“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” – C. S. Lewis
Reflecting on that C.S. Lewis quote, I cannot think of any exceptions to that rule.
In Death By Living, N. D. Wilson writes: “…I write for children because I have read more than my fair share of adult ideas set out and explained by adult thinkers and theologians, philosophers and pundits, and I may as well admit that I have been more influenced (as a person) by my childhood readings of Tolkien and Lewis… than by any idea or books that I read in college and grad school. The events and characters in Narnia and Middle Earth shaped my ideals, my dreams, my loyalties, and my goals. Kant just annoyed me.”
Me too, Nate. Me too. Nietzsche irritated me even more than Kant annoyed me.
N. D. Wilson claims that Outlaws of Time: The Last of the Lost Boys is the most autobiographical of his children’s books. I buy that. This trilogy-ender has a different feel from any of his other books. It strikes me as being more personal and more reflective while also being more emotionally complicated (with the possible exception of Boys of Blur). In Death By Living, Nate writes extensively about giving ideas flesh. “All ideas must put flesh on if they are to live well (or at least honestly) within a story (any story).” Because of an interesting twist right off the bat, I think that Lost Boys reads with the kind of honesty he is talking about in that quote. He goes on to say later in that same chapter, “I am often asked why I write fiction for children. Because those whom I am called to feed are still children. Because I am still a child. Because the world is big, and the world is wonderful, but it is also terrifying.” This, I think, is what Lost Boys is really all about.
**The following will contain series spoilers but no spoilers from this book unless clearly noted. If you have not read the first two Outlaws books, you may wish to save this review for later.**
A quick reading of the dust jacket caused my mouth to gape, my kids to register shock, and all of us to cry out in delight. This story picks up with Sam and Glory married. Glory, glory, hallelujah! (I am not being sacrilegious – Glory’s name is Glory Hallelujah, so I am just having fun with that.) There is something deeply satisfying about seeing favorite characters fall in love and get married. When this book opens, Glory and Sam are married, but lost. This story is about their son, Alex. For reasons which are not immediately clear, Alex is being raised by his aunt and uncle, Millie and Jude, but he has no idea that they are not his natural parents. The observant reader will notice a shift in tone from the last two books to this one.
In Sam and Glory’s books, the heroes were adrenaline-charged teenagers full of angst who were raging against the darkness. Through the assistance of good and deeply loyal friends, wise adult mentors, and a series of miracles, Sam, Glory, Millie, Jude, Father Tiempo, and the other Lost Boys were able to stand in the gap for each other when darkness, death, and despair threatened to swallow them whole. In those books, there was always the hope that Father Tiempo would show up in the nick of time. Or that Manuelito would be able to work some deep white magic to heal the hurting. Or that the posse of good guys would find a way to make things right. The real “magic” of the first two Outlaws books was in the love the characters had for each other, and in their acceptance of miracles. In this book, Alex does not have any of that. Or, maybe he does.
Because our favorite characters are still present in this book, but are parents, we see a new side to Wilson’s writing. The action centers on Alex, but the support systems that surround Alex are not those of friends. He doesn’t have any friends. Instead, it is the love and boundaries of two sets of parents who are honestly drawn and who would do what any parents would do: lay down their lives for their child. And, if we count the time-travelling, we get Sam and Glory squared – teenage Sam and Glory, as well as middle-aged Sam and Glory. Add to them a team of dream walkers, and Alex has a mighty support system of heroes. But, he doesn’t know it.
This is the most human of Wilson’s stories. The most real. Alex unwittingly makes a fatal error and the consequences of that carelessness are walloping.
In Death By Living, Wilson says that “stories are soul food.” He goes on to say, “…we are narrative creatures, we need narrative nourishment – narrative catechisms… souls will be fed and shaped from the inside out. That much is inescapable.” More than just interesting prose, Wilson attempts to prove this assertion in the character of Alex.
Knowing that Sam and Glory would not have disappeared for twelve years without some kind of serious problem, Jude and Millie try to keep Alex safe while also feeding his moral imagination with all of the stories that would shape his soul and keep him truly “safe.” Hiding in the 1980s in the Midwest, Jude is a writer, and he is letting Alex feast on Tolkien and stories about Sam Miracle and Glory Spalding.
When Mrs. Dervish shows up, Alex is unprepared. He falls. And the story gets dark. Nearly all of this adventure is hard. Instead of young heroes fighting external dark forces, like the Vulture before him, Alex has to fight the inescapable darkness within. This story might be called a cautionary tale.
Sad, dark, hard, romantic, exciting, perplexing, and gripping, this story does not betray the reader’s trust. We know that Alex cannot be saved. That is no secret. We find out that Father Tiempo warned Sam and Glory that Alex would be permanently lost to them and that their mission was one of the worst possible kind. In the hands of another author, I would have been afraid. Trusting Wilson, I waited to see how he would make beauty from ashes. He did.
Without spoiling, I think it’s wise to give some cautions:
- Almost all of the good guys die at least once in this book. And when they do, it’s painful.
- The backdrop for certain scenes is the “Massacre in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan” featuring the standoff between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors. This night of terror includes human sacrifice to pagan gods and a fierce battle. The reader has a front row seat, and it is intense.
- There is a moment of profound beauty with Sam and Glory which is tragic and romantic.
The intensity of this book was appreciated by my family. It was an emotional read. However, I would strongly caution parents of young or sensitive readers to pre-read this book. Reflecting on all of his children’s books, I would consider this to be the darkest, the most graphic, the most emotionally complicated, and one of the most beautiful.
We have reviewed the first book in this series: The Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle here. We reviewed this one, even though we didn’t review The Outlaws of Time: The Song of Glory and Ghost, because this book has different feel than the other two and it is one that parents may wish to preview.
While Wilson’s writing is dark and hard, we think that it is also the kind of stuff that born out of a love of the classics. We think that there is truth, goodness, and beauty in Wilson’s writing and wrote about that here. Everything we have written about Wilson’s books can be found here.