Wednesday, August 12, 2009

If I Could Turn Back Time …

Can you smell the intoxicating aromas of a medieval marketplace, combining the rich scent of roasting meat on a spit and the latest spices from faraway lands? Do you hear the sound of the smith beating his anvil as a traveling minstrel regales a nearby crowd with the latest tale, eliciting cries of horror, excitement, and humor? Do you see the lush countryside dotted with thatched roofs, herds of sheep, and peasants with towering castle looming in the background? If so, you must be reading high-quality historical fiction. Good historical fiction should transport you back in time to almost experience life in a “simpler, gentler” time. The winner of the 1943 Newbery Medal, Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray, and Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, winner of the 1944 Newbery Award, stand out as books that recall times long ago.

Adam of the Road takes place in 13th century England and shares the episodic tale of Adam, the son of a minstrel, who travels with his father across the country, singing folk songs, telling tales, and performing gymnastics. His troubles begin when his faithful dog is stolen by a fellow minstrel and must journey on his own to rescue him. On the way, like Blanche Du Bois, he depends on the kindness of strangers to host, feed, and help him. Adam’s travels are filled with the realistic sights and sounds of medieval life, but at the same time, it is hard to believe that people would so easily help a stranger out of the goodness of their hearts. This picture of medieval life is tainted by a wholly unrealistic cast of kind characters. Looking back into the past requires being faithful to the events and people of the time. Adam of the Road represents sugar-coated history that deceives the reader.

However, some ideas are offensive to our modern sensibilities and even if people believed them in the past, it takes special care to express them properly in a modern novel. When I saw Johnny Tremain expertly performed at the Lifeline Theatre, I was unaware of the darker message that permeated the text, which I suspect the adaptation toned down. In the story, Johnny Tremain is a bit arrogant and self-satisfied in his skill as a silversmith. His life comes crashing down when he (gasp!) violates the Sabbath and attempts to finish a sugar bowl. The crucible he is using breaks while he is firing the bowl and his hand is crippled. This horrible event is seen as a “dire punishment from God for your pride” (29), instead of a purposeful act perpetrated by his fellow apprentice, Dove, who had switched the crucible with an old, cracked one to teach Johnny a lesson about breaking the “holy” Sabbath. Even if the historical events and characters are depicted vividly to make history come alive, it is this premise that makes me reject this novel. In the past months, I have been trying to undo years of indoctrination that stress that God throws lightning bolts for target practice. If this were the case, wicked people would be charred to a crisp and good people would be enjoying the barbeque. The American Revolution not only gave people freedom to practice their religion in their own way, but also freedom from religious dogma. Johnny Tremain shows the valiant efforts of the patriots who gave up their “lives, property, safety, skills . . .{so} that a man can stand up (180). However, it also shows how tyrannical fear-mongering made it impossible for anyone to stand up against their make believe God. While the American Revolution may be ancient history, the struggle for religious freedom will continue to be fought. And I am armed and ready.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! I remember reading Johnny Tremain in grade school. made quie an impression on me also. You should read about the settlers at Jamestown and the strict religious observance they were put under. That will make all of this seem very tame. Fact is stranger than fiction.

    Also, I remember Oliver North, in an interview, once saying that this country does not offer "Freedom from Religion" but "Freedom of Religion". Scary isn't it?