
A stream runs by the base of the rock where Tom lives, and through a series of circumstances, Tom winds up taking a ride on a big slab of packing foam that he discovers can be used as a raft. This was in the middle of the night — Tom was unable to sleep because of the prospect of having Jeffrey Veatch for a stepfather. He drifts downstream, and lulled by the peacefulness of the whole circumstance, falls asleep on his raft. A few hours later, he wakes up just in time to discover that the stream descends under the mountain. He is swept under, and crashes over a series of endless falls down to the depths of the hill. Some men — treasure hunters who were up to no good — saw him disappear under the mountain. They know the mountain is full of caves and that Tom may well have survived.
In the course of the book, Tom finds out what really happened to his father, and he finds out what the treasure hunters were after, and he finds out if there is a way back to the surface again. The dust jacket says that this story is an “original mix of Robinson Crusoe, King Solomon’s Mines, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Odyssey.” And it is all that, but I would throw Treasure Island in there too – there is a character with a Ben Gunnish feel to him . . . almost, but not quite.
I am not sure how many times I read the book during its various drafts, but I enjoyed it each time. The book is due to be released tomorrow, but Nate got his author’s copies a week or so ago. Having the real book in my hands, there was nothing to do but read it again. This book really works, and I have three reasons for thinking this that I would like to suggest to you. Those three reasons will constitute the heart of my review. Please, have a seat.
First, Nate has a very distinct voice, and it is the kind of voice that finds you wherever you are, grabs you by the collar, and insists that you keep on reading.
“His father had been gone for three years, and that made him feel older. He was the sort of boy who had many friends when he was at school, but what they knew about him was limited to his freckles, brown hair, long arms, and the clenched determination that settled onto his face when he was angry or competing. His smile, which was wide and quick, was always surprising, and his laugh, which lived in his narrow belly, was unpredictable. In games, any games, he was the first to dive for a ball, to slide on concrete, or to get a mouthful of dirt. He was taller than many of the boys in his class, but not the tallest, and he always seemed to have scabs” (p. 3).
Second, one of the themes of this book is father hunger. That theme drives the plot, and that same theme is sure to hook many readers who can relate (for various reasons) to that same hunger. Tom’s father did not leave him and Tom’s mother in any shameful way, but his absence (the absence of a strong and noble father) is felt far more acutely for that very reason. Ted Hammond died three years before the book opens, but is still a significant character throughout the book. There is the ache of father hunger, but it is not an ashamed father hunger.
“His father had been gone for three years” (p. 3). Jeffrey Veatch was detestable, in part, for “sitting in his father’s chair” (p. 6). Memories of the times when his father was physically present with his family are woven into the narrative. “Ted bent over and smiled at him” (p. 56). “Memories of standing in a mowed spot on the valley floor holding one of his first bats, with his dad pitching him slow balls” (p.90). The things we think up to do to remember the dead are pitiful, but strangely adequate for all that. Tom remembers “a memorial service with green and pink mints to commemorate the passing of his father” (p. 64). Tom knew that he, in his own body, was “a remnant of his father that could still affect the world” (p. 142). A crotchety old man named Nestor tells Elizabeth, “But he left you son made out of the same stuff he was.” And when Tom meets an old friend of his father’s, a man very much like him, he was “surprised by the brightness of the man’s eyes” (p. 79).
And last, the book has a peculiar approach to death and resurrection. First, the fact that there is a death and resurrection theme is hardly hidden away. The next to last chapter is entitled “Easter” (p. 204). The epitaph for Ted Hammond is: “IN THE GROUND, THE BEST SEED IS NEVER WASTED” (p. 224). None of this is exactly subtle. But all this is not what marks this particular characteristic of the book.
God has constructed the world in such a way that it is not possible to tell a story at all without following some kind of death and resurrection pattern. Soi disant critics who attempt to do narratival criticism by finding such themes are attempting something about as difficult as hitting the ground with your hat. Death and resurrection are built into the world. A short time after typing this I will head off to bed to give my silent (and yet daily) testimony to the pervasiveness of this death and resurrection business. Let us all take a moment to ponder just how odd sleeping is.
So Leepike Ridge has a death and resurrection theme. But the author also has ten toes, which is equally unremarkable. All stories have death and resurrection themes. The difference in this story is that there is a faith that is woven into the story, and it is a faith that works within the context of that story. What is it that overcomes the plot points? Is it not our faith? This is related to the first point I made, which is that of authorial voice. This story is an adventure story, with any number of the attendant implausibilities, but the voice makes it easy to set those implausibilities aside — or better yet, to enjoy them openly like we are supposed to. In the same way, that same voice actually believes in the deep structure of story. It does not simply use that structure because it can’t help it. Like Chesterton, who actually sees what is going on around him, Nate actually sees what is occurring in this world he has written out for us. And he believes in it. It is easy to tell when an author doesn’t believe in his own characters. In the same way, we can tell when an author doesn’t see or believe his own themes. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word. Boys are supposed to get trapped under mountains because that is what boys do. Just ask Curdie. This is believed rightly and first by the author, and then, naturally, by the reader. The effect is entirely satisfactory.
Tom almost drowned on the way down to the bottom of the mountain. Floating between death and life, with someone laboring to bring him back, Tom sees this on the threshold.
“‘Hey, Dad,’ Tom said. He didn’t have his helmet on, and he was dry. ‘Where’s Mom?’ ‘She’s still at home,’ his father said. He was standing in a small doorway. His hand was on the latch. ‘Is she coming?’ ‘Not yet.’ ‘Can I come in and wait for her?’ ‘Not yet’ Ted Hammond smiled, and then, slowly, he stepped back and shut the door” (p. 78).
This book is astonishingly effective. It has fourteen chapters. Every family should get a copy and resolve to read a chapter aloud every night for two weeks. And I bet you that you actually get it finished in three nights.