A Personal-Theological Essay Poorly Disguised as a Book Review

In Sisters Red, Jackson Pearce has created a pair of characters who embody two different answers to a single question: in a world that contains radical evil, evil which you are personally equipped to fight… how do you live your actual life?

Two teenage sisters living on their own in the present-day United States spend their days trying to figure out how to make enough money to survive, what to have for dinner, and whether to regret not going to high school– and their nights hunting werewolves, with which the world is plagued.

These are not romantic sexy werewolves.  They are evil, and disgusting, and they kill people because that is what they do unless they are stopped.  They killed the girls’ grandmother– in case no bells have rung by this point, this is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood– and attacked the girls when they were little, leaving one with a scarred face and one eye.  That’s Scarlett, the older one, and she is the voice of obligation, the driven one.  She is a hunter, set apart from the ordinary world by her scars and her sense of responsibility.

The younger, Rosie, fights by her side each night…but also wants to occasionally spend an evening in, baking cookies and watching romantic comedies.  She wonders what it would be like to go to Prom.  She hankers after dance classes at the community center.

And all of this, to her sister, is madness.  “Look,” she says at one point, “I’m not going to wait for my sister to finish grocery shopping while the Fenris slaughter people left and right…It’s our responsibility…We know how to kill them.  We know how to save peoples’ lives.  We don’t take nights off or vacations to California.” (p.2 1-22)  Variations on this conversation pepper the book, and the fact that it is an entirely realistic and practical question for our lives is what makes the book compelling.  The two sisters are like the two voices in the head of anyone who is awake to the evil of the world.

We’ve all asked variations on the same question: how can I buy a Starbucks when there are children starving?  How can I sit here watching 30 Rock when there are homeless people outside my door who are cold?  My friend Amanda wonders how she can live in America in comfort when children in Africa are being recruited as child soldiers by Joseph Kony’s army.

For those of us who are pro-life, of course, the relentless death-toll of abortion is the paradigmatic case.  It’s like a heaviness on our hearts, a weight, a horror that demands a response: as though Pol Pot were living next door and it were socially unacceptable to point out what he was doing.

The book does not answer the question– it tries to, but its answer only works within the context of the book itself.  “You have to live twice,” a friend of mine is fond of saying: once where you sacrifice everything to fight evil because it is unbearable to do otherwise, and once where you do things like get married and buy things without thinking about it and do what you have to do to get along.  And the two sisters are these two lives: one fights so that the other can live.  But that’s not a practical answer for us.

The author doesn’t judge either girl– not nearly as harshly as they judge each other, anyway.  It’s not just that Scarlett is in the right and Rosie is in the wrong, being selfish; it’s not just that Scarlett is in the wrong, narrow and twisted, and Rosie is the fully integrated human being.  Scarlett can be unkind, short tempered.  She’s raw, she’s close to the surface.  Her own pain, and especially her guilt at every moment not spent hunting, means that she doesn’t value or cultivate relationships, her household, or any kind of long-term thinking.  She will burn out.

Rosie does value these things.  She sees worth in creating order and beauty in households.  She, clearly, is the one who– if nothing else– will have children to carry on the fight.  But one can’t totally shake the idea that Rosie is somehow being tempted– tempted to lose focus, to acquiesce, to refuse her destiny.

The question is addressed, in somewhat different form, by C.S. Lewis in his essay “On Learning in Wartime.”  And C.S. Lewis references crop up at least twice: the wolves are called Fenris, which was the name of the wolf who was the White Witch’s creature in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and the girls’ cat is named Screwtape.  I don’t know whether the author is Christian.  I know that if I were not a Christian I would feel crushed by the weight of the book’s question.

Is it possible to have a balanced life in an unbalanced world?  In the face of radical evil, is it anything other than being a good German to think about anything other than fighting it?  For the Christian, the hints that balance is morally acceptable, valued by God, and possible, come from within the Bible itself.  So much of it is devoted to how to live a good, sane, decent, prudent life: to cultivate good, not just to fight evil.  The stormy Scarlett, her heart in constant pain and her mouth full of accusation, is not living a life characterized by the love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness and self-control that are the fruits of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.  At least in that, she is not our model.

For many, too, the answer to this question comes in the form of experience: the experience of coming face to face with your own limits, your own inability to address all the evil in the world and unwillingness to address even what you can.  You see this in yourself, this good-German quality, this acquiescence; you cry out to God; and… he answers.  He really does.

Some of these answers are in the form of truths that you’d known but not taken in, or had not recently known in your bones: that Jesus was able and willing to fully bear and completely address and defeat all the evil in the world.  That ocean of horror you feel like you don’t have the energy to try to empty with your little teacup of good deeds?  Yeah, He’s tamed that.  It may not seem like it yet, but it is nevertheless the case.

Or: that yes, you are selfish and like to look after your own comfort, even in the face of stories about the White Rose society in Germany, or information about children’s access to clean water in Africa, or bracing fairy tales that briefly make you want to be the younger brother who mans up and slays the dragon, or the face of the homeless person you passed in the subway.  You are just that selfish.  But you will change, you have changed already, God has you in hand and is changing you, and doing small good is not worthless.

Or: that, thank God, your acceptability to him doesn’t depend on your first becoming the moral hero and freedom fighter that you long to be.

The moral of the book might be something like this: You have to fight evil.  You may have to sacrifice.  But you have to do the little goods that feed, sustain, and give texture and context to the Big Good that the fight against evil is aiming at.  You have to start building a peaceful and sane world even in the middle of a world that is not peaceful or sane.  Otherwise you’ll become good for nothing but fighting, and your destiny is not to fight, but to live at peace, live in love.  Even in the darkest times, we must never forget that.

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3 responses to “A Personal-Theological Essay Poorly Disguised as a Book Review

  1. The book sounds compelling–and well-told. But it sounds as if her were-wolf killers are using a theological basis for vigilantism.

    There may be a case to be made for that, but I’m not sure this would convince me. There will always be enough evil in the world to tempt us to throw away the rule if law.

    Remember the speech in A Man For All Seasons about felling forests in order to ferret outface go after the Devil, but when the Devil turns about and goes after us, where do we hide having eliminated the woods, the laws, that protect if from It?

    Love,

    Papa

  2. As a non-fiction commentary on evil as a powerful and real force, I recommend Jeffrey Burton Russell’s trilogy: Satan, Lucifer, the Devil. With a fourth pendent volume: The Prince of Darkness. (Cornell U. Press). Scholarly, thorough, passionate, and well-written. He begins each volume with a recent news clip of some contemporary horror and then says, Evil exists. The books are strictly speaking part of a history of the idea of Evil, but they are written by someone who clearly believes the Idea is based on a Reality.

  3. @Dad: I have to say that the threat to the civil rights of werewolves was not the aspect of the book that spoke most directly to me.

    PS You should blog, too! I’ll help you set one up.

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