Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Land of Decoration, by Grace McCleen

I read The Land of Decoration about two weeks ago and I've been sitting on it ever since, wondering what I should say in response to it. This is a newly released novel which I accepted for review. I typically do not accept modern novels for review because I find them full of language, sex and general blather and therefore tend to avoid them. However, the description of this particular novel caught my attention, as did the book trailer for it. I should also point out that I never, ever watch book trailers mostly because I don't understand the need for them. (I kinda think book trailers are ridiculously overdone. As a reader, I'm not inclined to watch a video about a book to decide whether or not I'll enjoy it. I read the back cover and reviews online.) However, I watched the trailer this time because I was trying to assess whether or not I would enjoy this particular read.

The above being stated, you've got to check this one out. Really. It's the most interesting video I imagine has ever been produced for a book.

Here's the idea:

Judith McPhersen is the ten year old protagonist in this haunting tale. She lives with her father in a very lonely house. They are essentially trapped inside of a fundamentalist sect of "Christian" believers. ("Fundamentalist religion" is the description I'm seeing around the web. Personally, I would say that Judith and her father are part of a cult.) They are waiting for Armageddon and living with a host of rules not to be found anywhere in scripture. Judith's father is incredibly legalistic, so much so that they must not associate with anyone in the world who is not a part of their very small fellowship. This intense separation from the world makes Judith a curiosity at school, as her classmates do not understand why she does not associate with any of them. There is a bully at school, Neil Lewis, who takes aim at Judith and purposes to make her life as miserable as he possibly can.

Judith, while not having any human relationships worth speaking of, has created her own imaginative world in a room in her home. Being a very creative sort, she built a miniature world which she calls The Land of Decoration. (It is named after the Promised Land as described in Ezekiel 20:5-6.) One night, Judith has an interesting dream in which she is given undescribed power to bring about change. The next day Judith hears a voice talking to her telling her that she has the power to work miracles. She makes snow for the Land of Decoration and the next morning when she wakes up from her sleep, she discovers that the world outside is actually covered in snow. Judith comes to believe that she caused the miracle of snow and that anything that she creates in The Land of Decoration will come to pass.

Is it really a miracle? That is one such question that the book asks. Is the voice in her head demonic or holy? Judith firmly believes she is in direct communication with God and this is who the author presents as carrying on a conversation with the girl. However, the statements that "god" is making are quite unlike Him. Given the fact that Judith and her father are also members of a cult which presents a distorted view of scripture, it seems hard to believe that Judith is having accurate communications with God. It is actually quite impossible for me to believe such a thing, speaking as a Christian.

This book, while dealing with spiritual warfare to a significant extent, didn't effect me negatively as I was reading. I honestly cannot say to you yet whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing. Part of me wonders if I should be greatly disturbed. If I had not received this book for review, I likely wouldn't be reviewing it at all, because I'm not terribly sure what my conclusion about it is. It is moments like these when I must think in numbers.


1. Judith and her father are horribly mislead, spiritually speaking. They are in a legalistic cult which seeks to separate them from all other people. This is not scriptural at all. They hurt from the lack of tender and true Christian fellowship in a myriad of ways.

2. Judith keeps to herself and creates her own imaginative world in which she finds release to attach herself emotionally to things rather than people. Because she has been separated from the world as other true and whole hearted believers, she falls pray to false doctrine and begins conversing with a spiritual force. At the end of the story the author all but confesses that the voice is NOT God and that Judith is listening to the wrong being. The problem with the book is that she does not reveal this in a clear and distinctive way to her reader which I fear might cause a younger person to be confused about what Christianity really is.

3. McCleen suggests through the characters that Christianity is unpleasant, and God to be avoided at all costs if you desire any happiness in life. I think that is a false statement. That is definitely something that should be thoroughly discussed with a younger reader.

4. There is a good bit of foul language in the second half of the book. The language was just fine during the whole first half but was bothersome in the second. I decided to keep reading to the end because I wanted to see how the story was going to play out. If I had been hit with some of those words within the first few pages, I would not have made it past the first chapter.

In writing up those four things I wonder that I even read this book in the first place! The truth is - the book is riveting. McCleen's writing style drags you in and I was spell bound. I devoured this book in a day. There is so much meat in the book to discuss. This is not a light hearted affair, although it is a "novel" which would suggest that it's something that you can escape into for happiness and pleasure. This is not something that you should read in a thoughtless moment, and certainly not something to hand over to a young reader for entertainment. There are issues here that warrant discussion.

I would not say to avoid this book. But I would say to pick it up with caution and be aware of who you recommend or give it to. McCleen is a powerful story teller and if you do pick this up I trust you to be captivated instantaneously as I was. It is a fascinating read.

The Land of Decoration was made even more fascinating to me after I looked up Grace McCleen's website. As it turns out:

* She was part of a fundamentalist religion when she was growing up. She also did not fellowship with unbelievers.
* She created miniature people and figures that she played with. Actually, McCleen is quite talented in this! She shows pictures of some of her people HERE.
* She is a singer and song writer. I listened to one of her (very long) songs. I like her voice. I have no idea what she is trying to ultimately communicate. This seems to be a general condition and problem between her and me.

I have this feeling lurking in me that Tim Challies or someone a lot more discerning than myself is going to pick this book up and blast it to bits. The bare bone facts of the matter are that I really enjoyed this read. I think it offers up plenty of opportunity for discussion about what Christianity is and what God requires of us as believers (not accurately displayed in this book!) and McCleen's writing style is beautiful. At the same time, I offer it with strong caution because this story is not meant simply to entertain the reader and I believe it would be dangerous to assume so.

I'll definitely be watching to see what other people have to say about this one! It is certainly intriguing.

Thanks to Henry Holt and Company for shooting a copy my way in exchange for sharing my honest opinions . . . even if they are half-baked at this point in time!


Shonya said...

Crazy! huh! I just watched my first book trailer. . .and I just don't get it. I guess the idea is to appeal to a media-saturated culture and entice them to actually *read a book*! It didn't appeal to me at all.

Your review, however, was very interesting. And your ambivalence is contagious. :) I can't decide if I want to read it or not.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

I think you did a good job of discussing a book that is thought provoking, but with a different philosophy. I did wonder, when you referenced the "younger" reader, what age group do you have in mind? Is this book intended for a YA reader? Children?

It does sound like an interesting look at the past and present experience of an ex cult member. In that respect, I can see how a well told story could be a useful window into that world.

BerlinerinPoet said...

I share your negative feelings on book trailers. I would watch that one just for you, but my computer doesn't allow video.

This seems very interesting. I will read it hopefully before Tim Challies gets to it. hahaha!

Unknown said...

Okay--so I can't wait to see what you thought, but I couldn't read it. I'm about 1/2 way through (maybe not quite that), so I'm not sure where I'm going to end up on it, but as soon as I finish, I'll pop over here so we can discuss it!!!

Barbara H. said...

I understand about book trailers, and I'm not usually influenced by them and don't usually seek them out. Sometimes I look them up and use them in reviews because it gives readers a "flavor" of the book that I might not have been able to convey in my own words. I think in a society that is more visually-impacted, book marketers might see them as a way to draw viewers into reading.

What caught my eye on this one was the "fundamentalist" aspect. People mean such different things by that word, and there are some that give the rest a bad name. This sounds like the latter. The church I go to (and the churches I have gone to for some 37 years now) classify themselves as fundamentalist in that they cling strongly to the "fundamentals" of the faith that some more liberal denominations have strayed from, but they don't teach that kind of isolation from the world. The group this book is talking about does sound more like a cult.

This doesn't sound at all like a book I'd pick up, but I appreciate your thoughts about it.

Bluerose said...

I forgot that you had this one on your reading list. I saw it a couple of days ago as a giveaway and ended up entering, purely out of curiousity.
I rarely watch book trailers, but every once in awhile curiousity wins out and I do. :)

Unknown said...

Like Diary of an Autodidact, I was a little curious about why you mentioned what parents should know. Is it because of the 10yo main character? Because this is definitely marketed as Adult Fiction, not YA.

That said, I did finish the book, and will discuss it with you offline. I think you and I came down exactly the same on pretty much all sides :)

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