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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Last Safe Place on Earth, by Richard Peck

Richard Peck is an award-winning author, mostly writing for young people (which means that I can understand what he writes). My wife and I have enjoyed his A Year Down Yonder (Which won the Newbery award), A Long Way from Chicago, and The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts. These books are humorous, and about life in the early twentieth century, in rural America. They are coming-of-age novels, too. So I checked out The Last Safe Place on Earth, expecting the same. Wrong!

No date is given for this book, but the telephone and autos are taken for granted as part of life, and computers, and cell phones, aren't, so it must have been meant for the 1960s through the 1980s. The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, which was published in English in 1952, and Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, by Ray Bradbury, are important class assignments. The setting is apparently a suburban community. Todd, a tenth-grader, is the protagonist, and the entire story is told from his point of view.

Todd's family consists of his sister Diana, his little sister, Marnie, and his parents. Diana isn't his biological sister, but his cousin. Her parents were killed in an auto wreck when she was small. She is also a tenth grader. Marnie is in elementary school. The family has moved to this community to escape crime and other problems they were experiencing elsewhere. Diana, Todd, and his parents are good to each other, and clearly love each other, but they are in lots of activities. Their lives are scheduled pretty thoroughly. So they get Laurel, also a tenth-grader, recommended by others, and apparently posing no reasons for worry, not even a boyfriend, to babysit Marnie. Todd finds that he is strongly attracted to Laurel.

So what is Peck getting at? In a word, intolerance.

It turns out that Laurel, and her family, are fundamentalist Christians. Laurel has a lot of time with Marnie, in the afternoons, before the parents and older children get home from their activities. Todd is awakened one night by Marnie, in the bathroom. She has tried to flush her Halloween witch costume down. The reason is that Laurel has told her that witches and ghosts are real, and evil. Marnie's mother tells Laurel that her services aren't wanted anymore.

There are other examples of intolerance, not involving fundamentalist Christians. High school kids are naturally pretty intolerant, although they usually don't think so, and Peck captures that. But he also has Laurel's church oppose Frank's book, apparently because it shows Jews in a favorable light.

There is plenty of food for thought for me here. How should I treat Halloween? Is it a harmless part of our culture, or a celebration of the devil's work? Do I really listen to ideas that are foreign to me, or do I just ignore them? How aggressively do I try to evangelize others? Are people who don't believe in Christ as I do really lost eternally?

Unfortunately, Peck seems a little intolerant himself. Laurel's family, and the other families in her church, are shown as all having serious problems, which they hide, even from themselves. (Laurel's father has gone elsewhere, perhaps to look for work, perhaps for other reasons. Laurel's young teen brother hot-wires cars and wrecks them.) Fundamentalists aren't the only people, Christian or not, who pretend that they have it all together when they don't, and, on the other hand, many of them have exemplary family lives, and Peck should know that. If he does, he's not letting on.

Todd's family is appealing. They have disagreements, and face problems, but work things out. They can drop their scheduled lives to help each other, and even to help one of Todd's friends, and Laurel, herself, when she has nowhere to turn.

Peck is a good writer. This book is more than just a good read, however. There's a message, and that message is one that needs to be received with great care.

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