Friday, November 9, 2007

A Haunting Read

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an audio book that had quite an effect on me. I still think about it a good bit, and to me that's the mark of a powerful book. It intrigued me for a number of reasons, and since many of you out there are writers (and readers), I wanted to tell you about it: The Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card.

I first read one of Card's books earlier this year because of a challenge from Andy Meisenheimer of Zondervan. I met Andy at ACFW last year and, knowing that he's a fan of Card, showed him my autographed copy of Ender's Game (which I got when I took a writers workshop from Mr. Card years ago). But then I had to confess to Andy that, although I owned this treasure, I had never actually read it. Andy chided me no end for that and assured me this was one of the best-written books I would ever come across and could learn from it. So I took the challenge, read it, and loved it.

Ender's Game is science fiction, and Card has written plenty more of those. But I was curious about some of his other books that sounded like my work in progress--set in the contemporary world, but with hints of the supernatural and creepy. Which led me to The Lost Boys.

It's about a family who moves to a small town in North Carolina where there's been a rash of disasppearances of young boys. The family has two young boys, naturally. The book starts out in a fairly familiar way for a book of this nature: a prologue from the anonymous killer's p.o.v., describing how he came to start kidnapping children, and how he discovered it was necessary that they not be able to tell tales afterward. Definitely a dark beginning, and wouldn't you just figure you'd know exactly how the book would go from there?

I figured there would be scenes of the still-anonymous villain kidnapping one or two other children to set us up, a few disturbing and violent scenes with the victims, and then the eventual kidnapping of this family's son. It would be fast-paced and plot-heavy, with a climax of the protagonist's child being saved from the kidnapper/killer at the end. I felt pretty safe in assuming this since I've read a number of books that fit that description.

Boy was I surprised.

For most of the book, the disappearances sort of lurked in the background as the family went about the difficult adjustment to a new culture (moving into the deep South), job, and school. The story was filled with conflict and tension, but it mostly came from skirmishes and wars with cruel teachers, sneaky bosses, and scary co-workers. My heart bled for sensitive little Stevie, who tried so hard to fit into his new school and please everyone but seemed to be more crushed and withdrawn with each passing day. Naturally his parents were worried when, instead of making real friends, he started playing with an imaginary boy--then two, then three. The list of names continued to grow until one day, the parents saw a newspaper article listing the names of all the boys who had disappeared. The names were the same as Stevie's "make-believe" friends.

At this point I tried to imagine just where this story was going and how it would end. I managed to figure out who the serial killer was, but that still didn't help me predict the conclusion. At one point, just before the end, my mouth literally fell open as I realized what was happening. Since I was driving and listening to this on CD, it's a wonder I didn't hit a mailbox or something. It wasn't a happy ending, but it was right. I thought back over the rest of the book and could see where it came from. As I mentioned before, I'm still thinking about it.

Oh, for the ability to make my creepy little book turn out like this! With real characters that readers would care about so deeply--and with an ending that makes their jaws drop.

One more interesting thing about The Lost Boys. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon, and so were the family in this story. Card painted a portrait of a close-knit family whose first priorities were church and family, who openly discussed their beliefs, prayed about tough decisions, and went with the ethical route even when that appeared to be a disastrous move to make.

At first I thought, why can Orson Scott Card do this in his novel--while most books that show evangelical Christians in the same way have to be segregated into a special segment of publishing, a special section in the bookstore, etc.? Then I remembered Ender's Game and books that came earlier for this writer, where ethics played a huge role but characters didn't talk so openly about a particular religion or belief. John Grisham did something similar--he had huge success with books like The Firm and The Client, and then he published The Testament, in which a drunken lawyer has a conversion experience that could have come straight out of a CBA (Christian Booksellers' Association) novel.

Do you think this strategy might work for more Christian writers? Write great stories, gain a following out there in the secular world--and then be able to write more overtly about faith issues without being segregated into that special section of the store?

Just a thought to muse on for this weekend.