Friday, November 12, 2010
Cole is living in a world ravaged by disease. In a future not far removed from our own, all hell has broken loose and a pandemic flu virus has decimated the world population. After having lost both his parents to the illness and barely surviving it himself, Cole is placed in an orphanage and forgotten. But just when he's started to give up hope, he begins to receive visits from an evangelical pastor who wants to take him home and arrange for an adoption. Cole's parents having been fierce atheists, he knows nothing about organized religion and so finds himself at a crossroads in relation to his spiritual leanings. Though Cole is initially skeptical and cold, he does leave the orphanage with Pastor Wyatt and comes to value life in the small community called Salvation City. Pastor Wyatt acts as a loving father to Cole and his wife, Tracy, also takes him into her heart. Cole is home schooled and begins attending worship services and learning the bible in a perfunctory way, creating relationships in a town that seems to have escaped the more dire consequences of the pandemic. But although Cole is outward happy in this setting, he can't help the anger and fear he feels as an adolescent in flux, and when a visitor to Salvation City comes looking for the forgotten boy, Cole has to decide which path he will eventually walk. Will Cole stay with the loving pastor and his extended family, growing up to be a fixture of the church? Or will he take his chances in a world far different than the one he's known, essentially giving up his safety for his freedom? Sigrid Nunez explores these complicated issues in Salvation City with sensitivity and clarity, leaving readers to puzzle out the complexities of a new world scoured by infirmity and madness, where nothing is as it once was.
This is the second YA1 book I've read in as many months, and while I like getting a feel for the genre and think YA books hold a lot of appeal to me as a reader, this one didn't meet with as much success as the first book I tried. I really liked the premise and the storytelling and felt that the plot posed a lot of interesting questions to the reader, but one thing that definitely rubbed me the wrong way was the unending angst of the protagonist, Cole. I've said before that I don't deal well with too many angst issues in the books I read, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I have two teenagers at home and I get my recommended dose of angst daily, thank you very much. Too much angst isn't edgy or complicated, it's just tiresome. When it's repetitive, like it is here, it can be frustrating to read.
In a series of flashbacks, we meet Cole and his parents. Cole is unendingly angry with them for all sorts of reasons that I could never quite fathom. He doesn't want his mom to hug him or his dad to take an interest in the things he does. He hates to read books. When the pandemic hits, Cole is left with even more anger then before and becomes a ward of the state as an orphan. There was never sufficient explanation as to why Cole was so angry; he just was, which was frustrating. At times I could accept this anger as the due process of being a teenager, and at times Cole's anger was justified. The problem was that for most of the book, he veered from ambivalence to anger in a way that I found grating. In later sections, Cole becomes a more understanding person and starts to let his heart open to the possibility of love that Pastor Wyatt and his wife want to provide, but by that point, I was annoyed with Cole and couldn't get in line with his new transformation.
This book deals very with religion and spirituality in a very interesting way. The residents of Salvation City are spiritual people but they aren't goody-goodies. They have the same problems as everyone else does and they deal with them in much the same way. Though at times they can be naive, they are, on the whole, well adjusted and decent people. There is some talk of Pastor Wyatt engaging in acts of aggressive proselytizing, but for the most part, he's just a man who wants to do the right thing and be good to those around him. As Cole becomes closer to him, he finds in Pastor Wyatt a man that he comes to feel is a father to him. Later, Cole begins to find this relationship suspect (no surprise there) and feels that he may have been misled by the pastor and his wife. This spurs him to think about leaving Salvation City behind for a chancier future. This is another thing I didn't really understand. Cole seemed to be happy and was adjusting well, and then all of a sudden, he takes a different viewpoint. I'm well aware that this shift in attitude came from a visit from an unexpected quarter, but it seemed simple to see that Cole was living a good life and was very loved by the people around him. Why did he want to leave all that? Again, I blame the angst.
There were some points on which I understood what Cole was going through. When he begins to question a God that would let his mother and father perish because they were not saved, I could empathize with his fear and confusion. What afterlife awaits those who are not believers? I've asked myself this question many times, and found that I was just as worried and apprehensive when Nunez explored this issue as when I had studied it on my own. It's a tough thing to confront the gray issues of your spirituality and Nunez does this exceptionally well. I didn't get the feeling that she was making judgements, just exploring issues that seem to be difficult for a lot of people to understand. I have to say that I'm of the mind that the God I believe in doesn't make those kinds of distinctions, but again, the logic behind these questions seems valid to me.
While I had some very troublesome issues with this book, I feel that the writing and subject matter were presented very well. Aside from my reactions to Cole, this was a book that made me think about some rather interesting issues regarding religion. I wouldn't exactly call it dystopian literature, as it's packaging suggests, and would have to say that this book was more of a character study. So while there was a lot going on, it really felt more of a character driven read than a plot driven one. If you're not troubled by the angst that so clearly seems to be a problem with me, you might enjoy this read.
1 The author asserts that this is not a Young Adult title. Noted.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Posted by Zibilee at 8:00 AM