For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘children

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, William Morrow of HarperCollins, 2013, 278 pp.

Orphan TrainAfter pushing through the last seven books on Jesus, orthodoxy and theology for work, I was in desperate need of a good novel. I discovered I was more desperate than I realized–or at least this novel was better than I anticipated. I sat down to read it at 9:00 p.m. on a Monday night, and never closed it until it was finished.

Orphan Train is the fictionalized account of a young girl, Molly, at the end of her journey through the foster care system after having lost her parents, and Vivian Daly, an orphan with an heartbreaking tale of her own. Vivian Daly was a child of the “orphan trains,” which ran from major East Coast cities into the Midwest, sending children out to be adopted by families across the country. The novel unfolds the story of Vivian’s extraordinary journey, which began in Ireland, continued through Ellis Island into a New York tenement, collapsed with the loss of her family in a fire, and then sent her on a train to unknown places in the Midwest. Even once she reached her destination, she still moved through several homes. Vivian’s childhood was brutal and unkind, as she was treated more as hired help than as anyone’s child, but her story is one of hope and triumph.

Parallel to Vivian’s story, the author gives us the redemption of Molly Ayer, whose own betrayal by the foster system has brought her close to juvenile hall. Befriending Vivian Daly is part of her community service, but they discover a connection to the harsh reality of growing up with no one who loves you or calls you “family.” Together, they trace their stories, find kinship, and help one another move into a surprising and beautiful future.

I read this too fast to set aside beautiful passages, but it’s the story that makes this most compelling. The characters are engaging and the history and plot are absolutely fascinating. It’s a joy to read.

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The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris, Viking, 2005, 274 pp.

Lost MotherI keep going to the library and checking out Mary McGarry Morris books, but never getting around to reading them before they are due. (This is what happens when you are a book addict. I can’t leave a library with less than 10 books at a time. Three weeks isn’t long enough to read that many novels, along with my professional reading.) I’m so grateful to have finally made it into this one, and next time I won’t return them unread.

The Lost Mother is the story of the Talcott children surviving the hardship of the Great Depression in Vermont. When the story begins, Thomas and Margaret are living in a tent in the woods, because they have lost their home to debt. Their father Henry works butchering farm animals, but work is scarce and money even more scarce. The loss of their home, however, is a minor inconvenience compared to the searing loss of their mother, who simply abandoned her family, moved to a mill town, and started a new life. The children initially believe she has left to support them and will return when times improve, but slowly they are forced to confront the truth of her abandonment.

There are a host of other characters in the book who step in to take responsibility for Thomas and Margaret, either by choice or by force. The wealthy, greedy Farleys want to take Margaret and make her their own daughter, separating her from her family forever. Aunt Lena (their mother’s sister) and Uncle Max do not want to take the children in, and their alcoholism makes it an unsafe place for the children to be. Gladys is their father’s lifelong friend. She would step in to care for them, and does what she can, but she is caring for her ailing father, whose abuse for the children makes them unable to stay there.

The story is heart-wrenching, but hopeful. Thomas and Margaret have people who want to care for them, but can’t; people who want to own them, but are thwarted; and people who could care for them, but won’t. The plot unfolds as they spend a full year making their way from one terrible situation to another. As a parent, I wonder what it would be like to know you are unable to provide for your children. No one in the story is demonized for failing the children—it is just the way things are. The narrator most often tells the story from Thomas’ perspective, and we watch him grow from a child’s view to a wizened adult one through the course of the story’s one single year.

The Lost Mother was a fast read, and a great story. It left me pondering the millions of children all over the world who are alone in this world. Thomas and Margaret’s story is not unique. Just this week, there have been multiple news stories of unaccompanied children warehoused in terrible conditions having been picked up crossing the border illegally. What is it like to be a child alone in this harsh world? Morris’ novel imagines it in one time and one place, with sorrow and with hope.

 

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, Hougton-Mifflin, 2012, 231 pp.

How-Children-Succeed-by-Paul-ToughI’ll admit it: I was drawn to this book as an anxious parent eager to do everything possible to equip my child for success. I read one of the preliminary excerpts in The New York Times, and I was fascinated. To continue the confessional spirit: I am someone who is highly risk-averse, and fears failure. I would like to teach my child how to take risks and fail boldly, then get up and try again. So far, his natural tendencies match the caution of both his parents. Instruction will be required, and I’m not sure I know how to give it.

Tough’s title might sell a lot of books to people like me (although I borrowed it from the library), but he is writing about children like mine, from relatively stable homes with educated, financially privileged parents. He takes an honest, close look at what we can do as a nation to change the lives of children from low income backgrounds and give them not only the opportunity, but the support they need to succeed. What he discovers is that intellect is not nearly as important as core character traits like grit, self-control, conscientiousness, and curiosity. If you have intellect but not those character strengths, and you come from a disadvantaged starting place, you will not likely overcome those disadvantages. If you do have those strengths, and some critical support along the way, you can overcome all kinds of poor schooling and stressful home situations, even improving intelligence scores, academic success and life opportunities.

Tough researches a wide array of programs aimed at overcoming the disadvantages of poverty, uncertain home life and poor schooling. He looks at research from neuroscientists, educators, educational reform experts, social scientists, and doctors. He diagnoses success and failure in programs to help children and adolescents, and concludes that we have failed as a nation to adequately address these problems. The challenges of poverty, the legacy of racism, poor schools, unstable family life and inadequate support combine to leave millions of young people further and further behind. We must improve all of these things, but if we could start with the most effective, it would be certain strengths of character that would help overcome the rest.

I found the list that Tough uses, drawn from researchers and employed by schools in the successful KIPP charter school program, to be particularly interesting and helpful. The character strengths deemed most important to success are: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity (76). Notice that kindness, compassion, respect, honesty, helpfulness and other moral traits are not included. While those are important, they are not the things that lead to success in life. Most schools emphasize those character traits, and do not talk at all about the others. When you are trying to save children from a broken system, those are the strengths that make a difference–and the best news of all is that they can be taught.

A child-safe version of the Bible features a cartoon Jesus on the cover. But a faith based on this two-dimensional caricature won’t hold up in a grown-up world.

At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.

Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”

He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children.  Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel.  Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.

“Last Supper,” by Fritz Eichenberg, shows that Jesus came to dine among the poor, not the pretty.

Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.

God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.

While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair.  We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.

“Pieta” by Paul Fryer, a graphic reminder that Christ came to show love to the worst people in the worst circumstances.

The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.

The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.

*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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