Monday, July 6, 2009

Across the Wide River 3: Weak points

Strength and weakness are often different sides of the same coin, and Stephanie Reed's Across the Wide River is no exception. So this post will be a mirror-image or Devil's Advocate version of yesterday's in many respects.

Character. I don't think most kids these days are used to character-driven stories. Character is an incidental matter; action generally drives things. Now, there is action in Across the Wide River, usually to do with a slave escape, but it's mostly about character development, in this case Lowry's shyness. If you don't understand that, the ending is going to hit you like a brick wall beyond a door: you'll have a sudden, jolting stop for no reason. But from the standpoint of a character-driven story, the end has arrived, and Reed evidently doesn't believe in loitering. (As I mentioned yesterday, fans of Austen or the Brontës will probably get into this: those older stories were strongly character-driven.)

Life choices. Lowry's wavering about his eventual career does get a bit tedious. It's realistic, but so is a couple guys on a couch trading "What do you want to do?"/"I dunno" dialog. Sometimes you can see where a choice leads, but in other cases it seems pointless. Mind you, this is totally sane and gripping compared to some of the stuff the kids will read in college or even a college-prep class.

If I were Lowry... One thing that bothered me about Lowry is that he seemed to think only an abstract argument could answer the pro-slavery side. Rubbish. The pro-slavery argument at its strongest emphasized needs: the need of the Blacks for a support system, given their lack of education or advanced work skills (though of course that lack was not an accident but part of the system), and the need of the local economy for cheap labor. Absent the cheap labor, the economies of many areas and states would be ruined, causing innocent (White) people to suffer. As I mentioned recently, the power of experiential apologetics is great, usually greater than that of an abstract argument, and I've found it emboldening. Instead of trying a generalized argument about suffering, Lowry could have said, "I have seen human beings tortured; I have seen perversion being thrust upon the innocent"--and given examples. That's what Harriet Beecher Stowe did in Uncle Tom's Cabin: she gave examples, and they rang true. This point comes up in the sequel, The Light Across the River, which I'll post about tomorrow.

Conclusion. While there are some problem areas, overall this is a good and timely book. I've heard people say that it isn't fast enough for kids, and I would say it's fast enough for any kid who isn't really slow. (If we keep pandering and lowering the bar, we might as well anticipate the trend and go back to painting on cave walls.) But I have more confidence in kids; I think they have the class for something like this. And by recognizing the horror and heroism of a bygone age, perhaps they will be better equipped to be heroes against the horrors of this age.

Tomorrow we'll look at the sequel, The Light Across the River.

In the meantime, is there more on the CFRB tour? You bet your buttons! Or better yet, try mine:

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