The thing that this classics-lover continues to most appreciate about Rabbit Room authors is how echoes of the great classics sound in new and vibrant stories from contemporary authors. As a reader, I am so pleased to have new and worthy stories to love. As a Christian living in the modern world, I am grateful to have fresh, edifying adventure tales to delight in. As a lover of the written word, I am grateful to be able to support living authors. As a student of the classics, I am particularly thrilled to read new stories that feel familiar.
This month I read A. S. (Pete) Peterson’s The Fiddler’s Gun and it was some of the most fun I have had reading in a long time. This new adventure story reminds me of Dickens, Hugo, and Dumas while sounding familiar in its American vernacular and values. The Fiddler’s Gun is an exhilarating story that takes the reader on a sweeping hero adventure at sea. What makes the adventure so fantastic, however, is that we are rooting for a Dickensian orphan girl who has just killed British soldiers and is running away to sea leaving behind the only thing she loves. This American epic is propelled forward by a complex moral struggle with textured ideas rendering a story with a very worthy soul.
“He drew the bow across the strings and the instrument moaned a forlorn note. ‘Beautiful, that’s what you got to do with that hurtin’, you got to turn it beautiful.’ He closed his eyes and began to play.” – The Fiddler’s Gun
We live in a broken and hurting world. Christians understand that this is fundamentally true but that it is also specifically true. Since sin entered the world in Eden, all of Eve’s children were condemned to bear the scar of original sin. The consequence of this scar is that on this side of eternity, it is never really healed. And where the wound exists, hurt moves in like an infection. That hurt has been working itself out onto us, through us, and into our culture for all of human history. Like when Pandora opened her box, sin has been loosed on the world and will continue to wreak havoc on souls until the final battle. As Christians we know that this is true. But, we also know that this is specifically true in our own personal lives. We know that we are broken. We know that we are sinful. We know that we hurt and that we inflict hurt on others. And this is why we need a Savior. And this is why Bartimaeus keeps a revolver in his fiddle case as a reminder of that hurt. Bloody Bart helps us to understand that while the hurt is real it can be transformed into something beautiful if we let the Savior heal us.
“The trouble with Phineas Michael Button began the moment she was born.” – The Fiddler’s Gun
Fin is the unlucky and unwanted thirteenth daughter of the Button family. Left to grow up in a Georgia orphanage, Fin’s entire existence is marked by rebellion because she is not interested in conforming to a world that never wanted her. At seventeen years old, Fin is at war with anyone and everyone, and most especially with herself. Fortunately for her, colonial Georgia is on the brink of rebellion from England and that reality pushes Fin into a gruesome but worthy vent for her pent-up and mutinous steam.
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
–Les Miserables, The Musical
Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (and the beautiful musical) is a classic not only because of the exquisite beauty of his writing, but also because of the timelessness of his characters’ struggles. Good students of history know that none of these wars that we fight are new. None of theses battles will really end the hurt or fill the God-shaped holes in our hearts. All of this rebellion is just a manifestation of the perennial spiritual battle that echoes through the ages. Like the poor and starving of Hugo’s Les Miserables, Fin Button is hungry for a world that makes sense and a freedom that she can never find. And like Hugo’s epic characters, Fin is trapped in a situation that is beyond her control. Also like those noble characters in Paris, Fin is willing to defy convention, take power into her own hands, and embrace the ugliness of war to chase after that elusive but essential freedom.
While Les Miserables is a 1,400 page tome written in several parts, featuring several miniature story arcs, and showcasing the human spirit in all of its most naked forms, The Fiddler’s Gun is a much shorter and more linear work. Obviously the two stories are entirely separate from each other. Written hundreds of years apart, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, about different national concerns and with different prejudices. That said, both center on the dynamic of the human spirit at war with itself and with the world around it. Both trade in sin and redemption. Both reveal the constant struggle between light and dark. Both explore the art of drawing beauty out of pain.
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
–Les Miserables, The Musical
Not unlike Les Miserables, The Fiddler’s Gun tells the story of ordinary characters who are thrust into epic struggles. In both stories, we follow the internal spiritual and moral struggle of our favorite character. In each, the world is on fire with war, and we get a sense of how small but significant each character is in the larger story. In Bartimaeus, we see an older Valjean. A redeemed and noble character who has fallen from grace but has been restored. In Fin, we see a younger Valjean and also a painful reminder of Fantine. Like those great characters, Fin is the victim of circumstances but too alive to go down without a passionate rebellion. In Hilde and Carmeline, we have versions of the good bishop, albeit a cold American Puritan recasting of God’s abiding provision and mercy. I could go on but instead I will admit that I don’t believe that Peterson wrote his characters to resemble Hugo’s. Instead, I think that both authors drew characters who are immensely authentic and truly human. In their subcreation, Peterson joined Hugo in deftly borrowing from life such that their characters would always look like real people with familiar struggles.
Will you give all you can give
So that our banner may advance
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance?
–Les Miserables, The Musical
When I discovered The Rabbit Room a little over a year ago, I looked at the A. S. Peterson books with curiosity. I asked about them in our big book club and was warned that they are “dark,” “grisly,” “raw,” and “violent.” Sadly, these comments, taken out of the context of the whole story, turned me off and prompted me to ignore the books for a year. God, however, is gracious and gave me an opportunity to reconsider my options. During that year I had a number of conversations with Pete Peterson, and others who know and love Pete, and was sufficiently curious about why he would write books that some considered so dark and ugly. Because I was coming to understand The Rabbit Room better, I had a growing sense that my book club friends and I must be having some kind of failure to communicate with each other. There was no way that The Rabbit Room would publish books that delight in darkness.
My reading buddies and I ordered The Fiddler’s Gun and scheduled a June reading. Within paragraphs, I was hooked. My initial impression was that Fin Button is Anne Shirley with a Charles Dickens make-over. I understand now that she is much more than that, but I still hold that in those early chapters that is exactly what Fin is. And… that makes me love her. I understood that that red-headed orphan wasn’t living at Green Gables and wasn’t going to have the chance at an optimistic outcome. Rather, Fin’s existence would be Anne unsaved. An Anne who would more closely resemble Fantine. An Anne who would rage against the darkness and challenge God to prove Himself to her.
Peterson resembles Hugo in more than just character development. His writing is also exquisitely beautiful. Like a great sea ballad, Peterson’s words sing poetry in a frolicking tone. Deeply masculine, the writing is strong, assertive, clear, and refreshingly honest. Clearly informed by a love of classics and music, the characters speak in their own unique voices. Unapologetically American, the story centers on a love of freedom and adventure. And, because Peterson is a Christian, his characters wrestle with God like Jacob at Peniel.
“She left home to keep those things from this place, from these people, from Peter. Now she was bringing it all back. Worse, she wouldn’t be able to hide it, to lie about it, to cover it up… she meant to bring death where innocence slept. She felt her blood rising; she meant to fight.” – The Fiddler’s Gun
An absolutely worthy story, I must urge caution. My book club friends were not wrong. This story is dark, grisly, raw, and violent. But, then again, so are David Copperfield, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Les Miserables. Fin becomes a pirate after she kills a handful of British soldiers. Pirate life is violent and often depraved. We are not spared those details. Peterson handles them tactfully, but as I said above, his writing is honest. This is not a story for young readers; but it is a worthy story for mature readers. I would recommend this book to mature teens and adults. To help parents navigate how mature their teens need to be, I will share one quote below.
My reading buddies and I agree that the passage that follows, which occurs early in the story, is the most vile of all. I suspect that Peterson did this so that we could really understand what Fin was getting into and brace ourselves for the grim realities of what could come in the rest of the story. In point of fact, this is not a harbinger of what is to come. It is the lowest point of the story. And, worth noting, Peterson puts this passage in a much larger context of grace.
“‘Piracy and pillage! Is that what you want to hear? Murder, rape, rum and ruin? That’s who Bart is! That’s who I was!’ The creases his face spread to an unclenched visage of anger. ‘I killed men, women, and children. English, Colonist, French, Spaniard, Moor, Turk – you name it, I killed it, missy. This what you wanted?’ Fin shrank away. ‘Don’t be scared now!’ You ain’t heard the worst of ol’ Bloody Bart. Laid down with a whore, he did, then cut her throat cause he didn’t want to pay! Give up his own friend for gold and a gallon of rum!’” – The Fiddler’s Gun
The rape scene in The Count of Monte Cristo still haunts me decades after first reading it. The early abuses heaped on David in David Copperfield make it hard for me to want to revisit a favorite book. Fantine’s demise is one of the most tragic in classic literature and so painful I am always tempted to skip over her portion of Les Miserables. The Fiddler’s Gun is equally honest and, in places, quite painful. That said, Count, Copperfield and Les Miserables remain precious to me. The ugliness in those books is justified, necessary, and honest. Fiddler is, in many ways, less gruesome and more hopeful. And like those classics, it has important things to say about the human spirit.
“She couldn’t stand by and let the world decide her fate. To make her own way she needed action, and action in war meant death, violence, murder if need be… One day, like Bartimaeus, she’d put it down, but not yet.” – The Fiddler’s Gun