Finally, a book by Steve Peck that I can read with my children!
At first my husband thought that would be A Short Stay in Hell; it is only 70 pages, but I had to disabuse him of that notion. As much as children enjoy thinking about infinity (How can anything go on forever? But if there is a limit, what is on the other side?), I thought the main character was brutally murdered far too many times to be appropriate bedtime reading material for small children. And I would like to save that little volume for them to read later on, as adults, when they can be well and truly terrified by that particular contemplation of the afterlife.
And The Scholar of Moab would be a bit tricky to read aloud. I think too much of the novel would pass over their heads. As much as they would like the story of Hyrum Thayne stealing the dictionary from the library, or the very idea of a two-headed cowboy, too many of the wickedly funny parts, like Sandra’s power plays and her relationship with Hyrum, are beyond their ken. And my children are not yet familiar with the idea of the unreliable narrator. Everything in The Scholar of Moab, from alien abductions to scholarly publications about the faith of bees, must be taken at face value and absolutely cannot be taken at face value. That’s fine; this book will be waiting for them as they develop a healthy sense of subtlety and appreciation for the absurdity of reality.
Fortunately, a children’s book Mr. Peck wrote years ago when his own children were young is now available. The Rifts of Rime is a lovely foray into the field of children’s literature. When our copy arrived, I read a chapter before my son found it and made off with it. I didn’t get back to finish it until the last week of July, when I found myself unable to stop reading despite the fact that I had papers to write and work to do. And I find myself wanting to read it again.
The the world of Rifts, the Wealdend gods have quickened five different groups of animals: wolves, grey squirrels, marmots, ants, and the folk. The quickened animals have self-awareness, intelligence and agency that the unquickened animals of the world do not have. And the quickened ones were given scripture that records their quickening and their purpose.
Like The Scholar, poetry plays an integral role in this novel. That can make it hard to get into and may be why it took me months before I took it back from my child to finish reading it. After a prologue of dark conspiracy, the first characters you meet are earnest, small and content with their lives of scholarship and poetry or papermaking. They are hobbits of words rather than vegetables.
But the hammer falls on these quiet, industrious little folk in the second chapter, and with the introduction of Zanch, a warrior, enemy, spy, traitor, and friend, Rifts had my full attention. And it wasn’t long before I was searching out the poetry and reading the chapter headings over again for another level of depth and insight into the narrative action.
This book, like every good children’s book, has good and bad. The strong moral center shown through the contrast of nobility and perfidy, honor and conspiracy. Rebellion, deceit, and torture exist opposite love and marriage. Through judgment and acceptance, desperation and hope, the characters in Rifts fight on.
There is faith. The humble little poet Pinecone calculates his odds and makes the leap of faith, knowing full and well he may not survive to return.
And good guys die. A vain queen makes a horrible mistake and is received in compassion and comforted rather than condemned. A deformed, hideously ugly warrior is a good guy. And poetry is the scripture, the center of understanding the self and society, the catalyst for restoration. The gods love their quickened creatures, and their perfect perspective is completely compatible with a sense of humor.
The discussions of faith, duty and death are simple but profound. Their context is perfect for children, or anyone really, wanting explore what it means for beneficent gods to allow their creatures agency, even to the point of allowing those agents to cause harm and pain to themselves and others. In the end, there is both forgiveness and justice.
The view of heaven in Rifts is a perfect contrast to the view of hell in A Short Stay. Heaven is a great tree, vibrant, beautiful, and alive, full of all quickened creatures. Hell is a near infinite library, with a small, homogeneous population of condemned humans. It is a sterile, bland, mostly empty place. It is the opposite of the Wealdend Tree in every way that matters.
A sense of humor is essential to Peck’s gods and demons. The demon at the beginning of A Short Stay in Hell does have a sense of humor even as he continues in the tedium of his bureaucratic existence. It would be far better to be welcomed by the laughing squirrelified gods of Rifts. They are perfect, loving gods, a male female pair, full of compassion and mirth. This is a vision of God that I want to give my children.
I love that as the quickened folk are fighting their civil war, a war they did not ask for and are ill-prepared to fight, they retain their reluctance to kill their brothers. They don’t want to fight, but do so to protect their freedom and their way of life, their scriptures (poetry, of course) and their understanding of their gods. But the best part of Rifts is that even as our good guys fight and kill those perfidious traitors and their gulled followers, they do so knowing that after they all die, they will be together in the Wealdend Tree, their enmity gone. There is no hell because there is no hate; there is only peace and play and purpose and perfect happiness.
Only one of my children has read The Rifts of Rime so far. That’s okay. It’s next on the bedtime read-aloud list. It belongs there, along with The Tale of Despereaux, Charlotte’s Web, and To Kill A Mockingbird. I definitely like Pinecone more than Aslan.