Darn it. Double darn. Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls by Raymond Arroyo has me so frustrated! So much creativity. Such an interesting concept. Such a great infusion of Catholic traditions into the spiritually diverse genre of fantasy. Such a great opportunity to do what N.D. Wilson does so brilliantly: reveal how all good fantasy stories really are a search for the “deeper magic” of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. All that potential, deflated with some objectionable choices pertaining to relationships.
There is much about this book that I like, but there are some challenges that have me regretting my purchase. I understand that my objections to the book may be seen in a different light by other readers, so I will try to explain the story, articulate my concerns, and share some quotes from the story so that parents can decide for themselves if and how they wish to handle this book. It is important to note that my objections are sincere, but that I chose to use this in a book club book anyway. I wish the problems weren’t there. I think the story would be a improved if the author had made a couple of different choices. That said, I still think there is merit in this story.
This modern fantasy novel has been compared to Indiana Jones and Percy Jackson. I think that both are fair comparisons. I have some thoughts about Percy Jackson (you can see my post here) and am sorry to say that some of those concerns probably apply here as well.
Will Wilder is an ordinary modern kid descended from an extraordinary family with a supernatural legacy. As in most hero novels today, Will lives an everyday kind of existence in a small town with no idea that he is special or that his life is about to become a wild adventure. As far as modern hero novels go, it is pretty typical. Lots of bad guys, a few good guys, lots of clueless folks who get in the way. Adrenaline, fight scenes, supernatural stuff, and all kinds of things that kids like. Basically, it is a valid Christian alternative to Percy Jackson.
The book frustrates me for two reasons: it could have been so much more than that, and it didn’t need to feature a bratty hero who plays fast and loose with the rules while adults encourage him to do whatever it takes to save the day.
When I say that this could have been so much more, I am referring to two things: the rich Christian, specifically Catholic, tradition that this story had at its disposal and the example that N.D. Wilson has given us.
What Arroyo does very well is make full use of Catholic symbols, traditions, and beliefs which give the story a solid and mystical foundation. While Arroyo is creating fiction, he is grounding it in well-established truths that have been largely lost to modern culture. For example, the idea of spiritual warfare should be obvious to Christians, but most moderns tend to disbelieve in Satan and his legions of devils who seek to steal us from the Lord. By drawing on this spiritual truth, Arroyo is able to create a set of “bad guys” who behave in certain traditional ways.
Here is an example of what I mean. In the first (and perhaps one of the most intriguing) chapter(s), Will’s great grandfather Jacob, a U.S. soldier in Europe during World War II, is confronted by a “bad guy” who is a demon in a dead German soldier’s body. Jacob commands the demon to come out of the body. Over the next page or so, the demon tries to win over Jacob in all of the ways that we see demons behave in the New Testament:
“‘Why so quiet, Wilder? Your dear brothers lack our special gifts. They see nothing. Oh, they play at their rituals, but we have powers they’ll never understand. Why are you not the leader of the Brethren? I could help you become the leader. They would all follow you instead of that bearded fool… your fortress in America burns, even at this moment,’ the demon whispered soothingly. ‘There is nothing to return home to, Wilder. Gathering the bones of the dead won’t help you now. But as leader you could rebuild something new -’” – pages 6-7 (it cuts off in mid sentence)
What I find frustrating is that while some of the religious imagery is truly excellent, some comes off as being weird. As a Catholic who is familiar with most of the references in the story, and who has great love for the traditions of the Church, I found myself scrunching my nose at some of the usages. That is probably just personal preference, but it annoyed me that non-Catholics might read this and think that Catholics believe in strange and mystical traditions (we do) that are grounded in some kind of voodoo magic (they aren’t). In some places, Arroyo does a brilliant job of articulating and contextualizing Catholic beliefs, but in other places he shrouds the story in unnecessary mystery which could be very confusing to those not in the know.
What I mean by N. D. Wilson’s example is that Will Wilder feels very one dimensional as compared to Wilson’s protagonists. And since both authors are writing young adult fantasy from a traditional Christian point of view, I don’t think that Will Wilder is much better than Percy Jackson in terms of quality of writing. And that saddens me. Perhaps it is because Wilson is so well-steeped in the classics that he is successful in creating authentic but complex characters who experience meaningful growth. The Will Wilder characters are trying to be that, but seem to me to fall short. I can imagine that most of these characters have authentic backstories, but they don’t leap off the page. Frankly, they seem pretty predictable and superficial.
As a Catholic, Arroyo has a well-endowed canon of saintly lives to inspire his character development. In fact, Wilson as a non-Catholic seems to make better use of Catholic saints than Arroyo does. Given the treasury of symbolism, tradition, and the legacy of complex saints that Arroyo could have drawn from, I find Will Wilder to be disappointingly thin.
Even if the story is a bit superficial, I could write a positive review stating that I would have liked for it to be more, but that it is generally safe and entertaining. The trouble is that I can’t write the review that way. I am not sure that it is generally safe even though it is entertaining.
The author of this book is a well-known and deeply respected Catholic celebrity. In my experience with his writing and television show, he is sincere about virtue, loves the faith deeply, and is one of the “good guys.” He is a dad of a young family and seems to want his children to grow up in a culture that is recommitting itself to Christianity. Having this impression of him, I was shocked and disappointed in one of the themes that overwhelmed the story. Tragically, Will Wilder’s father, Dan Wilder, is an anti-hero and a big part of the problem in the story. And even worse, because of Dan’s disbelief, the other adults in the story routinely pressure Will to lie to his dad and work around him.
Here is an example of what I mean. In this scene, which happens on pages 261-262, Dan Wilder and his wife are deep in the belly of a supernaturally charged cave or vault. The last dozen pages have been littered with supernatural occurrences including something resembling the parting of the Red Sea and a mass of demonic creatures trying to attack children. Not spooky at all, more just a war scene, it is impossible to deny that what is going on is not of this world. To pretend that there is an everyday explanation for this is to harden one’s heart to truth in all of its forms. Both the attacks and the protections were undeniably a war between angels and demons. Consistent with every other scene of its kind in the story, Dan Wilder reveals his hardened heart:
“‘You’ve seen things before.’
Dan’s face betrayed him. He nodded sheepishly and resumed tying the rope.
Deborah stopped his hands and exploded in a tense whisper. ‘Our son thinks he sees demons. He told me he broke in here, stole the relic of St. Thomas, and gave it to a demon! Leo just smacked a piece of cloth on top of a pool full of water, and it parted. It flew in the air, Dan. You saw it, and so did I.’
Dan’s face went blank. He avoided Deborah’s glare.
‘What is going on Dan? What is happening to us?’
‘I… I… Where is Will?’
“‘He’s with your Aunt Lucille. Oh, and she says he has a gift. He’s a Seer.’ Borderline hysterical, she searched his eyes for an answer, or even a reaction. ‘And are you ready for this? They are out on the river right now, getting the relic back from the demon.’
Dan was nearly catatonic. ‘It’s her old fables… She’s feeding Will all of this. She’s been telling these stories for so long, she can’t distinguish reality from pious lies. I don’t know anything about it, Deb.’
‘This is your family! You have to know something about it.’
‘I don’t. I don’t.’ Dan took the rope, turned from his wife, and stomped angrily toward the black granite slab bearing the inscription ‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’”
What is going on here? Why would a Christian dad perpetuate the cultural bias against fathers by rendering the father of his hero an anti-hero? Dan’s disbelief permeates the subtext of the story. Frankly, I was appalled. In a secular author, I would not be terribly surprised to see this kind of thing. It is typical of modern children’s literature today to make children the heroes by casting the parents as buffoons, fuddy-duddies, or absent and detached. But in a Christian author? Specifically a young Christian author who has a young family? I don’t know, but I have two theories.
First, I suspect that Arroyo intends to redeem Dan Wilder somewhere in the course of the series. There are hints scattered throughout that Dan did believe at one time and that he does see what is happening but he is willfully forcing himself to ignore the truth. Something in Dan is broken and I suspect that it will get fixed or healed. That said, it doesn’t go far enough for me. I can appreciate a story line like that if it is clear by the end of the first book that it will in fact be resolved. Instead, this is the last conversation we see with Dan in this book:
“‘The only relic here is you,’ Dan exploded. ‘You’re the relic. You and your band of misfits clinging to the past. It’s a compulsion. Now you want to drag my boy into your madness. Aunt Lucille, y-y-you need help. Let’s go kids.’”
My second theory comes from something that I have pondered for a while and have had confirmed in Out of the Ashes, The Benedict Option, and Archbishop Chaput’s new book, Strangers in a A Strange Land.
“Roughly half of all American Catholic teens now lose their Catholic identity before they turn 30. The reasons are very good. Today’s mass media, both in entertainment and the news, offers a steady diet of congenial practical atheism highlighting religious hypocrisy and cultivating consumer appetite. As one study noted, many young adults assume that ‘science and logic are how we really know things about our world, and religious faith either violates or falls short of the standards of scientific knowledge.’” –Strangers in a A Strange Land, p. 51
Also, from Strangers:
“But the example of parents remains a key factor – often the key factor – in shaping young adult beliefs. The family is the main transmitter of religious convictions. Disrupting the family disrupts an entire cultural ecology. Former Catholics tend to come from homes where parents were tepid, less engaged, and indifferent or skeptical in matters of faith… if the mind of the young breaks fundamentally with the past, so, too does that of the nation… In the seven years between 2007 and 2014, self-identifying Christians in the United States declined from 78.4 percent of the population to 70.6 percent.” –Strangers in a A Strange Land, p. 51
I theorize that since Arroyo is published by a secular press and is writing for an audience of young readers who are likely to be in “tepid… indifferent or skeptical” homes, and that since parents are such a profound influence on children’s religious beliefs, he is trying to counter the irreligiosity in American homes. I suspect that he is trying to build a model wherein young American readers can recognize the battle that they have in their own homes when trying to challenge their religiously tone deaf parents.
It doesn’t work for me. If this book were targeted at 16-20 year old readers, I might feel very differently. But since the Will Wilder fan base is likely to be in the 8-14 year old age range, I think that this is dangerous at best. While I acknowledge that 8-14 year old readers are often savvy enough to see that their literary heroes don’t agree with their parents, I like to think that this age range is more likely to be influenced by positive examples than negative ones. In a culture that already attacks family and seeks to disrupt it, I think that we need more examples like Harry Potter’s Weasley family or N.D. Wilson’s Smith/Westmore family. I know that when I was that age, I was captivated by Narnia’s Pevensies and the purity of their sibling relationship. Despite having a less-than-ideal relationship with my sister, I was smitten with the example of the March sisters from Little Women. I didn’t need reminders of what I didn’t have. I needed worthy examples to dream about and work to achieve. I needed good food for my moral imagination. Not more heartache. More inspiration.
I have said, in many places, that Dan Wilder’s lack of faith produces bad fruit in his family. Specifically, his aunt routinely counsels Dan’s children to take up positions against their dad, even if they must use deceit to accomplish that. I think that Arroyo backed himself into a corner and can’t make his hero theme work without compromising something.
I said that I am still going to use this book for book club. The reality is that parts of this are inspired and that the hero is heroic. The relationships are poorly formed, so I hope to draw the kids’ attention to that and ask them how the story could have been improved.
I wanted to love this one. I am sad that I did not.
Here is a book trailer for Perilous Falls.
The audiobook is read by the author. I always like it when the author reads their own books.
A two minute interview with the author.