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Thursday, 3 April 2008

Introducing Odo Hirsch

I read children's books. A lot of children's books. I never really stopped, because there was no way I was going to give up my favourite authors just because I was entering my teens. I do not think I have ever had enough favourite authors.

My pseudonym is taken from a children's book -- specifically this children's book entitled The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, by Gerald Morris; Lynet is the eponymous Savage Damsel. The series of which it is a part is delightful despite being shabby in places: sweet and good and humble and humourous. It's also written by a Christian minister. Not, perhaps, the most apt pseudonym for an atheist blogger, but then, I never expected to blog about atheism!

Sometimes you can pick the books written by authors who take their Christianity seriously. I don't mean the ones who throw it in your face, I mean the ones for whom it shows up naturally, because Christianity is such a large part of their lives that they can't leave it out of what they write. I'm thinking, for example, of Madeleine L'Engle, who makes love the central empowering force for the side of good in A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels. There's also Sherryl Jordan, a New Zealander like me, who pulled off a (halfway convincing!) World Peace ending in Time of the Eagle, achieved through the work of a character who survives by having faith in the purpose she believes has been laid down for her. You can see the Christian belief structure. Does it bother me? A little. Am I skeptical of it? Yes. Do I learn from it? Definitely. Do I like these authors? Oh, so much!

At the very least, I needn't be ashamed of liking Katherine Paterson -- she's another author who belongs in this category, perhaps the best writer of them all. She writes with such incredible sympathy for her characters (the same is true of Orson Scott Card). Moreover, we atheists owe her a vote of thanks. In Leslie (from Bridge to Terabithia) we have a sympathetic atheist character that we can be proud to be represented by: imaginative, intelligent, non-conforming, courageous. Paterson even goes so far as to take the cruelty of eternal damnation and slam it in the reader's face! Yet she herself is Christian. Her other Newbery-Award-winning book is Jacob Have I Loved, which deals with the problem of feeling that God might hate you. And yes, when I read her, or Card, or Gerald Morris, or Sherryl Jordan, or Madeleine L'Engle, sometimes I can't help thinking 'How can we duplicate this?' How can we duplicate that sympathy? How can we duplicate the good aspects that come (I assume) from having a community which encourages you to think about others and love them just as they are? More complicatedly, this emphasis on love, faith, God's plan and whatever isn't precisely the angle I would want to take! It has good aspects, and regular focus on those things as part of being actively religious can have a nice effect, but I wouldn't want to buy the whole thing. What do I want?

I have some answers. Daylight Atheism. A little familiarity with philosophy. Book clubs. Meditation without the surrounding mysticism? Humanist groups? Humanism, certainly. Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, various other authors who present a rich and complex worldview that deals with the atheist perspective . . .

. . . and one Odo Hirsch, who somehow captures the simple half.

I don't know that Hirsch is an atheist. He's notoriously shy with all personal data. This is an amusing example. This article is in fact the most detailed information I've been able to find about him on the internet (notably, he's worked as a doctor and as a business consultant, studied political thought at Cambridge, and did some work for Amnesty International). Let me say, then, that I would intuit that Hirsch is a non-believer in the same way that I might intuit that an author is Christian. Hirsch obviously has a deep philosophy, it permeates his work -- and God never shows up. Reading him is like reading one of my favourite Christian authors, except that I'm not looking at some fuzzy other-person's-worldview that I have to sift through, I'm looking at something that often hits me clear as day.

If I had to name some authors who can make me see simple goodness and light in the world when I'm tired and stressed and don't feel like reading something complicated, I'd name Gerald Morris and Odo Hirsch. Morris writes light Arthurian retellings that can laugh at themselves. Hirsch is something else entirely. When Hirsch writes one of his happy books, it's as if he's done the usual thing by writing a book for children in which all distress is minor and happiness prevails in the end -- but done it with an incredibly sophisticated notion of happiness. No pasted-on smiles, here. There are reasons why Hirsch's characters are happy. You can learn something about happiness by reading one of his simple little children's books. You can see the happiness in the world from having had it sketched out for you.

Frankel Mouse has perhaps the most obvious moral. I once read a review that described Frankel, his brother Berrell and the small, frightened mouse Michael that Frankel has taken in as a 'dysfunctional mouse family' and bridled. They're not dysfunctional! Berrell is dysfunctional. Frankel is about as functional as you can get. You might worry, I suppose, about the way Berrell stays at home all day and makes Frankel look for the cheese. Of the two, though, Frankel is much happier, and you can see that Berrell's unhappiness is entirely his own fault. Frankel's work gives him a purpose and an identity. "We are the cheese-stealers!" he explains to Michael. If Berrell is grumpy, it's because he sits in a corner all day and never does anything. No wonder he almost seems to welcome the arrival of daredevil Cousin Ruthie. Frankel, by contrast, dreads Cousin Ruthie's arrival -- but I think he does admit at one point that her fun-loving, adventurous ways do make life more exciting . . .

Other lighthearted works from Odo Hirsch include the ones about Bartlett the Explorer ("Inventiveness, Desperation, Perseverance!"), and the ones about Hazel Green, an inquisitive extrovert who has multiple friendships with the adults who run the various stores on the ground floor of the skyscraper in which she lives, and who is forever asking them questions about what they do. Hazel Green is in fact my favourite Odo Hirsch book -- central to the book is her developing friendship with the local math geek.

Hirsch can write characters whose lives are full of meaning, but he is also capable of writing characters who look for meaning. Antonio S and the Mystery of Theodore Guzman has a bittersweet tone, as does Pincus Corbett's Strange Adventure. The latter describes a simple, reliable tailor who is tired of making boring things and starts a project of his own -- a colourful coat that can give him a new identity. Does it make him happier? Well, yes, it's better than nothing, but somehow I remember the story as being a little sad, all the same.

Writing for young adults, Hirsch seems to go in the opposite direction: Yoss is remarkably dark, as is Slaughterboy according to all the reviews (though I haven't read the latter). They're both coming-of-age novels, and they both deal with finding independence in a harsh world. Yoss is deep, to be sure, but it wasn't an easy read. Still, it showed me a side of Odo Hirsch that I hadn't seen before. He's capable of more than just sweetness and light. I was thrilled to see that Will Buster and the Gelmet Helmet includes some of the stronger themes of Yoss in a less dark, livelier fashion. Still, I think he's capable of taking that further. I'm waiting for the next step, the next book that blends happiness and darkness. Right now, I think he's still on his way up.


L.L. Barkat said...

I love children's books too. The Empty Pot. One Grain of Rice. The Three Questions. Wonderful, all.

I'm reading a big person's book called "Story" and the author says very strongly, "Write what you believe." These kinds of stories, no matter what the underlying belief, have the strongest impact. I liked this thought; I decided you might too.

Anonymous said...

I've always been more partial to British children's literature than American stuff.

L.L. Barkat said...

Just stopping by to share a quote with you...

"If an equation is not elegant and beautiful, [mathematicians] will tell you as a solemn point of fact, it is likely not true." p91, Tippett

What do you think?

Lynet said...

Say rather that there are plenty of inelegant mathematical truths, but it is easier to understand the elegant and beautiful ones! Indeed, if a mathematical truth is so complex as to be inelegant, it is probably difficult to use -- but if we can use it, no doubt we can find the elegance in it.

That's my guess, anyway. Beauty is a subjective thing, so it's not like there is a definitive answer!