If we hope to have a Catholic Literary Revival—the kind for which Dana Gioia called, and which periodicals like Dappled Things and publishers like Wiseblood have been supporting—we need to engage the “tweens.” Or, as modern marketing lingo terms them, the “middle-grade” set.
If you have been in one of those old-fashioned places called a bookstore recently and have perused the young readers section, you know the dire need for evangelization there. Some titles peddle Gnosticism under the guise of hidden knowledge—the child-hero who knows how to save those self-absorbed adults from themselves. Others foist a Nietzschean Will-to-Power by guiding young readers through a glorification of obstinacy: “I will get what I want, says the self-proclaimed child hero, and in the end the dumbfounded elders bow in obeisance.”
However misdirected, at least such book series have some inkling of the power of the human faculties. Other books aimed at young readers glorify mediocrity, as if freedom for excellence is the problem, and some go even further, distilling the despair-inflected ennui of the author’s generation into preteen angst.
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Such is the dismal, yet culturally predictable, state of much middle-grade fiction.
To borrow some terms from Vatican II, one necessary path of evangelization is ressourcement: recovering and re-presenting the teachings of the past. There is nothing quite like Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, for instance, to instill a healthy sense of humor in young adults and to rescue them from excessive moralizing and the ever-present specter of Puritanism. I will read my daughter one of the Little House books—which feature a hardy, intelligent, and caring father and a fine sense of proper etiquette—long before I will discuss with her the warped sense of so-called fantasy in many of Dolly Parton’s “Imagination Library” selections. The great children’s books of the past indeed have their place in the revival.
Ressourcement, however, must go hand-in-hand with aggiornamento: clearing away clutter to present the truth in fresh language. There have been some abuses of the term, of course, but proper aggiornamento is rooted in capital “T” Tradition even as it innovates within its discipline, whether it be sacred music, architecture, or literature.
And that brings us to Raymond Arroyo—EWTN news anchor, author of Mother Angelica’s biography, and now middle-grade fiction writer. Rather, very successful fiction writer: the first Will Wilder book was a bestseller, and expectations for the sequel—which is the focus of this review—are high indeed.
The plot of The Lost Staff of Wonders is straightforward—or at least seems so. The plagues of Egypt have descended upon the town of Perilous Falls, and a self-help spiritual master has come, just in time, to save them. Twelve-year-old Will Wilder—a seer of demons who is not necessarily excited about his gift—helped saved the town last time, but he is getting frustrated with his training. The refinement of his gift, conducted by the Abbot who runs the town museum, depends on his obedience, but Wilder finds himself quickly running out of patience as the difficulties of the trials increase. Plus, there is intrigue among the monks who curate the museum, and Will’s great-aunt Lucille, who is gifted in a different way, senses a political storm brewing in the town.
It takes longer to read about this setup than it does to happen in the book. As other reviewers have noted, Arroyo has a popular suspense writer’s command of his genre, which is not surprising given that Arroyo cut his teeth on Dean Koontz’s work, conducting substantial interviews with the private author. Arroyo’s chapter closings are not quite as cliff-hanging as Koontz’s, but given Arroyo’s audience, that is to be expected. The book moves quickly and fluidly, and just about everything in the text works toward a single unifying effect. How do you battle a demon that feeds on anger, especially when it is being secretly ushered in by a government-subsidized feel-good guru?
A great part of the appeal of the book arises from Arroyo’s ability to satirize contemporary secular culture. From deadbeat dads to politicians who intimidate judges, the slothful and the self-righteous fall under Arroyo’s witty gaze, and by the end of the novel most of them have been revealed in their true colors. Today’s middle-grade set is pretty shrewd, and they will not miss the point—or the humor.
Speaking of underwhelming father figures, this reviewer does wonder if Arroyo has made a miscalculation in that regard. There are at least two major lay fathers in The Lost Staff—one of them Will’s—who are quite purposefully portrayed as emotionally unsupportive pushovers. Arroyo’s point is clear: we need a reinvigoration of manhood, something Catholic writers have been demanding for years. However, such a point is best made in a book when you have a counterpoint, a positive example. Yes, there are many fine examples of fatherhood in the monks of the book, especially the paternal Abbot. But there is no decent living lay father in the volume, and that is a conspicuous absence. One can come away from the book thinking that the only good fathers are spiritual ones, and that is not, I am hoping, Arroyo’s intention.
To his credit, Arroyo gets the female side of that equation exactly right. There are many women in the book who are pushy, domineering, and bereft of charity. One of them is the mother of Will’s friend Max. Max is confined to a wheelchair, and she will do anything to ease his sufferings, even inject him with a clearly poisonous tonic against her husband’s will. (The usually staid protagonist of “The Revolt of Mother” she is not.)
Quite adeptly, Arroyo contrasts these women with Will’s great-aunt Lucille, a firecracker in her own right but a well-ordered one who puts Will in his place when he needs it, which is often. Lucille also provides him and the community with that greatest of virtues: long-suffering, hidden service. She gets a few action scenes of her own, too, and to use the proper lingo, she totally owns.
Readers familiar with the Catholic intellectual tradition will find references galore. The museum/monastery is named “Peniel” (consult Genesis 32:31), while the town’s formal stage is the Genesius Theatre. Allusions like this abound and give the reader a sense of hope that perhaps Perilous Falls has some behind-the-scenes heroes helping it out.
Arroyo places himself in the Catholic literary tradition, too. During a particularly difficult conversation, Lucille tells Will that “we live in occupied territory.” Since Perilous Falls is not the victim of a social justice encampment, her meaning is clear. Like Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Arroyo’s world conceives of heroes cooperating with grace to do battle against bent, fallen overlords—demons that are creatures, not the Creator. And unlike the majority of books for young readers out there, Arroyo points us to who the Creator is unequivocally through the monks.
Arroyo does that subtly; after all, this is an adventure book. There are exactly two moments, however, where the narrative point of view is too intrusive. “When you’re twelve, feelings are powerful things” and “these were feelings he always sought to avoid” are jarring moments of unnecessary omniscience that detract from the art of the sub-creation.
There is also one essential plot device that is revealed far too early. Most of the time Arroyo understands beautifully the literary concept of gradual unfolding: we are told what we need to know when we need to know it, and the surprises that ought to come with adventure stories are cued just enough that you will catch the signs the second time around—not the first time.
We learn within the first thirty pages of the story about a remarkable relic, and that part is fine. What is not fine is that the character introducing it gives an additional, seemingly non-essential line of description that de facto ruins the ending of the novel—if you pay attention to these sorts of devices. Many young readers will not notice, but some will. What Arroyo was trying to avoid was a relic-ex-machina situation where all of a sudden this object saves the day in a manner for which the reader was not prepared. Fair enough—but there are another hundred pages after the introduction of said relic before it becomes crucial to the plot.
Those objections noted, The Lost Staff is a romping good time and a spiritually enriching read. Learning to combat wrath with silent trust (cf. Exodus 14:14) is a teaching we need to hear more often these days. And I am fairly sure this is the first novel ever to feature its hero mowing down demonic piranha-toothed frogs with a holy water super soaker. Let us hope it is not the last from Arroyo.
(Graphic Art by Jeff Nentrop)