And now, the part I hope no one's been looking forward to: the weak points of Sigmund Brouwer's Broken Angel.
The first strong negative I encountered was strong enough that had I been reading the book for myself, not as part of a tour, I would have dropped it. Chapter Two is largely Hobbesian, being nasty, brutish, and fortunately rather short. It is also gratuitous: I don't believe any unique and vital information lies therein, so I'd advise others to skip it. It mostly details how obnoxious Mason Lee is.
I've already mentioned that Theo's virtual disappearance later in the story annoyed me: he was an intriguing character and should've been retained. I'm sure Brouwer's a good enough writer to have done so without diminishing the more important characters.
There is also a careless plot hole toward the end of the story, in which some people with very important information apparently aren't going to be debriefed, much less interrogated. If they were, it would undermine the grand scheme that had been running the whole time. But how could a proper tyrant not take the time to break out the thumbscrews?
But the main problem I had was the handling of fundamentalists and Christianity in general:
Outside, most people knew that decades ago, the religious fundamentalists lost the ability to transform society when they became a political movement. Their boycotts and protests became so commonplace, any outcry against anything beyond the narrow range of what they saw as biblically acceptable was dismissed as a knee-jerk reaction. Once Appalachia was established, there was no one Outside who opposed liberalism and humanism. (p. 172)
There is some truth to this. We do tend to yell about things that don't matter or aren't even true, such as the various myths that are e-mailed around. And we often act as though political solutions existed for spiritual problems, so that outlawing abortion (for ewxample) would make it disappear. We should invest ourselves more in spiritual tactics that form the infrastructure for any permanent solution.
However, there are also some misperceptions of the sort that secular sources, through laziness, ignorance, and plain bigotry tend to spread. For example, there is already some disaffection with the idea of spiritual change through political means, and it's been there for a few years now.
Also, "fundamentalists" are not a cohesive group, and American Christians in general have no theocratic inclinations, so the "Appalachia Solution" simply wouldn't happen. When CNN likens Christian fundamentalists to Islamic fundamentalists and tries to demonstrate that fundies want to fly outsized KJVs ("with Thompson Chain-reference Machine Guns!") into buildings, they forget that most of the things fundies support and oppose aren't even mildly theocratic. Even some atheists are pro-life, for example, and many non-Christians support such common "fundamentalist" concerns as action against religious persecution.
[Brief Digression] This is why the idea that public prayers or displays of religious symbols could somehow lead to "an establishment of religion" (i.e., the founding of a state church) is ridiculous. It is impossible to establish most any religion in the abstract. Establish Christianity? Okay, what kind? Catholic? Orthodox (which kind, again)? Coptic? Don't even get started with "Protestant." Even if you're trying to be open-minded, what's Christian? Are Catholics? Pentecostals? What about Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses? To mean something, it pretty much has to endorse one group above others, a priniciple that will lead to an ever-tighter circle. Any action or display that does not specifically give one denomination an edge over others cannot establish that denomination and therefore the religion of which it is part.
On the other hand, sometimes it's hard to tell what's "narrow" and what's important. For years, Catholics were about the only ones who realized that abortion was important, and whether homosexual marriage is critical or trivial depends on who you ask. When I was in high school, a teacher asked whether we would be willing to go to war. One student said it would depend on the war: for an important one like WWII, yes; for Vietnam, no. But one of the reasons we were so late getting into WWII and let so many innocent people die was that most people were convinced (to use modern terms) that "the war in Europe" was just a Vietnam!
So on this point, I'd say, pray about what is important and what God wants you to do; then do it. Seek spiritual solutions, but also remember that laws represent our standards. If our law allows something, at a deep level, we do too.
A related point is "the kingdom of the cross" versus "the kingdom of the sword" (p. 182). This isn't just a crock, it's a slanderous crock. The idea is that Christians try to force belief on the unwilling. Historically, there have been some cases of this, though it's far less frequent than current mythology claims. Someday Brouwer is going to find himself in the company of a multitude he has blithely condemned without bothering to comprehend. It will be interesting to see his response.
Now, it is true that our strength comes through weakness, and grasping power leads to defeat. However, the Clan uses its own amazing cleverness to concoct the scheme that underlies the plot (a scheme that again would not actually survive routine questioning) and derives its protection from homicidal outlaws. So for them to look down on others seems a shaky move at best. It's also mildly amusing that they don't seem to be directly involved in evangelistic outreach: they help place people Outside and shelter others from the Appalachian cult. But mostly they remain cloistered in their caves.
Brouwer can be very subtle, and I'd like to think this is reverse psychology: that he is actually arguing against the Clan's hypocrisy as much as anyone else's. It's not impossible, but it leads to a kind of relativism: the Christians are no better than the unsaved, so what's the point?
Conclusion. In spite of these points, Broken Angel is a very engaging book, and the problems are a small part of the whole. I'm not sure how many readers will even notice them, unfortunately. So as simple fiction, and more, as a craft exemplar, it is worth reading. It sets up strongly for a sequel, I think, and I hope that will be even better.
Other CSFF posts:
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
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