Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Higher Type of "Right"

Seeking Eden was on my mind this morning. I had written a post about it earlier this summer, but that post was all about me and not about the book (shame on me). The book deserves to have its own post. 

(There will probably be spoilers below...)

I once wrote a post about another of Ann Turnbull's books, saying Alice in Love and War should be required reading for teen girls because it shows the consequences of falling for the first guy that comes along. Well, Turnbull has done it again - Seeking Eden should be required reading for teens, both boys and girls, because it says important things about doing what's "right." It's kind of like that book about raising teens' expectations for themselves (Do Hard Things, by Alex and Brett Harris), but in a narrative, which I think makes it more effective. Sort of a "stealth" lesson, ha ha!  

Seeking Eden is the last book in Turnbull's Quaker trilogy. The two earlier books, No Shame, No Fear, and Forged in the Fire, dealt with important issues, but the main focus of those two books was the relationship between Susanna and Will. I guess I expected Seeking Eden to be another love story with history as a backdrop; there is a romantic relationship at the heart of the story, but it seems to me to be secondary to the historical and social aspects. What takes center stage in this story is Josiah's journey of conscience.

Josiah starts out as a rebellious son who rejects everything about his father (Will, the "star" of Forged in the Fire), but it didn't take me as a reader long to realize Josiah's really a chip off the old block, so to speak--an honest young man struggling to find the right thing to do. For Will, the struggle was to maintain his integrity in the face of persecution for his faith as a Quaker; for Josiah, the struggle is to maintain his integrity when others around him--who share his religious faith--are accepting and even participating in the terrible institution of slavery. Josiah is faced with a situation in which he can either turn away and avoid conflict, or act to support the ideals of his faith and suffer the consequences.

Specifically, Josiah is apprenticed to a Quaker merchant who occasionally deals in the slave trade (which wasn't illegal in the early colonial period). Turnbull lets us see through Josiah's eyes and through the parallel story of Topka (a young slave) the inhumanity of the slaves' conditions (a perfect example of the value of showing vs. telling, btw). When Josiah's master brings Topka and his girlfriend back to Philadelphia and sells them to separate owners, Josiah is faced with a real dilemma: should he do the "right" thing by maintaining his apprentice contract and obeying his master, even though it means Topka will be separated from the one he loves, just as Josiah loves Kate, OR should he do the "right" thing by allowing Topka to escape, so there is at least a hope that Topka can reunite with his love and escape to freedom?

In my PR class, we talk about ethical dilemmas, and the textbook we use defines a "dilemma" as a situation in which there are definitely, unavoidably, going to be some undesired consequences. I like the way Turnbull shows Josiah struggling with the potential consequences, and I like even more the way she shows his thinking once he knows what he will do. I like Josiah's response to the consequences he faces; he doesn't try to wiggle out of them or seek an exception. (OK, here's the big spoiler...) He chooses to follow the higher version of "right," the one that stays true to the principles of God's word and affirms the humanity of the slave. What a guy of integrity. It's a powerful story.

Teens face so many situations in our society in which there aren't going to be easy answers. I think about the political elections coming up here in the US, I think of the random violence of the shootings in public places, I think of the overwhelming issues of poverty and quality of education and (put your favorite social issue here). They are going to face situations in which there will be competing versions of what is "right." How are they going to respond? I know reading a single novel can't replace a lifetime of experiences that help build integrity, but at least it's a starting place. 

If you want to read this book or to encourage teens in your life to read it, it's not going to be easy in the US--the book isn't easily available here (you can order it through third-party sellers on Amazon). I suggest asking libraries to order it or suggesting it to English teachers; they can order it through Amazon.co.uk . Or contact Candlewick Publishing and demand they ask them nicely to pick it up for their young adult fiction list!

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