Thursday, February 28, 2013

Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption

by Laura Hillenbrand

2010, 497 pages

One of the least amazing things about Louis Zamperini is that he took up skateboarding in his eighties. But it shows the determination that had him competing as a 5,000-meter runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It also reveals the attitude that led the young Louis to steal a Nazi banner when the Games concluded.

These two qualities would be vital to him when, during World War II, his plane crashed and Louis found himself on a tiny raft in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. His chances of being found by searchers were remote, but if the small craft continued to drift west there was a chance it might make it to land – islands occupied by brutal Japanese forces.

The redemption mentioned in the subtitle is true redemption. Louis starts the story as a thief and a punk. As an airman in World War II he bunks in a cabin plastered with pornography. Many of the Japanese soldiers he meets are sadistic and perverse. So we see evidence of the Fall in this book (described with restraint). But the most amazing thing Louis is able to do is something he knows comes from completely outside his own abilities. God enables Louis to repent and forgive.

This is the best biography I’ve read - it is an amazing story told by an equally amazing storyteller. Laura Hillenbrand is half the age of her subject but the level of detail in her research makes it seem like she most have grown up with him, and tailed behind him wherever he went. And at the same time, she never lets the detail overwhelm the story; this is a large-book, but a very fast-paced one.

One caution: the author quotes at least a couple of her subjects taking God's name in vain. I don't know if the author is Christian, so she might not have understood that this level of detailed recollection was unnecessary and undesirable.

As for who should read this book, in addition to recommending this to adults – though it is all done with restraint, there is too much brutality and horror here for teens – interested in World War II, this is also a very good book for anyone wondering how the US could possibly have dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, targeting and killing over 150,000 civilians (this is the most conservative estimate). While neither the author, nor Louis argue explicitly for the morality of dropping the bomb, Louis's experiences make it clear that when it came to Japan, there was little difference between the military and the civilian population – rather than surrender Japan was readying its civilian population to fight on, seemingly to the last man and woman. Reading about Japanese brutality, and their thoughts on the disgrace of surrender, gave me a perspective on the atomic bomb I had never before had. It certainly makes the decision much more understandable. Afterwards I still questioned why they couldn't have first demonstrated the power of the bomb on something other than a city, but, as National Review contributor Victor Davis Hanson explains here, there were only two bombs available, and the Americans were worried that the destruction of just one city would not be enough to induce Japan to surrender. And it seems they were right to worry. Unbroken doesn't end the debate, but it does give insight into the way both the Americans and Japanese were thinking at the time.

But that is a long aside - the book is about an amazing man, saved by an awesome God. Highly recommended!

You can pick it up at here, and here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Bible smuggler

by Louise A. Vernon
Herald Press, 1967
139 pages, Paperback

This is more historical fiction than biography, but most importantly it’s just so good. The Bible Smuggler is the story of William Tyndale and his life’s mission to translate and distribute God’s Word in English. We see events unfold through the eyes of Collin Hartley, a fictional but very observant young servant to Tyndale.

While Hartley isn’t real, all the central characters are, and seemingly quite accurately portrayed. Of course this isn’t a scholarly work, and it shouldn’t be relied on for the precise details. But if it is taken for what it is – an introduction to Tyndale intended for children 10 and up – then there is a lot to appreciate here. This is just a fantastically well-written book and like all great children’s books, adults will enjoy it too.

A word of caution on her other titles

I was excited to learn that the author had written quite a number of other children's novels about other key figures in church history, but after having a chance to review a couple, I know I won't be recommending them all. Mrs. Vernon seems to be equally sympathetic to all of the key figures she writes about, which is odd since her subjects span the whole cross-section of Protestantism – Arminian, Anabaptist, Lutheran, and Calvinist too. One example: The Man Who Laid the Egg is a positive portrayal of Erasmus, a man who, while praised by Luther for his great learning, was also chastised by Luther for lacking the courage to leave the Roman Catholic Church. 

This is an author who won't pick a side - she admires the bravery and courage of all these men, but glosses over their very significant theological differences.

Ink on his fingers about Johann Gutenberg's efforts to print the first Bible (before then all the copying was done by hand) also shows some of this indiscriminate tendency. At one point in the story a Roman Catholic monk gives his perspective on penance, without any critical comment from other characters. Vernon portrays his approach as a valid one – she makes it seem, to the uncritical young reader, than when we sin, starving ourselves and depriving ourselves of human company are a good response. Vernon's books all seem to be about the Reformation, so when it comes to sides, it is clear she's a Protestant-sympathiser. Why then wouldn't she clarify here that Jesus takes our sin away, so when we repent and are forgiven the appropriate response is not to try and punish ourselves, but instead to turn from sin, and in thankfulness, start doing good?


However, this is only a brief passage in a very interesting book about a pivotal figure in the Reformation. So if your son or daughter loved The Bible Smuggler, then Ink, accompanied by a word of warning, may be a good follow-up.

I will continue to keep an eye out for other really good Louise Vernon titles, and let you know what else I might find. But I don't misunderstand this recommendation to be one of all that she writes.

Support this site by purchasing The Bible Smuggler at through this link. It won't cost you anything, but sends a dime or two our way.

RELATED REVIEWS: other children's books on Reformers

R.C. Sproul's picture book on Luther getting his hair cut: The Barber who wanted to pray
William Boekesten's picture book on Guido de BrĂ©sFaithfulness under Fire
Simonetta Carr's picture books on John KnoxJohn Owen, and John Calvin
Andy Thomson's novel on John Wycliffe: Morning Star of the Reformation

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Giver

by Lois Lowry

1993 / 208 pages

The Giver is a book that is not specifically Christian, but has been studied in Christian schools and is stocked in our Christian school library. Why?

Lois Lowry's novel is a brilliant dystopia - a vision of the future where things have gone horribly wrong. What makes it so brilliant is that in the brief space of a children's novel, Lowry shows, as dystopian novels always do, how the desire to make a utopia leads to disaster.

The original Utopia (which literally means "no-place"), by Thomas More (an English Catholic writing around the time of the Reformation), is a vision of an ideal, perfectly regulated society, where people live their lives with leisure and work balanced, and the wealth is fairly shared among all. All these features are appealing, but given human nature, any attempt to build society through regulation will result in the stomping out of individuality and the oppressive power of whatever authority we trust to organize everything. Basically, there is a kind of idolatry of human systems and power. Of course, we know that idols always disappoint, and idols always demand horrible sacrifices.

That's what's going on in The Giver. Lowry builds up a picture of an ideal, well-organized society where everyone has his or her specific role set by 12 years old. All the angst of adolescence in our society has been taken care of through this selection of each person's career by the community, as well as by the suppression of the disruptive disturbance of teenage hormones. The result is a village in which there is no significant crime; in which each person is given a specific role and, in return, has all his or her needs are met from cradle to grave by the community; and in which both the physical storms and emotional storms have been subdued by technology.

This "sameness," as the narrator calls it, has been maintained for generations. Even the memory of the relative chaos of our own society has been wiped out, but the elders of the village have ensured that the past is not entirely lost, so that in the event of crisis, the elders can learn from it. This is where the main character, Jonas, comes in. At twelve years old, he is given the unique role of the Receiver of the community. What does he receive? The memories of the village before the "sameness" - from the Giver.

Jonas's unique knowledge enables him to see what a terrible place our own world is - with war and other suffering - but also what emotional ties like family and romantic love were lost with the oncoming of the "sameness." His own crisis comes when he sees what sacrifices his seemingly utopian village demands to keep its stability.

Why would Christians want to read this? The Giver shows us both the beauty and the cost of human emotion and desire, but also the foolishness of playing God in trying to wipe both out by human power. What we need is not liberation from our own humanness, but liberation from the sin which has corrupted our humanness - by the death of Christ - and the redirection of our emotions and desire - by the work of the Spirit. Lowry may not explicitly put us before God's throne, but she does a fine job of knocking down one of the idols that serve as a stumbling block blocking our view of His glory.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr

by Nicolas Debon
Groundwood Books, 2007
25 pages, Hardcover

This is a fun bit of Canadian history: Louis Cyr was a Quebec circus performer who in the late 1800 was known as the strongest man in the world. Even today, with the benefit of our modern nutritional and strength training practices, some of his lifting records remain unbroken. This is why he is also known by many as the strongest man who ever lived (but those folk obviously haven't heard of Samson).

This is a artistic, but accessible graphic novel treatment of his life. By that I mean it is beautiful – simple but stunning – and yet it is the sort of comic that all but the youngest children would love to read. The book begins with the year 1900, and the doctor has just told Cyr he must retire. Cyr is going to listen... after one last performance. And as he prepares for his grand finale, Cyr looks back on his life, telling his daughter how his career began, how he met and married her mother, and how he is able to walk away without regret.

Cyr seemed like a pretty humble man, which is what made this appealing for me. Many a sports book celebrating the seemingly superhuman abilities of this or that athlete can be written in such a laudatory way it is hard to tell if the writer thinks they are talking about an extraordinary man, or a god. In The Strongest Man in the World it is always clear Cyr is a mere mortal, the book beginning and ending with him heading to retirement, and his strength starting to fail (as all mortal strength eventually will).

So an interesting bit of Canadiana, that would be a particularly good read for any boy, ten and up, who needs a little help getting interested in history.

Ironically this book doesn't seem available in Canada, but you can pick it up at here.

RELATED REVIEWS: Other great graphic novel biographies