Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
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I don't review books I don't like!

*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations



by Pete Hautman

Reviewed August 3, 2004.
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2004.  198 pages.
Winner of the 2004 National Book Award in Young People's Literature.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #3, Young Adult Contemporary Novels

Jason Bock’s parents are on his case.  His mom is convinced something must be wrong with him because he sleeps so much, and his dad makes him go to youth group meetings at their Catholic church.  Jason has decided he’s an agnostic-going-on-atheist, and he likes to shock the youth group leader with his smart remarks.

After bully Henry Stagg knocks him down under the town water tower, Jason tells the group at the next meeting that he worships the Ten-Legged One.  After all, “What is the source of all life?  Water.  Where does the water come from?  Water towers.  What is the tallest structure in most towns?  The water tower.”

Jason makes himself the Kahuna of his new religion of the Chutengodians, and it quickly takes on a life of its own.  His best friend becomes the Speaker for the god, and soon they’re joined by a pastor’s son and a cute girl.  Things really get interesting when they learn that Henry Stagg knows how to climb the great Ten-Legged One.

I find myself wishing I didn’t like this book so well, since of course I believe that Christianity was not simply made up by men.  I think that faith is all very well and good, but far more important than having faith is what you put your faith in.  If the object of your faith is as lifeless as a water tower and your stories are based on lies, that faith won’t help you when you need it.

Still, how many novels for young people actually address faith and religion and what it’s all about?  I can’t help but wish that godless didn’t make it sound like faith, no matter how empty, is what really matters.  All the same, this is an entertaining, clever story and makes you stop and think about one of the most important questions of life.

A response from Pete Hautman:  
Thank you for your thoughtful and fair review of my novel Godless.  I rarely respond to reviewers (because it would make me crazy), but in this case I felt the need to make a point.  

I mentioned to a Mormon friend of mine that Godless was inspired in part by the story of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Upon reading the book, my friend said, "The difference between Joseph Smith and Jason Bock is that Joseph found himself with Faith but no religion, whereas Jason finds himself with a religion but no faith."  He was absolutely correct.

In your review you say  "I can't help but wish that godless didn't make it sound like faith, no matter how empty, is what really matters."  It was certainly not my intention to convey that impression!  The only character who has anything resembling Faith is Shin, who is destroyed by his faith in a spurious religion.

What I was trying to say, in part, was that religion itself can be a powerful (and sometimes dangerous) thing, with or without faith, with or without a "true" God.

Yours truly,

Pete Hautman

My response:
Thanks for taking the time to respond to my review.  On reflection, I was probably reading into the book some of my own baggage.  I was frustrated when no one responded adequately to Jason when he said that his religion was made up, just like Christianity.  That frustration with the characters in the book took a little bit away from my enjoyment of it.

Recently, I read The Da Vinci Code, and, after discussing it, I've been a little surprised by how few people realize that the Christian apostles were chosen because they were eyewitnesses to Jesus' resurrection, and that all but one were martyred without changing their story (that other one was exiled).  So I guess I wanted someone in the story to start talking with Jason about how Christianity is very different from belief in a water tower.

It goes to show, doesn't it, that if I had tried to write that book, it would have degenerated into preaching, and wouldn't have been anywhere near as powerful as your story.

I think you did accomplish what you set out to do--showing the power of religion itself.  The very fact that it sparked off such thinking in me shows something of your book's power.  I was frustrated with Jason's Dad and his youth group leader, but they did seem true-to-life characters.

Even if you didn't mean to imply that faith is more important than what the faith is in, it seems to me that Jason's religion is the perfect illustration of that idea.  Of course, you also show that empty faith in an object that doesn't deserve it can have some negative consequences, as in Shin's case.

I should tell you that when I finished the book, I immediately handed it to my 16-year-old son, who has mostly given up YA fiction, because I knew he would enjoy it, and he did.  Then I discussed with him a little bit about how Christianity is very different from faith in a water tower, but it wasn't that I was afraid the book would shake his faith.  It's a clever and marvellously well-written story.

Not too many YA books deal with religion, and yours works to raise topics of discussion for people from any background.

Would you mind if I post this discussion (your response to my review and my response to your response) on the webpage with my review?

I also want to tell you that teen customers at the library have told me that they love your book Sweetblood.  I'm meaning to read it the next time I find it on the shelf.  (It keeps getting checked out.)  I'm exceedingly impressed with your writing, and as an aspiring author hope that I can learn to do as well.

Thanks for taking the time to write to me,

Sondra Eklund

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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