Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart


Really, really, really, really, really, really COOL book! Best "bought on a complete whim!" book that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I'm so sad it's over however, I'm equally excited to be reviewing it. I'm also very glad to know there's a sequel, which, btw, I will be purchasing post-haste!

I've put a lot of thought into this book while reading it and I'm going to make some pretty bold statements here. I've rephrased things a lot in my head before I even began to type. You'll have to read what I say here very carefully because there are a lot of things I AM saying about this book and a lot of things I'm NOT saying about this book.

First off, (no spoilers, don't worry), the Wikipedia summary of this book is as follows (and you need to know this before reading this review):

Four children, Reynie Muldoon, George "Sticky" Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire, pass a series of tests advertised in the newspaper and meet Mr. Benedict, a man trying to stop something known as "The Thing to Come". Mr. Benedict sends them to The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.), where they meet Ledroptha Curtain, a man trying to take over the world using subliminal messages.

That's the gist. Also, don't go to Wikipedia for more insight on the book because the information there is full of plot spoilers. I looked up as much information as I could find about this book and its author after reading the book. It's probably better that you do that otherwise the story will unfold for you over the internet instead of its proper source: the book itself. Just a note of warning from me to you.

I found an interview of Stewart online which you can view here if you'd like. It confirmed my suspicions that he wrote this book "all in good fun" and had no hidden or ulterior motives. His main idea which he hoped to communicate in this book is that "kids are people too." His message is that children are often underestimated and can do great things. The following is a direct quote from the interview:

I’ve read accounts of kids who felt so passionate about a cause that they single-handedly raised incredible amounts of money to donate --- and did it while going to school, playing sports, learning to play oboe, you name it. Kids are capable of amazing things. Of course, in the real world doing good on a large scale usually requires many people --- be they kids or adults --- to work together with dedication and passion. And there are people, including kids, doing exactly that every day. That kind of work may sound less exciting than what my fictional kids do, but it’s extremely important --- and much less dangerous.

So there's that. No great message intended other than "pay attention to the kids because they may surprise you."

Now that I've clarified what I believe that the author's intentions of this book are, I'm going to do something that I don't think I've ever done. I'm going to recommend it as one of the greatest children's allegories that I've ever read. I think this is one of the best allegories (completely unintentionally) of spiritual warfare that I have seen. It's more clear than Narnia and certainly Lord of the Rings. In saying that, let me say that I'm not putting Stewart above C.S. Lewis (because everything in me rejects that comparison) but that I AM reading The Mysterious Benedict Society as a Christian. I cannot do otherwise for that is what I am and that is how I view the world.

I know that many Christians tend to jump the gun and claim "worldly" items for the kingdom and I'm not trying to market this as a Christian book. It isn't. I've done my best to lay out for you the facts: this is written by someone who I can assume is not a Christian (unless I see somewhere that he says so, and I haven't!) and he clearly stated his reason for writing it was for the kids. It is an entertaining story. No more, no less. However, just because he does not seem to be a Christian does not mean that he cannot communicate scriptural truths. Every human being is capable of doing such. (I'm not going to argue general/special revelation here but maybe you know what I'm talking about.)

I do not intend to manipulate it into being something it is not. At the same time, it needs no sort of manipulation to state that it perfectly describes spiritual warfare. In this story we are faced with an adversary who secretly desires control of the world and believes he has it. He manipulates people into following after him by pleasant words and subversive actions. It is hard to see that he is wicked at times. Yet it is certain that he most definitely is, however hard it is for various characters of this book to realize it. (Think Lewis' Screwtape Letters here.) The only way to defeat the bad guy is by fighting for truth and through the giving and receiving of love. It is not written as a complicated plot, but is simply spoken and imaginatively told. I think it could be used by Christian parents as an allegory precisely because the story is so straight forward. By that I mean that he wrote it without use of subplots that can distract from the main story. It's an easy read because of it. There's not a lot of bantering and bickering that can be done to argue whether this is a good allegory or not (in my opinion). I don't really think you'll need to spend a lot of time explaining to a child that there is an allegory here, "minus this" or "plus that." It just is.

I do not buy into the Harry Hoopla. Lewis himself said that Narnia was merely a way to familiarize children with truth so that they would not be startled or confused by it when they were adults (my paraphrase). Narnia is not a perfect allegory and he didn't set out to make it so. (But Lewis WAS all about sharing Christian truths, make no mistake about it.)

I do think that stories are excellent vehicles for truth and principles. It is by story and imagination that God's love and truth are frequently communicated. Perhaps you do not agree? Look at Jesus' parables. He spoke through stories to communicate solid truths to the people around Him. The way to move someone is sometimes through written or spoken word pictures, spoken to the mind and heart. Our Christian adversary knows this as well as the next person. Satan also uses stories to sway people. Stories are powerful and effective tools.

The Mysterious Benedict Society is nothing short of a great story that can be used to communicate a great truth. Because it is clean, enjoyable and entertaining, children will love it. A reader of this blog asked if I thought it would be good for her 9 year old son. My answer is YES! I would say ages 8 on up would really love this book. For my part, with a boy 22 months of age, I can say that I'm going to be hanging on to this book and presenting it along side spiritual lessons. I think it's fabulous for it and I wouldn't hesitate to use it as such. If it will spark his imagination and grow a Biblical world view then that's something I'm going to be all about. I am all about this book.

If it disturbs you to think about this book as a translator of truth, well, then, I really don't know what to say. All books do that in some form or fashion. Every author has a presupposition and whether they intend to do so or not, it's written into their stories. You can count on it. However, do you need to think beyond the surface level of this book to enjoy it? No, you don't. You can completely enjoy this book as just for an entertaining story. It is possible.

I feel like I can safely recommend this book to anyone. You can miss a message if you like and take a different one away than I myself did. But this is how it spoke to me and this is where I stand with this book. It's creative and well-told and I intend to not only read again myself, but to use it with my children also. Through good books like these, I trust they will learn to view the world.


Sarah M. said...

Great review. I can hear the excitement in your voice just by reading this review. I can't believe I've passed by this book twice (picked it up, flipped through it) and didn't buy it. The second time I almost did... Now the VERY next time I see it I'm going to buy it. :)

I think I need to listen more to my gut when I see a book.

Anonymous said...

I got a copy of this (and the sequel) from the publisher but haven't had a chance to read them yet - now I'm intrigued even more!

Carrie said...

Sarah - I've bypassed books so many times before. I'm hesitant to "discover" something on my own dime. I'd rather KNOW that it's good. But I had some "wild spending money" to use specifically on a book which is the only reason I picked it up. =)

Stephanie- lucky YOU!!!!

Anonymous said...

It's so interesting, the way stories can convey truths whether they're intended to or not. I think it happens in movies, too; 'The Matrix' illustrates lots of spiritual principles... and more recently I saw 'Children of Men' and saw allegory in it.

I've not heard of this book, but I'll be keeping an eye out for it now!

Framed said...

I bought this book on a whim also. Absolutely loved the title and the cover. But it's still unread. Someday.

Katrina @ Callapidder Days said...

Thanks for the review, Carrie! You've made me excited to start reading this with my son.

Oh, and God's truth is always God's truth, and it turns up many places, whether the authors/creators begin with that intention or not. :)

Mary said...

I enjoyed this book very much and am looking forward to getting the sequel. I thought the book was very well written with enough mystery to keep the pages turning and some excellent food for thought if you had to put it down to attend to other activities. I just bought it for my school library and can't wait to get it into the student's hands.

Anonymous said...

Do you think it would be a good book for me to read to my 6 year old or should I just wait and let him read it when he's a little older? I have read him "Because of Winn Dixie" and "Swiss family Robinson" and others but those were his favorites.

Deb Carrano said...

I just bought the book to read to my two older boys (5 and 7). I cannot wait, and after reading your blog post...I am even more excited!!!! Thanks for sharing :)

Annette W. said...

You did introduce me to MBS...and I have listened to the first two...LOVED them. I also saw some Truth there, though I also thought it was unintentional.

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