I am not a fan of surprises. I especially don’t care for surprises in my children’s reading. I take the sacred vocation of being my child’s first and foremost teacher very seriously and I am extremely careful about what kind of intellectual and emotional foods I am giving them to eat. As a lover of books, I desperately want to pass on my love of reading to my children, but I do not hold with the theory that all books are created equal as long as they “get a child to read.” No, I don’t support that line of thinking at all.
Recently, I’ve had some unpleasant surprises. I realized that I had to do a better job of two things: pre-reading (or finding truly trustworthy critical reviews) and teaching my children to be discerning readers. While I have been accused of being controlling or overprotective, I recognize that I am being appropriately cautious. That said, there will be times when our children will read things which are not good for them, and we want them to have the necessary skills to discern that something is a poor fit.
I just read a book that will do a wonderful job of helping me to teach my children how to read in a more discerning way. Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor features an 11-year-old boy and his love for a dog who belongs to another man. This story is the first of a trilogy and has some very difficult themes running throughout. I believe that it is ultimately quite wholesome, but it has some challenging content that is appropriate to a 9 to 12-year-old reader. While I am dissatisfied with some aspects of this story overall, I believe that Naylor does a good job of chronicling the interior life an 11-year-old boy who is wrestling with some very difficult decisions. I wish that either Marty had made some better choices or that his choices had more appropriate consequences, but I appreciate the spiritual exercise that this book could be.
This is not a book that I would give to my children to read without some serious input from me. In this article, I hope to show how I am reading this with my nine-year-old.
“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” – Genesis 1:28, NRSV-CE
If I am reading Naylor correctly, this story asserts that the life of an animal is more or less equal to that of a human. I could be misunderstanding her, but there are a number of places where she tempts us into believing that the act of saving an abused dog is a virtue that trumps the moral concessions that Marty has to make to accomplish his mission. I disagree with her. As a Christian, I believe that God has given animals into our care. In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam dominion over the animals. While none of us likes to see a gentle creature abused, and Christians understand our role in wisely stewarding the earth and her creatures, I think it’s dangerous to suggest that we should fight for the life of an animal at the cost of telling lies and making moral compromises. I appreciate that this story introduces this topic. At present, there is a movement in our culture to elevate the rights of animals above the rights of humans (look at the laws against harming an animal and compare them to the laws allowing abortion). Naylor is an excellent storyteller. Her writing is easy to get lost in, she creates characters who pique our curiosity, and she builds in sufficient suspense to propel the reader forward. Because this story is so well written and has a great foundation of Christian values, this strange plot point affords us the opportunity to teach our children through their reading.
Without spoiling the story, I also want to highlight one other point. The story does not resolve perfectly. While certain ends are accomplished, others are left hanging in a way that makes this Christian mama dissatisfied. I offer this simply to encourage caution and, perhaps, a pre-reading by parents.
Because it is a well told story, because Marty’s parents have excellent Christian values, because there are other redeeming aspects to this story, I want to be able to put this book in my son’s independent reading basket. Because there are some concerning aspects to this story, I pre-read the copy that he will read. As I read, I highlighted things that I want to draw his attention to. I chose not make any margin notes, because I didn’t want to force his thinking in one direction or another while he is reading. I just highlighted little things that I hope will be speed bumps for him. Then, when he is done reading, and comes to me to do his oral narration, I will listen for these highlighted items. If, when he is done narrating, he has not hit on things that I think we should discuss, I will draw his attention back to the highlighting and ask what he thought about those particular sections.
While the actual time period in which the story takes place is a little unclear, we know that it is set in West Virginia. It feels like the 1950s because there are only two t.v. stations, the costs related to things seem too low for the 1990s, the Sears Roebuck Catalog was still a big deal, and life is very slow and simple. There is, however, a discussion of a computer, so maybe it is more like the 1990s. Regardless, the story centers around a Christ-loving, hard-working, but rather poor family in a very small town. Marty is 11 years old, he loves his parents and sisters, his relative poverty does not bother him in the least, and he is spending the summer exploring nature. When he discovers a runaway dog who has very clearly been abused, life becomes very complicated for Marty.
Despite Marty’s obvious affection for this runaway dog, Marty’s father is a man of principle, so he requires his son to join him while they return the dog to its rightful owner. Marty is beyond frustrated. In fact, he’s almost distraught. He knows that this dog does not want to go home, and that it is being abused there, and he is willing to do just about anything to save the dog. Marty wants to be a country veterinarian when he grows up, in the style of James Herriot. Marty’s father is not insensitive to Marty’s anxiety, but he knows the law and he will not steal another man’s dog.
When the dog runs away a second time, Marty makes a very dishonest choice. He shelters the dog in secret, and the consequences for that end up being significant. Not only is the dog injured while in his care, but Marty’s attempts at finding food for the sheltered dog lead the townsfolk to believe that Marty’s family has fallen on hard times. Marty tells one lie, then another, and then another, until it has snowballed badly.
This is a very difficult scenario. The dog is clearly being abused by his owner. Judd Travers brags about abusing all of his dogs.
((WARNING: the only swear word in the book is in this quote))
“Lean and mean… keep ‘em half starved, they’ll hunt better… lose one, I’ll buy another… didn’t give him an ounce for supper that night. Just put him where he could watch the others eat. Teach him not to wander off… when I want ‘em, I whistle; when I don’t, I give ‘em a kick. ‘Git,’ ‘Scram,’ Out,’ and Dammit’; that’s my dogs’ names.”
Throughout the entire story Marty and each of his parents wrestle with what is right and what is wrong. They try to discern the spirit of the law from the letter of the law. Marty’s father reminds Marty that Shiloh is a creature and not a human child. He is very clear that action in this case would violate the law. He suggests that Marty change the law if he doesn’t like it. Marty points out that that won’t fix the immediate crisis and that the dog likely won’t survive long-term abuse. Marty’s father is burdened by that truth, but his principles won’t allow him to lie to and steal from a neighbor.
I think that Naylor does an excellent job of depicting Marty’s parents as upright, reasonable, loving, Christian, and in tune. She uses Marty as a protagonist to challenge the accepted nature of the law. I know that this is not an easy situation. It is clear that Marty’s parents are sick with frustration over the allowable cruelty to animals. In my opinion, however, Naylor makes Marty the hero for defying the law and all that it costs him, morally, to do so.
In two places, Marty reflects on heaven and hell. In both cases, he is afraid that his lies will send him to hell, but that he would rather not be in heaven if it is true that animals are not also invited. In one place, Marty goes so far as to explain that he believes that when Jesus returns to earth, He will likely come in the form of a dog because nothing is as loyal and humble as a good dog. I recognize that this is 11-year-old logic, but I worry about the precedent that it sets when Marty ultimately triumphs without having to repent of his lies.
As the story progresses, Judd becomes aware of Marty’s possession of Shiloh. Without spoiling, I will explain that Judd and Marty reach an agreement on how Marty can buy the dog from Judd. Tragically, this agreement is grounded in more deceit and more law breaking, and Marty is sworn to secrecy which prevents him from coming clean with his parents. It is foolish and it is dangerous.
Naylor seems to hint that Marty makes a mistake, but she never outright says it. Instead, she has Marty’s mom make an off-the-cuff comment about how Judd probably would have agreed to a more reasonable price if Marty had just asked him to. This seems to hint that Marty brought more trouble on himself than necessary. But, it is not clear, and at the end of the book and we really are not sure that Marty has grown in virtue at all. Rather, we are left with a sick feeling that Marty has compromised his character in more ways than one.
At one point, Marty’s deception is caught by his mother. She beautifully states that she must tell his father because in 14 years of marriage she has never lied to him and won’t start now. Sadly, however, she does agree to keep Marty’s secret for a night. As it turns out, this is just long enough for his father to find out and feel betrayed. Marty’s father addresses the situation and we get another beautiful example of Christian parenting and correction.
There are so many things to love about this book, but there are some big moral hiccups. I am glad to have this story in my imagination, but I am sad that it is marred by the poor decision-making. Because of the dual nature of this book, I think that it will be an excellent parent-child book club book. A book like this has the power to teach young readers how to become discerning independent readers. If properly mentored, a young reader can develop the necessary skills to spot another book with a great story and flawed morals.