Friday, October 31, 2008

How Harry Cast His Spell



It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!





Here is a special Wild Card for Halloween! The author is:


and the book:


How Harry Cast His Spell: the Meaning Behind the Mania for J.K. Rowling’s Bestselling Books

SaltRiver (August 4, 2008)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


John Granger is an author, speaker, and popular guest on talk shows and interview programs. A graduate of the University of Chicago, where he studied classical languages and literature, he uses Harry Potter to teach English literature online at HogwartsProfessor.com. He is a frequent speaker at academic and fan conferences, and has been interviewed as a “Harry Potter expert” in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the DVD of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He and his wife, Mary, have seven children.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $ 14.99
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: SaltRiver (August 4, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1414321880
ISBN-13: 978-1414321882

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


PUBLISHER’S PREFACE

Dear Reader,

Some may wonder why a publisher of distinctly Christian books would publish a book about the Harry Potter series, which, while phenomenally successful, has been criticized by some groups within the Christian community. The answer is really quite simple.


Millions of young people are reading the Harry Potter books, providing parents with a wonderful opportunity to use stories their children love to read to start discussions with them about Christian ideas and values—and about how to evaluate the worldview embedded in any piece of literature. We hope How Harry Cast His Spell will serve as a catalyst for such discussions and as a bridge to growth in faith and spiritual understanding.


THE PUBLISHER


INTRODUCTION

Imagine yourself walking in the park with your dog in the cool of the evening. Just like in the movies, a flying saucer descends from the skies and lands gently on the empty softball field behind the vacant warehouse. A little green man drops from a metal ladder under the craft and scurries toward you. You and the dog have seen this played out so many times on late-night television that you almost yawn.


The little guy doesn’t threaten you or order you to take him to your leader. As you may have expected, the Dobby look-alike just wants to talk with you about Harry Potter. After all, doesn’t everybody?


J. K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels sold more than 375 million copies and were translated into more than sixty languages between the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (the original United Kingdom title) in 1997 and the end of 2007, the year in which Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published. The first five Harry Potter movies each set records for opening box office, and the series as a whole had, by early 2008, already surpassed both the twenty-one-film James Bond series and the six Star Wars films as the most successful movie franchise of all time. The alien, like all good travelers, has done his homework about his planet vacation, and I’m betting that all the interplanetary guidebooks these days are urging earthbound tourists to talk about Harry with the natives this year. What else are they all sure to know about?


I first heard about Harry Potter and his friends in 2000. I was the homeschooling daddy to seven young children ages one to twelve years old, and I didn’t want anything to do with the young wizard-in-training. From what I had heard from a coworker (whose judgment on literature I thought was not to be trusted), I assumed the books were serial schlock on the order of R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps novels. Being something of a snob, I read the first Potter paperback just so I could explain to my oldest daughter why we don’t read trash like this.


She calls it my “green eggs and ham” moment. Overnight, I was transformed from “I do not like them in a box; I do not like them with a fox” to reading the stories aloud to the younger children and discussing them at length with the older girls. I remember in that first week of Harry excitement when another colleague at work told me that Christians “as a rule” despised the books. You could have knocked me over with a feather.


What’s Your Favorite Scene?

Back to the little green space guy in the park.


My bet is that the question his earth guidebook recommends he ask you is about your favorite scene in the books. Why would he want to know that? Because, besides being a great opening for conversation, unlike Earth’s academics, our friend from outer space probably wants to learn something he can take back to the planet Zeno. I’m betting he wants answers to the big question, the only question that really matters about Harry Potter. He wants to know what it is about these books that has made them the “shared text” of children, parents, and grandparents on every continent and

archipelago of the planet.


So why do readers young and old love Harry Potter? This is an important question, and the answer is a bit of a shocker. Before I share it with you, though, let me explain something I said earlier. I said you could have knocked me over with a feather the day I heard Christians didn’t like Harry Potter. You might recall that quite a few Christians in 2000 were, in fact, burning the books and asking that they not be allowed in public or school libraries funded with their tax dollars. Why was I so surprised by that? Because the reason I liked the Harry Potter books so much and the reason I was reading them to my children was the implicit, explicit, and very traditional spiritual, even Christian, content of the books, which I thought was as obvious as it was edifying. I was interested enough in this subject that I gave a series of lectures on it at a C. S. Lewis Society gathering and at a local library. Before I knew it, ideas that had been floating around in my head found their way to book form. And in something like a Walter Mitty transformation, I morphed from Latin teacher to Harry Potter expert and media go-to source.


How Does Harry Cast His Spell?

Someday soon, folks who track this sort of thing to write about the intellectual history of popular culture will be sitting down to put together their notes on prevalent ideas about Harry Potter. What they will find, I’m pretty certain, is an arc of change much like the one described by J. B. S. Haldane: “Theories pass through four stages of acceptance: (1) this is worthless nonsense; (2) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; (3) this is true, but quite unimportant; (4) I always said so.”1 The historians of popular culture tracking how people understood Harry will discover that folks thought

Harry Potter was (1) anti-Christian, even demonic; (2) anti- Christian in the sense of being an invitation to the occult; (3) not Christian, anti-Christian, or spiritual—just magic; (4) profoundly Christian, like C. S. Lewis (“I always knew it”).


As broad as the always growing consensus about the depth of the Christian content of the Harry Potter novels now is—broad enough that in a recent documentary about her work, Rowling felt it necessary to deny at length that her purpose in writing was to convert readers to Christianity2—it bears recalling that even five years ago Christian critics of the series had convinced most people (and, it seemed, all journalists) that Harry was anything but Christian and that these books were dangerous for children to read.


How could they have gotten it so wrong? And why did readers believe them?


Answering the question “Why do readers young and old love Harry Potter?” explains the others because if they had gotten that one right, they couldn’t have asserted what they thought about Harry and his author. The answer, believe it or not, is very simple, if frequently misunderstood. Readers love Harry Potter because of the spiritual meaning and Christian content of the books.


Let me explain what that doesn’t mean before I jump into what it does mean.


First, it doesn’t mean that the Harry Potter novels were written especially for Christians, with Christians in mind, or most important, for the sole purpose of evangelizing nonbelievers into accepting the Christian faith. None of those things are true, and none of them have anything to do with the answer to the important question of why we love Harry Potter.


Harry Potter is not the Left Behind series or even the Chronicles of Narnia in terms of being an in-your-face Christian drama or altar call.


Even now that J. K. Rowling has discussed the scriptural quotations in Deathly Hallows, I doubt that her readers would say they love her books because of their Christian meaning, especially her non-Christian readers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and around the world. My guess is that few if any readers, adults or children, responded to their first or last Harry Potter adventure with a whoop about the traditional Christian imagery or the literary alchemy that in many ways structures each story.


So how can the Christian content of the stories be the reason people love the books if they don’t understand this content for what it is and if evangelization wasn’t the author’s point in writing the novels?


The answer to that question is pretty straightforward, but it takes a couple of steps to get into—and the rest of this book to

explain in detail. Religion and literature have a long history, but almost none of us, even the English majors, studied that relationship in school. So let’s start with an expert.


The argument begins with Mircea Eliade, a professor at the University of Chicago. In The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion and the Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual within Life and Culture, Eliade explained that “non-religious man in the pure state is a comparatively rare phenomenon, even in the most desacralized

of modern societies.”3


Eliade’s point is pretty simple. Human beings are spiritual by design, whether you believe that design is an accident of evolution or straight from God. By our very nature, humans resist an exclusively secularized world in which our faculties for perceiving a reality “saturated with being” have no play. It doesn’t matter that schools, courts, and lawmakers have made the “G word” something taboo in education, government functions, and public discourse outside of presidential elections; human beings live on myth, religion, and spirituality because we’re hardwired for it.


Modern and postmodern secular cultures that have driven the sacred from the public square are fighting the tide. Our world may be radically different from traditional, God-focused civilizations, but it is still crowded with religious elements. As Eliade wrote, “a small volume could be written on the myths of the modern man, on the mythologies camouflaged in the plays that he enjoys, in the books that he reads.”4


Even the act of reading serves an important religious or mythic function:


Even reading includes a mythological function . . . because, through reading, the modern man succeeds in obtaining an “escape from time” comparable to the “emergence from time” effected by myths. Whether modern man “kills” time with a detective story or enters such a foreign temporal universe as is represented by any novel, reading projects him out of his personal duration and incorporates him into other rhythms, makes him live in another “history.”5


Accepting Eliade’s premises that (a) humans are designed to experience the sacred and (b) humans will pursue this experience even in a culture that denies both a human spiritual faculty and a spiritual reality per se, answering the question about why we love Harry Potter is a slam dunk. The act of reading itself serves a religious function in a secular culture, but Harry gives us much more than that. Reading about Harry and the world of magic qualities is a respite from a universe without ennobling truth, beauty, or virtue. But more important, in image, character, and theme, these stories are the vehicles of spiritual meaning and specifically Christian artistry from the English literary tradition.


We love Harry Potter because we are designed for religious experience—and these books deliver religious experience the

way coal trucks used to deliver fuel into people’s basements: in a barely controlled avalanche. This isn’t an evangelistic mountain slide meant to catch you off guard and force your conversion. It is the rhetoric of great storytelling with a host of religious and mythic hooks to catch on your Velcro heart, a heart designed to capture and resonate with these hierophanies, or intrusions of the sacred.


The business of this book is to peel away the layers of that rhetoric so you can understand the various symbols J. K. Rowling uses, the themes she develops, and the many traditional devices and structures she borrows from English “greats.” Almost all these tools are Christian, but much more to the point, the English literary tradition in which she writes—twelve centuries of it, give or take a few hundred years—is exclusively Christian.


This bothers quite a few readers, so it is worth spending a moment to explain. Myth and archetype are okay to these readers, but once something becomes one specific religion, all their defenses go up. I don’t know if it is fear of being converted or simply narrow-mindedness, but the heels go in deep against the idea that Harry Potter is written in religious language that is almost exclusively Christian. Even so, there’s just no getting around this.


It is true that a phoenix, a unicorn, and a griffin are symbols found in cultures around the world. It is true, too, that these magical creatures are understood differently by different cultures compared to the way they are understood by English writers and readers. But in English stories, these symbols have specific Christian meanings (see chapter 9). Not knowing this meaning or insisting on a plurality of other meanings is not broad-mindedness or religious pluralism. It’s just ignorance and, if I may be so bold, perhaps a little Christ-o-phobic.


If Rowling were an Islamofascist, Hindu Brahmin, or Buddhist ger dweller, when writing an epic adventure in English and within English traditions, her hands would still have been essentially tied to writing a Christian story. This huge monocultural sow that is the English literary tradition cannot be butchered in such a way that gets you Parliament of Religions bacon in slabs.


My job in How Harry Cast His Spell is to act as your guide through what I assume is already familiar territory, the seven Harry Potter books, and to point out all the religious and mythical elements specific to the tradition in which J. K. Rowling did her writing. Unless you’re a very unusual reader indeed, this will be an eye-popping ride your first time through, so we give it a double pass to make sure you don’t miss anything essential.


In the first ten chapters, we’ll hit the high spots of alchemy, themes, and symbols, with a chapter-by-chapter introduction that takes a large view of the whole series, one subject at a time. We start, for example, with magic in literature because many readers don’t see how that can be “religious” in any way when every revealed tradition forbids playing with magic. After that, we take similar long-range looks at the hero’s journey, literary alchemy, and how symbols work. Then when we’ve made the first trip through and we understand what all the little marks on the Marauder’s Map mean, we’ll jump into the seven Harry Potter novels themselves one at a time to see what we can make of them. I’ll explain the religious meaning and Christian content of each book, as well as why I think readers respond to them the way they do. Your job is to grasp what I explain and to see what I missed. This is the fourth edition of this book, and every update has been improved by readers who have written me to share something meaningful I missed.


Where Does This All Come From?

Before we dive in though, I am obliged to answer three questions I am inevitably asked at public talks I give:

❖ Do I really think Rowling intentionally gave the books all this meaning?

❖ Have I ever met Rowling? Has she confirmed that this was what she was doing?

❖ How did I figure all this stuff out?


DO I REALLY THINK ROWLING INTENTIONALLY GAVE THE BOOKS ALL THIS MEANING?

This is a polite way of saying, “John, could you be imagining all this?” I have three reasons for thinking J. K. Rowling is a profound writer who writes at several levels, some of which are well below the story line.


First, the woman has a first-rate education. Many readers familiar with the Cinderella story of her being a single mum on

the dole when she wrote the first book imagine she was a welfare mother without a high school diploma who just got lucky. The truth is that she has an education and a degree equivalent to graduating from a prestigious American liberal arts college, say, Middlebury or Wesleyan, with a major in French and a minor in classics. She has said her stories come from the compost pile of books she has read, and I’m guessing this pile is several stories high.


Second, Rowling didn’t dash off these stories. She claims she first thought of Harry Potter on a train in 1990. In the seven years before the first book was published and in the ten years it took to write and publish the seven books, Rowling planned, replanned, and filled notebooks with backstory she would never use in the published novels. “Planning” is her recommendation to all young authors, and it is the signature of her genius as a writer. There is nothing accidental or off the cuff about her work; if it’s in there, she put it in there deliberately.


And third, the suggestion that Rowling didn’t mean the books to be as profound as they are misses out on something essential. A lot of the most profound meaning of the books is in the formula of how the books are written, the things that happen again and again in every book. Harry’s resurrection from the dead in the presence of a symbol of Christ could be accidental once, granted. But his doing it seven times without a variant is hard to scratch off as something unintentional. Rowling is, first and last, an accomplished storyteller—and the profound meaning of her writing is evident in the weave of the story fabric she creates.


HAVE I EVER MET ROWLING? HAS SHE CONFIRMED THAT THIS

WAS WHAT SHE WAS DOING?

In words of one syllable, no, I have not met Rowling, and no, she has not told me one thing about her books. I think these questions are also polite ways of saying something completely different from the surface meaning. Folks who ask me this, as a rule, believe that only authors understand their books, and anyone else who interprets their fiction is just guessing. Having just written that Rowling is a very intelligent and very intentional, even formulaic, writer, let me rush to add that she would be an unusual writer (perhaps the first in history) if she understood her books’ meanings comprehensively or even much better than very intelligent readers. She certainly does not have a monopoly on interpreting her books.



I like to think, in fact, as neat as it would be to talk with Rowling someday, that our conversation wouldn’t be about the meaning of Harry Potter. From what I understand of such things from reading other authors, talking about her books’ meaning would be just about the most insulting thing I could do. In other words, asking Rowling what she meant in her stories is insulting; if what she meant is not discernible to a serious reader, I would be saying implicitly that she is a poor writer. And by restricting the meaning of the works to the author’s intention and understanding of them, I would be suggesting that she as author is a god, fully conscious of her influences, prejudices, and meanings to every reader and aware of every valence and meaning of her stories’ symbols.


I admire Rowling enough as an artist and a person that I do not to want to diminish her remarkable literary accomplishment or suggest she is something more than human. Two of the themes within the Harry Potter novels are that we respect people for who they are and that we struggle to come to terms with the limits of individual understanding. Let’s avoid the celebrity school of interpretation that believes only writers understand their books; it leaves all the fun to the writers and insults them horribly in the bargain.


HOW DID I FIGURE ALL THIS STUFF OUT?

Here at last is an honest question! The answer will probably disappoint you. Not only have I not spoken with Rowling, we also grew up on opposite shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Not much common ground there, then, at least in a literal sense. Comparing and contrasting our worldviews and educations, though, I think it’s fair to say that, despite significant differences, our ways of looking at the world have been calibrated with similar prescription eyeglasses.

Examples?

❖ Rowling grew up as something of a Hermione, a nerd who studied more than her share of classical and modern languages. I studied Latin, Greek, and German in high school and was certainly a geek.

❖ She chose to go to church (Anglican Communion) even though her parents and sister did not and sought baptism and confirmation on her own as an adolescent. I was baptized as an infant into the Anglican Communion (ECUSA), and when my family stopped going to church when I was in high school, I continued to attend and was confirmed alone among my siblings.6

❖ We both read and reread C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen, and the rest of the English greats because we loved the stories and the genius of the storytellers.

❖ I became interested in esoteric and literary alchemy while still in college and have continued to study its history and place in literature since. Rowling said in 1998 that she “read a ridiculous amount” about alchemy before writing Harry and that alchemy set the “magical parameters” and “internal logic” of the series.7


I could go on, but let’s leave it at this. Both in interpreting what Rowling is saying and in the rather more bizarre field of guessing what she was going to write, my track record since 2002 has been good enough that I have been a keynote speaker at every Harry Potter conference of any size in the last five years, not to mention being interviewed by more than one hundred radio stations, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time magazine. Odds are pretty good you’ve even seen my face as well, because I’ve been on national television to answer Harry questions on CNN and MSNBC, and for an A&E special that eventually became a DVD extra in the Order of the Phoenix movie package. I’ve taught online classes to international audiences at Barnes and Noble University, I blog daily on Harry subjects,8 and I’ve written a book about how Rowling does what she does: Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader.


But to answer your question about how I figured all this stuff out, it always comes back to that fact that we share a similar eyeglasses prescription. Same church upbringing, same kind of classical education, same nineteenth-century dinosaur reading list, same interest in—can you believe it—alchemy.


Which brings us back again to our overarching question: Why does everyone love Harry Potter? Believe it or not, the answer is that it’s the transcendent meaning of the books and, specifically, their Christian content, with which readers resonate. Go on to the next page and let’s begin our trip through the mythical and religious meaning that drives Potter-mania.


Chapter 1

MAGIC, FANTASY, AND TRANSCENDENCE

The magic in Harry Potter is traditional literary spellwork that acts as a counterspell to the materialism of our times.


More than any other book of the last fifty years (and perhaps ever), the Harry Potter novels have captured the imagination of the reading public worldwide. Hundreds of millions of copies have been sold to date. However, although the books have been wildly successful, no one as yet has been able to explain their popularity. The aim of How Harry Cast His Spell is to answer the question “Why do readers young and old love these stories?” The answer, believe it or not, is not great marketing, movie tie-ins, or product placement; it’s the transcendent meaning of the books, and more specifically, their Christian content.


The Harry Potter books, in case you have lived on the planet Zeno since 1997 or have recently come out of a coma, recount the adventures of an English schoolboy as he advances from grade to grade at Hogwarts School. Hogwarts is no ordinary boarding school, however, and Harry Potter is no typical student—the former is a school for witchcraft and wizardry, and Harry is not only a wizard-in-training, but the target of attack by the worst of evil wizards, Lord Voldemort, and his followers, the Death Eaters. Each book ends with a life-or-death battle against Voldemort or his servants and enough plot twists to make you dream of saltwater taffy.


I am convinced that the fundamental reason for the astonishing popularity of the Harry Potter novels is their ability to meet a spiritual longing for some experience of the truths of life, love, and death that are denied by our secular culture. Human beings are designed for transcendent truths, whether they know it or not, and they pursue experience of these truths and some exercise of their spiritual faculties anywhere they can. Mircea Eliade suggested that modern entertainments, especially books and movies, serve a mythological or religious function in a desacralized world.1 That the Harry Potter stories “sing along” with the Great Story of Christ in the tradition of English literature is a significant key to understanding their compelling richness and unprecedented popularity. We love these books because they satisfy our desire for religious experience in a big way.


Sound loony? I take hits from both sides of the Potter wars for this thesis—from Potter fans who are shocked by the suggestion that they have been reading “Christian” books and from Potter foes who are shocked by the thought that there could be anything “Christian” or edifying about books with witches and wizards in them. But like it or not, Harry’s Christian content and the fact that he takes us out of our materialist mental prisons are what keep his readers coming back again and again.


As the magical setting of the books has caused the most controversy in religious communities and has the most important and obvious spiritual significance, I’ll start with the setting and several formulas Rowling observes in every book to begin the discussion of what drives Potter-mania.


Magical Setting

Some Christians have objected to Harry Potter because Christian Scripture in many places explicitly forbids occult practice. Though reading about occult practice is not forbidden, these Christians prudently prefer (again in obedience to scriptural admonishments to parents) to protect their children because of the books’ sympathetic portrayal of occult practice. These Christians believe that such approving and casual exposure to the occult opens the door to occult practice.


Reading the Harry Potter books myself has convinced me that the magic in Harry Potter is no more likely to encourage real-life witchcraft than time travel in science fiction novels encourages readers to seek passage to previous centuries. Loving families have much to celebrate in these stories and little, if anything, to fear. What they have to celebrate is the traditional, edifying magic of English literature—a magic that fosters a spiritual worldview that is anything but occult oriented.


I say this without hesitation because the magic in Harry Potter is not “sorcery” or invocational magic. In keeping with a long tradition of English fantasy, the magic practiced in the Potter books, by hero and villain alike, is incantational magic, a magic that shows—in story form—our human thirst for a reality beyond the physical world around us.


The difference between invocational and incantational magic isn’t something we all learned in the womb, so let me explain. Invocational means literally “to call in.” Magic of this sort is usually referred to as sorcery. Scripture of every revealed tradition warns that “calling in” demonic principalities and powers for personal power and advantage is dangerously stupid. History books, revealed tradition, and fantasy fiction (think Dr. Faustus) that touch on sorcery do so in order to show us that the unbridled pursuit of power and advantage via black magic promises a tragic end.


But there is no invocational sorcery in the Harry Potter books.


Even the most evil wizards do their nasty magic with spells; not one character in any of the seven books ever calls in evil spirits. Not once.


The magic by spells and wands in Harry Potter is known as incantational wizardry. Incantational means literally “to sing along with” or “to harmonize.” To under stand how this works, we have to step outside our culture’s materialist creed (that every thing in existence is quantitative mass or energy) and look at the world upside down, which is to say, God-first.


For some, the distinction between invocational and incantational magic is a new idea. I’ve been asked how prayer fits. “Isn’t prayer invocational? Aren’t we calling out to God with this concept—invoking his name—when we pray? How is this ‘bad magic’?” Calling out to God isn’t bad magic, of course, and the reason helps to clarify the difference between sorcery and the “good magic” of English literature. It is the difference between the psychic and the spiritual realms.2


In a materialistic age such as the one in which we live, the distinction between the psychic and the spiritual is hard to keep straight, though it is an understanding all traditional faiths have in common. We struggle to hold on to this distinction because we have been taught that everything existent is some combination of matter and energy. Everything that’s not matter and energy, consequently, is lumped together as “peripheral stuff” or “delusion.” It’s hard to remember the differences between things thrown together in the garbage can of ideas!


The distinction between the psychic realm and the spiritual realm is critical. The psychic realm—accessible through the soul and including the powers of the soul, from the emotions and sentiments to the reason and intellect—is home to demonic and angelic created beings and is predominantly a fallen place apart from God. The spiritual realm is “God’s place”—the transcendent sphere within and beyond creation and the restrictions of being, time, and space.


Invocational magic is calling upon the fallen residents of the psychic realm. Prayer is the invocation of God’s name that we might live deliberately and consciously in his presence within time and space. Incantational magic in literature—a harmonizing with God’s Word—is the story-time version of what a life in prayer makes possible. Invoking the powers of the psychic realm is universally forbidden in both literary and revealed traditions. However, calling on the spiritual realm and pursuing graces from it are the tasks for which human beings are designed, insofar as we are homo religiosus. One function of traditional English literature, of which Harry Potter is a part, is to support us in this spiritual life.


Christianity—and all revealed traditions—believes creation comes into being by God’s creative Word, or his song. As creatures made in the image of God, we can harmonize with God’s Word and his will, and in doing so, experience the power of God. The magic and miracles we read about in great English literature are merely reflections of God’s work in our life. To risk overstating my case, the magic in Harry Potter and other good fantasy fiction harmonizes with the miracles of the saints.


C. S. Lewis paints a picture of the differences between incantational and invocational magic in Prince Caspian. As you may recall, Prince Caspian and the Aslan-revering creatures of the forest are under attack from Caspian’s uncle. Things turn bad for the white hats, and it seems as if they will be overrun and slaughtered at any moment. Two characters on the good guys’ side decide their only hope is magic.


Prince Caspian decides on musical magic. He has a horn that Aslan, the Christlike lion of these books, had given to Queen Susan in ages past to blow in time of need. Caspian blows on this divinely provided instrument in his crisis.3 By sounding a note in obedience and faith, Caspian harmonizes with the under lying fabric and rules of the Emperor over the Sea, and help promptly and providentially arrives in the shape of the Pevensie children themselves.


Nikabrik the dwarf, in contrast, decides a little sorcery is in order. He finds a hag capable of summoning the dreaded White Witch in the hope that this power-hungry, Aslan-hating witch will help the good guys (in exchange for an opening into Narnia). Needless to say, the musical magicians are scandalized by the dwarf’s actions and put an end to the sorcery lickety-split.


In the Narnia stories and other great fantasy fiction, good magic is incantational, and bad magic is invoca tional. Incantational magic is about harmonizing with God’s creative Word by imitation. Invocational magic is about calling in evil spirits for power or advantage—always a tragic mistake. The magic in Harry Potter is exclusively incantational magic in conformity with both literary tradition and scriptural admonition. Concern that the books might “lay the foundation” for occult practice is misplaced, however well intentioned and understandable, because it fails to recognize that Potter magic is not demonic.


Perhaps you are wondering, If Harry Potter magic is a magic in harmony with the Great Story, why are the bad guys able to use it? Great question. Just as even the evil people in “real” life are certainly created in God’s image, so all the witches and wizards in Potterdom, good and bad, are able to use incantational magic. Evil magical folk choose of their own free will to serve the Dark Lord with their magical faculties just as most of us, sadly, lend a talent or power of our own in unguarded moments to the Evil One’s cause. As we will see, the organizing structure of the Potter books is a battle between good guys who serve truth, beauty, and virtue and bad guys who lust after power and private gain.


Some fans of Lewis and Tolkien contrast those writers’ use of magic with Rowling’s, arguing that, unlike the world of Harry Potter, the subcreations of these fantasy writers had no overlap with the real world. They suggest that this blurring of boundaries confuses young minds about what is fiction and what is reality. But Lewis and Tolkien blurred boundaries with gusto in their stories—as did Homer, Virgil, Dante, and other authors whose works regularly traumatize students in English classes. Certainly the assertion that Middle Earth and Narnia are separate realities is questionable, at best. Middle Earth is earth between the Second and Third Ages (we live in the so-called Fourth Age). Narnia overlaps with our world at the beginning and end of each book, and in The Last Battle is revealed as a likeness with earth of the heavenly archetype, or Aslan’s kingdom. Singling out Rowling here betrays a lack of charity, at least, and perhaps a little reasoning chasing prejudgment.


That the magical world exists inside Muggledom (nonmagical people are called “Muggles” by the witches and wizards in Harry Potter), however, besides being consistent with the best traditions in epic myth and fantasy, parallels the life of Christians in the world. I don’t want to belabor this point, but C. S. Lewis described the life of Christians as a life spent “in an enemy occupied country.”4 What he meant is that traditional Christians under stand that man is fallen, that he no longer enjoys the ability to walk and talk with God in the Garden, and that the world is driven by God-opposing powers. Lewis’s Ransom novels illustrate this idea.


Why do we love the magic of Harry Potter? I think we have three big reasons to be excited by it. First, we live in a time in which naturalism, the belief that all existence is matter and energy, is the state religion and belief in supernatural or contra-natural powers is considered delusion. The incantational magic in Harry Potter, because it requires harmonizing with a greater magic, undermines faith in this godless worldview. Harry’s magic, even if only experienced imaginatively in a state of suspended disbelief, gives our spiritual faculties the oxygen our secular schools and the public square have tried to cut off. And by under mining the materialist view of our times, it can even be said that the books lay the foundation for a traditional understanding of the spiritual, which is to say “human,” life.


Next, because there is overlap between the “magical” and “Muggle” worlds of Harry Potter, there is the edifying suggestion that the prevalent bipolar worldview of Americans, in which the world is divided by an arbitrary state versus church dichotomy, not to mention the secular versus sacred illusion, is just so much nonsense. The spiritual and traditional understanding of the world is a sacramental one, in which the spiritual suffuses the material (just as the human person is a psychosomatic unity with spiritual faculties). The breakdown of the Muggle/magic divide helps readers see that existence itself (in not being matter or energy) unites all reality and that “greater being” is found only in pursuit of the sacred, not the “scientific” and profane.


And third, we love the magic in Harry Potter because it helps us exercise those atrophied spiritual powers we have (as we identify with Harry and his friends), while at the same time encouraging us to be heroic and good alongside them. This is no small thing, and we’ll be returning to it in the coming chapters.


Have you heard stories of children being sucked into witches’ covens because they want to be like Harry? Reports of rising membership in occult groups since the Harry Potter books were published inevitably turn out to be generated by proselytizing members of these groups. People who track the occult for a living explain that, despite Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter, membership in these groups in Europe and the United States are minuscule and are in decline despite a decade of Harry, Buffy, and occult milieu entertainment.5 Children are far more likely to become Hare Krishna, gynecologists, or members of a Christian cult than real-world witches or wizards.


And even if children were being seduced into the occult because of their desire to do spells, I have to hope this would be under stood by thinking people as a shameful, tragic aberration, more indicative of the child’s spiritual misformation than a danger in the books. The Dungeons and Dragons craze in the sixties and seventies and its attendant occult paraphernalia sprang from an unhealthy fascination and perverse misunderstanding of The Lord of the Rings, an epic with clear Christian under tones. If we were to avoid books that could possibly be misunderstood or whose message could be turned on its head, incidents like Jonestown would logically suggest thinking people should not read the Bible.


What about the title of the first book in the Potter series? If there’s no sorcery in these books, how come the first book and

movie are titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Well, because that isn’t the title of the first book. Arthur Levine, under whose imprint the books are published by Scholastic in the United States, changed the title from Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone because he was sure that no American would buy a book with philosophy in the title. An Orthodox Christian bishop has noted that Harry haters “have missed the spiritual forest for the sake of their fixation on the magical imagery of the literary trees.”6 If there is anything tragic in this misunderstanding of Harry Potter by well-intentioned Christians, it is the tragedy of “friendly fire.” Just as foot soldiers are sometimes hit by misdirected artillery fire from their own troops, so Harry has been condemned by the side he is serving. Because some Christians have mistaken fictional magic for sorcery, they have misconstrued what is a blow at atheistic naturalism as, of all things, an invitation to the occult.7 If the “magical trees” in Harry Potter are of any help in retaking ground lost to those who would burn down the spiritual forest, then Rowling has done human communities every where a very good deed.


I receive e-mail from readers almost daily about the “problem” of reading Harry Potter in light of its transcendent meaning and specific Christian content. They insist that the symbols, themes, and meanings of the books are perfectly comprehensible without any reference to an imaginary Christian subtext that believers are projecting into the books.


The mistake these readers make when they insist that the symbolism of Harry Potter is not “exclusively” Christian is that they just don’t understand a disturbing fact about English literature.


I have friends who teach and write about Saudi Arabia and Arabic culture in general. Their work is not restricted to Islam, certainly, but they wouldn’t be experts in their field if they weren’t aware of the tremendous influence of the Koran and the Islamic worldview on culture, politics, and everything Arabic. This, I hope, is a no-brainer.


Unfortunately, in a post-Christian era (culturally speaking), and one in which universities are in large part overly hostile to religious meanings (mine certainly was!), the simple, disturbing fact that English literature until the last fifty years was (ahem) “exclusively” a Christian field escapes people. Christian authors writing for a Christian reading audience—and writing books, plays, and poems that would edify them in their spiritual and workaday lives as Christians—was the rule of English letters until well after the first World War.


In explaining the popularity of the Harry Potter novels as a function of the response of a spiritually deprived world for edifying, transcendent experience (even experience limited to entertainment), I am frequently accused of proselytizing and forcing Christian meaning into the text. What a hoot! No one accuses my friends who are Saudi scholars of trying to convert people to Islam because their reports on Middle Eastern current events and trends are heavy on the place of Islam in Arabic culture.


If some Harry fans are uncomfortable because other readers, Christian or not, are interpreting the Potter books in a Christian light, I beg these readers to ask themselves where the problem exists. Reading books within a Christian literary tradition (if not for an exclusively Christian audience and not in a manner that is overtly Christian in any denominational or parochial sense) invites discussion of the Christian elements of the story and of the tools from the tradition the author uses. Literary alchemy, religious symbolism, and doppelg√§ngers, for instance, don’t make much sense outside of the tradition in which these books are written and in which these tools are used.


I have no evangelical cause or agenda here in discussing the Christian content of these books. My only hope is that readers will come to a greater appreciation of these works via the discussion of Harry Potter as traditional English literature, which, again, is an overwhelmingly Christian subject. William Shakespeare’s plays and James Joyce’s novels are impenetrable outside some appreciation of their spiritual context and the traditions of English literature. J. K. Rowling’s stories are no different.


If readers want an exclusively secular view of the books—that is, a reading of them outside of the context and traditions in which they are written—this is probably not their book. English literature (Harry Potter is undeniably root-and-branch English literature) is as Christian as Tibetan culture is Buddhist and Saudi politics is Islamic.


Denying this is not “having a broad mind” but living in a fantasy. Likewise, refusing to see the Christian elements in Harry Potter and insisting it is demonic is not a greater piety or fidelity to the faith; it is just a reflection of not understanding the place of literature in the spiritual life, of not understanding the Christian tradition of English literature, and of not understanding the popularity of Harry Potter.


Let’s move on from Harry’s edifying incantational magic to the battlefield of good versus evil in these stories.


NOTES

INTRODUCTION

1 “The Truth about Death,” Journal of Genetics 58 (1962-1963): 463–464.

2 J. K. Rowling: A Year in the Life, a documentary by James Runcie (December 30, 2007), ITV1

3 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, 1957), 204.

4 Ibid., 205.

5 Ibid.

6 J. K. Rowling: A Year in the Life.

7 Face to Face with J. K. Rowling (December 7, 1998), http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1998/1298-herald-simpson.html.

8 See www.HogwartsProfessor.com.


CHAPTER 1

1 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 205.

2 For more on the confusion between the psychic and the spiritual realms in our time and the dangers of occultism, please see Charles Upton’s The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age (Ghent, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2001), 134–137.

3 See C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, chapters 7 and 12. Readers of the Narnia books remember from The Magician’s Nephew that Aslan created that world with his song—as does the divinity in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

4 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier Books, 1960), 51.

5 “Fundamentalism Afoot in Anti-Potter Camp, Says New-Religions Expert:

Popular Culture Enjoys an Autonomy, Explains Massimo Introvigne,” Zenit News, December 6, 2001, http://www.cesnur.org/2001/potter/dec _03.htms.

6 Bishop Auxentios, Orthodox Tradition 20, no. 3 (2003): 14–26.

7 See C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair for this modern tragedy told in story form. The Silver Chair is a vibrant story of the confusion and modern enchantment with materialism or “life underground.” Is there any Narnia moment greater than Prince Rilian’s victory over the Emerald Witch in chapter 12?

My Review: How Harry Potter Cast His Spell

I first heard about the Harry Potter books online. I read that they were encouraging witchcraft and a moral danger to children. I read that parents wanted them banned from school libraries. Other people countered that they were harmless fantasy, no more dangerous than The Wizard of Oz or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. After reading (and loving) the books, I took the "harmless fantasy" side and was thrilled when my son, who rarely reads chapter books if he doesn't have to, chose to read all of the then-published books, when he was in seventh grade. He got the award for the most Accelerated Reading points that year. How Harry Potter Cast His Spell goes beyond classifying the books as harmless; rather its author postulates that the books have a very Christian message and are filled with Christian symbols and themes.

The book explains how all the HP stories follow a formula and that each involves combat with evil and a figuative death, followed by a resurection with the help of a Christ figure. We are given a quick alchemey lesson (remember, alchemy was the medieval "science" of changing base metal into gold) and then told how the HP stories fit the alchemical formula.

The book looks at the Latin roots of the names in Harry Potter and shows how the names have meaning in the story. Those names often give clues to the characters' doppleganger (double or shadow.) Harry and Voldemort are the main ones of course but it is interesting reading about the others.

HP and his friends are compared to other "dream teams" in literature. Harry, Ron and Hermione are the characters of Spirit (heart), Body (desire) and Mind (will)respectively. Compare these to Kirk, Bones and Spock in Star Trek and Luke, Han and Leia in Star Wars. The author also describes the various Christ symbols in the work.

One very interesting point is when the author discusses the scene where Voldemort drinks the unicorn's blood to achieve immoratlity. The unicorn is a Christ symbol--and remember what the Bible says about unworthily drinking the cup of the Lord. The author also points out why the "re-birthing party" in Goblet of Fire is a Black Mass.

After pointing out some general themes across the books, Granger takes you on a whirlwind tour of each book pointing out the main Christian themes and symbols in each and how they are all tied together.

I've always loved to read and one thing that disappointed me when I moved from elementary school to junior high was that reading wasn't taught as a subject in junior high, as it had always been my favorite class. I was thrilled when, one day some time after school started, my English teacher passed out what appeard to be reading books. It was shortly thereafter that I learned that literature was not as easy as reading. It meant dealing with things like themes and symbols, and frankly, I've never cared for that kind of thing, and have always needed a guide to find them. I've also always wondered if authors really meant to have people analyze their work like that, or if this was just stuff English professors made up. Reading this book was interesting and one month, when I have lots of extra time, I'm going to re-read the HP books with this at my side to see if I "see" this stuff while reading the story and how it changes my experience of the story. The author did say that he never asked Rowling if his interpretations were correct, but also said that even if she said they were not, who says she is the only one who can interpret her stories?

I enjoyed this book and think most HP fans would like it too. If you are in the "HP is evil" camp, give this book a try--it might change your mind and open you to a wonderfully fun story.

Click here to read the first chapter.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Like Drinking Syrup

In Pursuit of  Peace In Pursuit of Peace by Johnson, Jennifer


My review


rating: 2 of 5 stars
A syrupy sweet, overly religious Christian romance novel. I wasn't expecting anything earth shattering, and even picked it up tonite because I wanted a mindless read (and I read it in two hours)but both main characters are too good to be true and the only conflict is completely self-made. I knew this was the Christian version of a Harlequin when I picked it up, but it was not only predictable, but sickeningly sweet as well.


View all my reviews.

Faking Grace

I haven't gotten this book yet. They told me I'm on the list to get it so when I do, I'll post a review.



It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!





Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


Faking Grace

Multnomah Books (August 19, 2008)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Tamara Leigh is the best-selling author of eleven novels, including Perfecting Kate, Splitting Harriet, and Stealing Adda. She began writing romance novels to “get the stories out her head.” Over the course of one providential year, she gave birth to her first child, committed her life to Christ, gave up a career in speech pathology, and released her first novel. Tamara and her husband, David, live with their two sons in Tennessee.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $ 12.99
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Multnomah Books (August 19, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1590529294
ISBN-13: 978-1590529294

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


MAIZY GRACE STEWART’S 5-STEP PROGRAM TO AUTHENTIC CHRISTIAN FAITH

NAME:

Grace [√]

Nice, upstanding Christian name—lucked out on that one. Must remember to answer to it.

APPEARANCE:

Monochrome hair [√]

I flip down the visor mirror and peer at the “Marilyn Monroe” blond hair that waves off of my oval face. I so miss my stripes. But under my present circumstances, it’s not as if I can afford to keep up the multiple-shade “do.” Back to the list.

Minimal make-up [√]

Do I feel naked! Another peek in the mirror confirms the feeling. As I passed on foundation and blush, applying only a light powder to even out my tone, I look pale. The overall effect is that my hazel eyes practically jump off my face from beneath perfectly plucked eyebrows (the stragglers made me do it).

Below-knee skirt [√]
Button-up collar [√]
One-inch heels [√]

Almost wish I were naked.

Cross necklace and earrings [√]
WWJD bracelet [√]

I scrunch up my nose. “WWJD? Where would Jesus...? Why would Jesus...?” I tap the bracelet. “Ah! What would Jesus do?”

“Love Waits” ring [√]

Oh no, it doesn’t. Still, it’s a nice thought, especially considering the guy I left behind. But best not to go there.

ACCESSORIES:

Bible [√]
Bible Cover [√]

And, I must say, it’s a nice cover. I look to where it sits on the passenger seat with the “KJV” (whatever that means) Bible tucked inside—intensely spiritual with a tapestry print of a country church. And the faux tortoiseshell handles! Nice touch.

Twist pen with 7 different scriptures [√]

One for every day of the week.

“Footprints in the Sand” bookmark [√]

Touching poem. And a surprise ending too!

Fish emblem [√]

“Oops!” I open the ashtray, dig out the emblem, and drop it in my lap. “Check!”

“Jesus is my pilot” bumper sticker [√]
Crown of thorns air freshener [√]

I glance at the scented disk that hangs from my rearview mirror. Stinks, but nicely visible—practically screams “This is one serious Christian.”

CHRISTIAN SPEAK:

“Jesus is my savior.” [√]
“Jesus died for my sins.” [√]

I close my eyes and run the lingo through my mind. “Got it!”

“I’m praying for you.” [√]

I wonder how many Christians really do.

“I need to pray about that.” [√]

Otherwise known as “No way, Jose'!” Or, in these parts, the “Nashville no.”

“Bless his/her heart.” [√]

Sympathetic aside tacked to a derogatory remark about someone to make it acceptable (possibly exclusive to the South, as I’d never heard it before moving to Nashville four months ago).

“My brother/sister in Christ.” [√]
“God’s timing.” [√]
“Have a blessed day.” [√]
“Yours in Christ.” [√]

Must remember to use that last one for note cards and such.

MISCELLANEOUS:

Church [√]

That one on West End should do—respectable-looking and big enough to allow me to slip in and out undetected should I need to place myself in that setting. Of course, I hope the need does not arise. Not that I’m not a believer. I am. Sort of. I mean, I was “saved” years ago. Even went through the dunking process—the whole water up the nose thing (should not have panicked). But the truth is that, other than occasionally attending church with my grandmother before and after I was saved, my faith is relatively green. Hence, the need for a checklist.

Testimony [ ]

“Uh! Just had to leave that one for last, Maizy. Yes, “Maizy,” as in “Maizy Grace.” Courtesy of one Grandma Maizy, one Grandma Grace, and one mother with a penchant for wordplay. Amazing grace! And Mom is not even a Christian. But Dad’s mom is. According to Grace Stewart, the only thing my parents did right was to name me after her. I beg to differ. I mean…Maizy Grace? Though growing up I did my best to keep it under wraps, my mom blew it during a three-girl sleepover when she trilled upstairs, “Oh, Maizy Grace! How sweet the sound. Won’t you girls come on down?” Fodder for girlhood enemies like Cynthia Sircy who beat me out for student council representative by making an issue of my “goody two shoes” name. And that’s why I never use “Grace.” Of course, it could prove useful today.

I return to my checklist. “Testimony…” I glance at the dashboard clock that reveals I’ve blown ten of my twenty minutes leeway. Guess I’ll have to think up a testimony on my way in to the interview. Not that I don’t have a story of how I came to know Jesus. It’s just boring. Hmm. Maybe I could expand on my Christian summer camp experience—throw in an encounter with a bear or some other woodland creature with big teeth. Speaking of which…

I check my teeth in the mirror. Pale pink lipstick is so boring. Glaringly chaste. Borderline anti-sexual. Of course, that is the effect I’m after. All good.

“All right, Maizy—er, Grr-ace—get in there and get that job.” A job I badly need if I’m to survive starting over in Nashville, as my part-time position as a lifestyle reporter at the paper has yet to translate into the full-time position I was led to believe it would after three months. Funds are getting low.

I fold my checklist and stick it in the book I picked up at Borders the day I surfed the classified ads and hit on “Seeking editorial assistant for Christian company.” Editorial assistant—a far cry from reporter. In fact, beneath me, but what’s a girl to do?

Closing the book, I smile at the title: The Dumb Blonde’s Guide to Christianity. Not that I’m blond—leastwise, not naturally. Another glance in the mirror confirms that although the $7.99 over-the-counter bottle of blond is no $75 salon experience, it lives up to its claim. Not brassy at all. Still, maybe I should have gone back to basic brown so I wouldn’t have to worry about roots. But talk about boring.

I toss the book on the passenger seat, retrieve the fish emblem and my purse, and swing my legs out the car door. After “hipping” the door closed, I hurry to the back. Unfortunately, unlike the bumper sticker, there seems no non-permanent way to apply the emblem. Thus, I have no choice but to pull off the backing and slap the fish on the trunk lid. Not sure what it symbolizes, but I can figure that out later—if I get the job.

I lower my gaze to the “Jesus is my pilot” bumper sticker. Nice statement, especially with the addition of the fish. Honestly, who wouldn’t believe I’m a deeply committed Christian? And if someone should call me on it, I could be forgiven—it is April 1st—as in April Fools’ Day.

As I start to look away, the peeling lower edge of the bumper sticker catches my eye. Should have used more Scotch tape. I reach down.

“It’s crooked.”

The accented matter-of-fact voice makes me freeze. I’m certain it was directed at me, but did he say “It’s crooked” or “She’s crooked”? Surely the latter is merely a Freudian slip of my mind. And even if it isn’t, I’m not crooked. Just desperate.

As the man behind me could be an employee of Steeple Side Christian Resources, I muster a smile and turn. The first thing I notice where he stands six feet back is his fashionably distressed jeans. Meaning he can’t be an employee. And certainly isn’t looking for a hand out—even better (though I sympathize with the plight of the homeless, they make me very uncomfortable). So he’s probably just passing through the parking lot. Perhaps heading for Steeple Side’s retail store that occupies a portion of the lower floor of their corporate offices.

The next item of note is his shirt—a nice cream linen button up that allows a glimpse of tanned collarbone. I like it. What I don’t like is his face—rather, expression. If not for his narrowed eyes and flat-lined mouth, he’d be halfway attractive with that sweep of dark blond hair, matching eyebrows, and decent cheekbones. Maybe even three-quarters, but that would be pushing it, as his two-day shadow can’t hide a lightly scarred jaw. Teenage acne?

I gesture behind. “My bumper sticker seems to be coming off.”

He lowers his green eyes over me, and though I may simply be paranoid, I’m certain he gives my cross earrings and necklace, button-up collar, and below-knee skirt more attention than is warranted. He glances at the bumper sticker before returning his regard to me. “Yes, it is coming off.”

British. I’m certain of it. Nowhere near the Southern drawl one more often encounters in Nashville.

“Of course...” He crosses his arms over his chest. “…that’s because you’re using tape.”

That obvious? “Well, doesn’t everyone?” Ugh! Can’t believe I said that. Maybe there is something to the warning that you are what you read, as I could not have sounded more like the stereotypical dumb blonde if I had tried.

He raises an eyebrow. “Everyone? Not if they want it to adhere permanently. You do, don’t you?”

Guilt flushes me, and is followed by panic even though I have no reason to fear that this stranger with the gorgeously clipped accent might expose me as a fake. “Of course I do!”

Is that a smile? “Splendid, then I’ll let you in on a little secret.”

Delicious accent or not, that doesn’t sound good. It isn’t, as evidenced by his advance. I step aside, and he drops to his haunches and begins peeling away the tape. “You see…” Holding up the sticker, he looks over his shoulder and squints against the sunlight at my back. “…self adhesive.” He peels off the backing, positions the sticker, and presses it onto my bumper—my previously adhesive-free bumper.

He straightens. That is a smile—one that makes him look a bit like that new James Bond actor. What’s his name?

“You’d be surprised at how much technology has advanced over the last few years,” he says.

I nearly miss his sarcasm, genteelly embedded as it is in that accent. “Well, who would have thought?” Be nice, Maizy—er, Grace. My smile feels tight. In fact, my whole face feels as if lathered by Lava soap. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to affix my bumper sticker properly.”

He inclines his head. “If you’d like, I’ll try to straighten your fish.”

My…? It’s crooked, he said. Not the bumper sticker—my fish. Meaning he probably saw me stick it on. Were he more than a passerby, I’d be deeply embarrassed. “No, thank you. I like my fish slightly crooked.” I glance at the emblem that appears to have its nose stuck in the air. “It makes him look as if he’s fighting the current. You know, like a good Christian.”

Very good, Ma—Grr-ace! Were he a Steeple Side employee, you would have won him over.

“So you’re a Christian?”

So much for my self-congratulatory pat on the back. Of course, maybe his question is academic. I mean, it’s obvious I’m a Christian. “Of course! A Christian. And proud of it.” Good practice. Unfortunately, if his frown is anything to go by, I’m in need of more. “Er, Jesus is my savior.” Knew Christian speak would come in handy.

His frown deepens.

Or maybe not. Making a show of checking my watch, I gasp. Nothing at all fake about that, as most of my leeway has been gobbled up. Thankfully, I was lucky to—

No, blessed. Must think as well as speak “Christian.” Thankfully, I was blessed to snag a parking space at the front of the building—the only one, as the dozen marked VISITOR spaces were taken, and the remaining spaces on either side of mine are reserved for upper management, as evidenced by personalized signs.

I fix a smile. “Thank you again for your help. If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment.”

“Certainly.”

I step forward and, as I pass within two feet of him, take a whiff. Some type of citrus-y cologne. Nice. Not sharp or cloying. Unlike Ben whose cologne of choice made my nasal passages burn. And the Brit is nearly six feet tall to my five foot six. Not so tall I couldn’t wear three-inch heels for fear of shooting up past him. Unlike Ben who’d limited me to one-inch heels—

Go away! Another reason to leave Seattle. With his liberal application of cologne and compact height and build, Ben was nowhere near the man for me. Not that his scent and size was the worst of him. Far from it. And am I glad to be far from him.

As I step to the sidewalk, I’m tempted to glance behind at the nicely-proportioned, bumper-sticker happy Brit. Temptation wins out.

Thumbs hooked in his pockets, he stands alongside my passenger door. Watching me.

Feeling as if caught doing something wrong, I jerk a hand up and scroll through my “Christian speak” for something to reinforce my claim of being a Christian. “Yours in Christ!” I flash a smile that instantly falters.

At the rumpling of his brow, I jerk around and head for the smoked glass doors of Steeple Side Christian Resources. Cannot believe I used a written salutation! Dumb blonde alert! Speaking of which….

The Dumb Blonde’s Guide to Christianity is on the passenger seat. Fortunately, if the man is nosey enough to scope out the interior of my car, it’s not as if I’ll see him again. That scrumptious accent and citrus cologne was a one-time thing. Unless he does work at Steeple Side and I do get the job. Fat chance.

As I pull open one of several sets of glass doors, I glance behind. He’s on the sidewalk now, head back as he peers up the twenty-some floors of the building. Definitely not an employee.

The lobby is bright and sparsely furnished, but what stops me is the backlit thirty-foot cross on the far wall. Fashioned out of what appears to be brushed aluminum, it’s glaringly simple. And yet I can’t imagine it having more presence.

Crossing to the information desk at the center of the lobby, I scope out the men and women who are entering and exiting the elevators. All nicely dressed. All conservative. I’ll fit right in—

I zoom in on a woman who’s stepping into the nearest elevator. Her skirt is above the knee by a couple inches. And that guy who just stepped out of another elevator? His hair brushes his shoulders.

I shift my gaze back to the towering cross. I’m at the right place, meaning those two are probably visitors. Same goes for the young woman who sweeps past and reaches the information desk ahead of me. Not only is she wearing ruched capris, but she has my hair. Rather, the hair I had. Ha! If she’s after my job, I’ve got her beat.

She drops a jingly purse on the desk and points past me where I’ve halted behind. “Jack is so hot!”

“Really?” The chubby-faced receptionist bounds out of her chair, only to falter at the sight of me.

“Yes, hot!” The “ruched” young woman jabs the air again, looks around, and startles. “Er, not ‘hot hot.’ ‘Hot,’ as in under the collar…ticked off.”

That’s my cue to appear relieved that she didn’t mean “hot,” as in “carnal,” as she’s obviously connected to this company—at least, the receptionist. I nod. “That’s a relief.”

She smiles, then puts her forearms on the desk and leans in to whisper in a not too whisper-y voice, “This time they stole his assigned parking sign.”

It would make me “hot” too if someone stole mine. Doubtless, some visitor would snap up my space and I’d have to park—

Oh no. The front parking space I snagged… The only unmarked space in the middle of dozens of marked spaces…

I look around and peer out the bank of glass windows. The Brit whose parking space I took, and who does work here, is striding toward the doors. And he does look hot, though I can’t be sure whether it’s more in the carnal way or the angry way. Regardless, I am not getting this job.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Booking Mama: Another Sarah's Key Giveaway!

Here is another book giveaway I thought looked great.
Booking Mama: Another Sarah's Key Giveaway!

Booking Mama: Giveaway: In the Land of Invisible Women

We lived in Turkey for two years when I was a kid. Even though it was (and still is) a Muslim country, I see more headscarves here today in suburban New Orleans than I ever saw in Izmir in the 1960's. What has always struck me as amazing is reading that often, it is the women themselves who choose to veil; it is not something thier husbands or parents require them to do.

I just ran across a book giveaway that seems to paint a much less benign picture of life behind the veil: Booking Mama: Giveaway: In the Land of Invisible Women If the topic interests you, why not drop over and take a look?

The Rosary



It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!





Today's Wild Card author is:

Gary Jansen

and the book:


The Rosary: A Journey to the Beloved

FaithWords; 1st FaithWords Ed edition (October 28, 2008)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


GARY JANSEN is an editor at Doubleday Religion and former editor-in-chief of the Quality Paperback Book Club. His writing has appeared in USA Today, Newsday, and the Chicago Sun-Times. THE ROSARY is his first book.

Product Details:

List Price: $ 11.99
Hardcover: 96 pages
Publisher: FaithWords; 1st FaithWords Ed edition (October 28, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0446535842
ISBN-13: 978-0446535847

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


What Is the Rosary?

Imagine for a moment that you have just fallen in love with the person of your dreams. Picture it right now. Picture your ideal. Picture your beloved. This person is beautiful, smart, and wise. This person is caring and loves children.


This person values friendship in a way you’ve never experienced, and when you are in the presence of your beloved you feel whole: energized, perplexed, inspired, and amazed.


Now, you’ve experienced loves in the past, but this relationship is different. It’s mutual and nurturing. The more deeply you fall for your beloved, the more human you feel.


Could it be that your soul was asleep for years and that this person has awakened you, has even resurrected your spirit, your will, your desire? You feel changed, because you are changed. You feel that maybe the world around you has been covered in thin diaphanous veils and with each step you take toward your beloved, a layer is removed. Your vision becomes clearer and clearer. Colors are more colorful, sounds are crisper, you hear music in noise. For the first time since you were a child you experience wonder.


So continue imagining your beloved and continue seeing your relationship expanding, growing with each word, with each action, with each hope. Time passes; it has just been the two of you for some time. Then your beloved asks you to meet the parents.

What is your reaction now? Are you anxious? Nervous?


What are they going to think of me? Am I good enough? Are they going to see through to my faults?


It’s one thing to be in a relationship, you think; it’s an entirely different thing to add the parents. You’ve done a pretty good job of hiding some of these things from your beloved, but parents always know, especially mothers.


Your beloved senses your anxiety and reassures you that everything will be fine. The fateful day arrives and you walk to the parents’ home. As your beloved takes your hand, you notice that your palms are sweaty.


Your beloved knocks. The door opens. You meet Mom.

And she turns out to be the nicest person you’ve ever met.

She welcomes you into the family, and she radiates kindness and beauty. All that worrying, all those moments of self- doubt subside, and in a matter of seconds you feel excited to be in her presence. You look around and don’t see the father, but you sense that he is everywhere in this home.


Now let’s take a step back. You have never experienced a love like the one you have with your beloved, and, while you feel an openness, you admit to yourself that this person can be a mystery to you. You have questions. It’s not that you don’t feel close to your beloved, it’s just that you begin to hunger and thirst to know everything about this love that has come into your life. And to be perfectly honest, you feel intimidated, because your beloved is such a complete person, and you feel, more often than not, less than whole.

What were you like as a child? What were your parents doing before they had you? What were your friends like? Did you ever get lost? What were some of the loneliest times of your life? Why did you come into my life?


You’ve held off asking some of these questions of your beloved, but here in front of Mom, you feel strangely comfortable to let loose. It’s as if she is standing there ready to embrace you and help you understand everything. Who better than your beloved’s mother to answer all these questions swirling in your mind? Who better to provide insight than the woman who carried your beloved in her body for nine months and who experienced the pain and joy of bringing her child into the world?


You begin to ask all your questions, and this woman who you’ve just met seemingly transforms into your own mother. She smiles and takes down a scrapbook and the two of you begin looking at pictures. This is a picture of me when I first found out I was going to have a baby, she says. This is a picture of my cousin and me, we were both pregnant at the same time. Here’s one right after the birth. So many people came to visit us. Here are a few pictures of a wedding we attended, and this

is a picture of . . .


So you sit in her presence and page through the scrapbook of their lives. These pictures tell stories, and you begin to understand what was once a mystery. You feel this family’s happiness, their sorrows, their illuminations, and the glory of their lives. All of a sudden, the worries, the fears, the doubts, the brokenness, the distractions that you seem to feel on a daily basis fall away and you are transformed by love.


That is the Rosary.


Wait, you may be saying, what does all this have to do with the Rosary?


Isn’t the Rosary some long complicated prayer where you say the Hail Mary a couple hundred times while holding a set of beads?


Yes, but not exactly. The Rosary is a prayer that is longer than most in the Christian tradition, but it’s a simple prayer, and like all simple things, it is beautifully complex once you get to know it.

Yet, the Rosary is more than just a prayer, it is a journey to the beloved, an invitation to fall in love with Christ by sitting in the presence of His mother and observing through the prism of her life — and your life — the radiance of divine revelation. Anyone can say a prayer or go to church or quote the Bible, but it is only through loving Christ and entering into a relationship that we can, through patience, meditation, and contemplation, align our earthly desires and longings with the will of God.



According to Merriam- Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the word rosary is derived from the Latin word rosarium, meaning rose garden, and has been a form of prayer — traditionally said with the aid of beads, since before the time of the Reformation.


One characteristic that makes this prayer different from many others is the use of repetition. Popularized by the Order of St. Dominic in the fifteenth century, the Rosary is a cycle of repeating prayers that combines meditation with devotion. It is comprised of four sets of mysteries — or time periods — from the Gospels and are named the joyful, the sorrowful, the luminous, and the glorious. Each set of mysteries in turn is made up of five specific events from the life of Christ. A decade, which is just a fancy word for a prayer repeated ten times, traditionally the Hail Mary, is said for each event. There are prayers that begin the Rosary, prayers between each decade and prayers that end the Rosary. While the focus on the Rosary is always Jesus Christ, the guide connecting the mysteries is Mary herself who takes us by the hand and leads us through the miraculous journey of her Son’s life.


While you can pray all four sets of mysteries in one sitting, it is common for people to choose one set and focus attention on those events. The Rosary can be a difficult prayer in the beginning. Many will balk at the idea of repeating the same prayers over and over again (how boring!), but through practice and imaginative meditation, you’ll come to realize, as Romano Guardini notes in The Rosary of Our Lady, that the greatest things in life are repetitious: the cycles of life, the turning of seasons, the beating of a heart, breathing. Life is repetition.


One misconception about the Rosary that makes many non- Catholics suspicious is that it’s a prayer to Mary. This isn’t true. One does not pray to Mary when he or she says the Rosary, a person prays with Mary, the way someone would pray with another person at church or in a prayer group. Imagine this. Suppose I ran into you on the street. You’re a prayerful person, and you know I am too. You are going through hard times. Maybe your parents are ill. Maybe you have lost your job. Maybe you are dealing with a death of a loved one. We talk for a few minutes and as we part you ask me to pray for you. I assure you I will.


Praying the Rosary is no different than that exchange. It is spiritual union, an act of love for the benefit of another. As Pope John Paul II stated in his 2002 apostolic letter, On the Most Holy Rosary, the Rosary is a prayer of learning and illumination that allows, “The principal events of the life of

Jesus Christ [to] pass before the eyes of the soul . . . they put us in living communion with Jesus through — we might say — the heart of his Mother.”


Ultimately, the Rosary is your prayer and can be prayed the way you see fit. It’s a gift from God, and there is much to be learned from such a generous offering. But if the Hail Mary is the one thing that is preventing you from taking part in this divinely inspired exercise, then sit in the presence of Mary and say the Our Father instead. And if the Hail, Holy Queen, which ends the Rosary cycle, is also not to your liking, then recite the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.”

The Rosary A Journey to the Beloved: My review

The Rosary: A Journey to the Beloved (Faithwords) The Rosary: A Journey to the Beloved by Gary Jansen


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a lovely little book, though nothing extraordinary or different. The dust jacket mentions the rosary as being a prayer not only for Catholics but for all Christians so I was interested in how the author was going to address the two issues I see raised most often among non-Catholics when referring to the rosary; namely the repitition and the Marian devotion. He does a good job with the repitition basically explaining that the repeated prayers are a background to meditation on the mysteries. Regarding Marian devotion, he basically suggests saying Our Fathers rather than Hail Marys if that is a problem, and meditating on the Second Coming and the Kingdom of God rather than on the Assumption and the Coronation.



After an introductory chapter, each of the mysteries is presented in a two-page spread. The page on the left has a scripture reading related to the mystery and the page on the right has a famous work of art illustrating it.


This is a beautiful book and if you are a collector of rosary books or are new to the rosary, it could be the one for you.



Click here to read the first chapter.

Check the comments section for links to other reviews.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

just another day of Catholic pondering: Catholic Carnival 196: Explorations

just another day of Catholic pondering: Catholic Carnival 196: Explorations

Diamond Duo



It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!





Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


Diamond Duo

Barbour Publishing, Inc (October 1, 2008)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Marcia Gruver is a full time writer who hails from Southeast Texas. Inordinately enamored by the past, Marcia delights in writing historical fiction. Her deep south-central roots lend a Southern-comfortable style and a touch of humor to her writing.

Awarded a three book contract by Barbour Publishing for full-length historical fiction, Marcia is busy these days pounding on the keyboard and watching the deadline clock. Diamond Duo, the first installment in the trilogy entitled Texas Fortunes, is scheduled for release in October 2008.

Marcia won third place in the 2007 ACFW Genesis contest and third in the 2004 ACFW Noble Theme contest. Another entry in 2004 finished in the top ten. She placed second in the 2002 Colorado Christian Writer’s contest for new authors, securing a spot in an upcoming compilation book. “I Will Never Leave Thee,” in For Better, For Worse—Devotional Thoughts for Married Couples, was released by Christian Publications in January 2004.

She’s a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Fellowship of Christian Writers, and The Writers View—and a longstanding member of ACFW Crit3 and Seared Hearts, her brilliant and insightful critique groups.

Lifelong Texans, Marcia and her husband, Lee, have one daughter and four sons. Collectively, this motley crew has graced them with ten grandchildren and one great-granddaughter—so far.


Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $ 10.97
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Barbour Publishing, Inc (October 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1602602050
ISBN-13: 978-1602602052

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Diamond Duo by Marcia Gruver, Chapter One


Jefferson, Texas, Friday, January 19, 1877


With the tip of a satin shoe, the graceful turn of an ankle, the woman poured herself like cream from the northbound train out of Marshall and let the tomcats lap her up. In the beginning, an upraised parasol blocked her visage, but no lingering look at her features could erase the impression already established by pleasing carriage, a lavish blue gown, and slender fingers covered in diamonds.

Bertha Biddie waited with stilted breath for the moment when the umbrella might tip and give up its secret. All about her most of Jefferson had come to a halt, as if the whole town waited with her. Without warning, the woman lowered and closed the sunshade.

Enchanted, Bertha followed the graceful lines of her form to her striking and memorable face. At first sight of her, Bertha thought she was the devil’s daughter. She bore no obvious mark of evil. Just smoldering eyes and a knowing glance that said life held mysteries young Bertha had yet to glimpse.

Her hair sparkled like sunrays dancing on Big Cypress Creek. Her lashes were as black as the bottom of a hole, and her lids seemed smudged with coal. Delicate features perched below a dark halo of hair, and a pink flush lit her fair cheeks. Her expression teemed with mischief, and her full ruby lips curled up at the corners as if recalling a bawdy yarn. She turned slightly, evidently aware of the gathering horde for the first time. With a tilt of her chin and barely perceptible sway, she cast a wide net over the men in the crowd and dragged them to shore.

Bertha watched them respond to her and realized Mama had been less than forthcoming about the real and true nature of things. Forgetting themselves and the women at their sides, they stared open-mouthed, some in spite of jealous claws that gripped their arms. Even the ladies stared, the looks on their faces ranging from admiration to envy.

The reaction of the men only slightly altered when the lady’s escort stepped out of the Texas & Pacific passenger car behind her. Though his clothes were just as spiffy and he carried himself well, the man who accompanied that gilded bird lacked her allure, bore none of her charm. Yet despite her confident display of tail feathers, the bluebird at his side clearly deferred to him as though he’d found a way to clip her wings.

With great care, the porter handed down the couple’s baggage, the matched set a rare sight in those parts, then held out his hand. Her companion tipped the man, gathered the bags, and walked away from the platform without offering a single word in the bluebird’s direction. She cast a quick glance after him but stood her ground, her demeanor unruffled in the face of his rebuke.

As was the custom, The Commercial Hotel, Haywood House, and Brooks House, three reputable hotels in town, each had transport standing by to haul incoming passengers from the station. Dr. J. H. Turner, landlord of Brooks House, waited on hand in the conveyance he called an omnibus.

The woman’s friend secured passage with Dr. Turner and helped him load their belongings then turned and crooked a finger in her direction. She pretended not to notice.

“Bessie!” he barked. “For pity’s sake.”

She lifted her head, reopened the parasol, and strolled his way without saying a word—giving in but taking all the time she pleased to do so. He handed her up onto the carriage, climbed in beside her, and settled back to rest a possessive arm around her shoulders.

Dr. Turner eased onto Alley Street and trundled away from the station, breaking the spell cast over the denizens of Jefferson. In slow motion they awoke from their stupor and returned to their lives.

Bertha released the breath she’d held and gripped her best friend’s arm. “What was she, Magda? I’ve never seen anything like her.”

When Magda shook her head, her curls danced the fandango. “Me neither. And we never will again. Not around here, anyway.”

She leaned past Magda trying to catch another glimpse. “She’s no earthbound creature, that’s for sure. But devil or angel? I couldn’t tell.”

Magda laughed. “She’s human all right, just not ordinary folk.” She pressed her finger to her lips. “Could be one of those actresses from a New York burletta.”

Bertha gasped. “From the Broadway stage? You really think so?”

“She’s certainly stylish enough.”

Bertha squinted down Alley Street at the back of the tall carriage. “That man called her Bessie. She doesn’t look like a Bessie to me.”

“Further proof that beneath all her fluff, she’s a vessel of clay like the rest of us.”

“How so?”

“Who ever heard of an angel named Bessie?”

Grinning, Bertha leaned and tweaked Magda’s nose. “Oh, go on with you.”

Of all the souls wandering the earth—in Jefferson, Texas, at least—Bertha Maye Biddie’s heart had knit with Magdalena Hayes’ from the start. They were a year apart, Magda being the oldest, but age wasn’t the only difference between them. Magda easily reached the top shelves in the kitchen, where Bertha required a stool. And while big-boned Magda took up one and a half spaces on a church pew, Bertha barely filled the remaining half. Magda’s russet mop coiled as tight as tumbleweed. Bertha’s black hair fell to her waist in silken waves and gave her fits trying to keep it pinned up. Nothing fazed self-possessed Magda. Bertha greeted life with her heart.

Magda nudged Bertha with her elbow. “Earthbound or not, I can tell you one thing about her. . .”

“What’s that?”

The look in Magda’s big brown eyes said whatever the one thing was it was bound to be naughty. She leaned in to whisper. “She knows a thing or two about the fellas.”

Bertha raised her brows. “You can tell that just by looking at her, can you?”

“Not looking at her, smart britches. I can tell by the way she looks at them.” She fussed with her curls, her eyes pious slants. “No decent woman goes eye to eye with strange men in the street, and you know it.”

“I guess some decent woman told you that?”

“Bertha Maye Biddie! Don’t get fresh with me.”

Bertha tucked in her chin and busied herself straightening her gloves. “Maybe she’s fed up with their scandalous fawning. Ever think of that?”

“Any hound will track his supper.”

The words made Bertha mad enough to spit, but she didn’t know why. “A pie set out on a windowsill may be a fine display of good cooking, but not necessarily an invitation.”

Magda narrowed her eyes. “What on earth are you talking about?” Before Bertha could answer, she stiffened and settled back for a pout. “Why are you siding up with that woman anyway? You don’t even know her.”

The truth was, Bertha’s head still reeled from the first sight of Bessie. And the way men reacted to her flooded Bertha’s young heart with hope and provided an opportunity, if she played her cards right, to fix a private matter that sorely needed fixing.

She knew a few things by instinct, like how to toss her long hair or tilt her chin just so. Enough to mop the grin off Thaddeus Bloom’s handsome face and light a fire in those dark eyes. But she was done with turning to mush in his presence and watching him revel in it. If Bertha could learn a few of the bluebird’s tricks, she’d have that rascal wagging his tail. Then the shoe would be laced to the proper foot, and Thad could wear it up her front stoop when he came to ask for her hand.

One thing was certain. Whatever Bessie knew, Bertha needed to know it.

She tugged on Magda’s arm. “Come on.”

“Come on where?”

Already a wagon-length ahead, Bertha called back over her shoulder. “To the hotel. We’re going to find her.”

“What? Why?”

“Save your questions for later. Now hurry!”

Bertha dashed to the steps at the end of the boardwalk and scurried into the street.

“You planning to run clear to Vale Street?” Magda huffed, rushing to catch up. “Slow down. It ain’t ladylike.”

“Oh, pooh. Neither am I. Look, there’s Mose. He’ll take us.”

Just ahead, Moses Pharr’s rig, piled high with knobby cypress, turned onto Alley Street headed the opposite way. The rickety wagon, pulled by one broken-down horse, bore such a burden of wood it looked set to pop like a bloated tick. When Bertha whistled, the boy’s drowsy head jerked up. He turned around and saw her, and a grin lit his freckled face.

“Bertha!” Magda hustled up beside her. “If your pa gets word of you whistling in town, he’ll take a strap to your legs.”

“Papa doesn’t own a strap. Come on, Mose is waiting.”

She ran up even with the wagon and saw that the mountain of wood had blocked her view of Mose’s sister sitting beside him on the seat. They both grinned down at her, Rhodie’s long red hair the only visible difference between the two.

“Hey, Rhodie.”

“Hey, Bert. Where you going?”

“To Brooks House. I was hoping to hitch a ride.”

Mose leaned over, still grinning. “We always got room for you, Bertha. Hop on.”

Magda closed the distance between them and came to stand beside Bertha, breathing hard. When Bertha pulled herself onto the seat beside Rhodie, Magda started to follow. Mose raised his hand to stop her.

“Hold up there.” He looked over at Bertha. “Her, too?”

Bertha nodded.

Mose cut his eyes back at the wood and then shrugged. “Guess one more can’t hurt. But she’ll have to sit atop that stump. Ain’t no more room on the seat.”

Magda adjusted her shawl around her shoulders and sniffed. “I refuse to straddle a cypress stump all the way to Vale Street.”

“Suit yourself,” Bertha said. “But it’s a long walk. Let’s go, Mose.”

Mose lifted the reins and clucked at the horse. Magda grabbed the wooden handgrip and pulled herself onto the wagon just as it started to move. Arranging her skirts about her, she perched on the tall stump like Miss Muffet. “Well, what are you waiting for?” she asked. “Let’s go.”

Laughing, they rolled through Jefferson listing and creaking, ignoring the stares and whispers. When the rig pulled up across from Brooks House, even the spectacle they made couldn’t compete with Bessie and her traveling companion.

The couple stood on the street beside their luggage, the carriage nowhere in sight. They seemed at the end of a heated discussion, given his mottled face and her missing smile.

When Bertha noticed the same sick-cow expression on the faces of the gathered men and the same threatened look on the women’s, she became more determined than ever to learn Bessie’s secret.

The man with Bessie growled one more angry word then hefted their bags and set off up the path. Not until Bessie followed him and disappeared through the shadowy door did the town resume its pace.

Mose gulped and found his voice. “She looked as soft as a goose-hair pillow. Who is she?”

Bertha scooted to the edge of her seat and climbed down. She dusted her hands and smoothed her skirt before she answered. “I don’t know, but I intend to find out.”

“Roll up your tongue, Moses Pharr,” Magda said from the back, “and get me off this stump.”

Mose hopped to the ground and hurried around to help Magda.

Rhodie, twirling her copper braid, grinned down at Bertha. “What are you going to do, Bert?”

Magda answered for her. “She’s going to get us into trouble, that’s what.”

Bertha took her by the hand. “Stop flapping your jaws and come on.”

They waved goodbye to Mose and Rhodie then hurried across the street, dodging horses, wagons, and men—though their town wasn’t nearly as crowded as it had once been.

Jefferson, Queen City of the Cypress, lost its former glory in 1873, when the United States Corps of Engineers blew the natural dam to kingdom come, rerouting the water from Big Cypress Bayou down the Red River to Shreveport. Once a thriving port alive with steamboat traffic, when the water level fell, activity in Jefferson, the river port town that had earned the title “Gateway to Texas” dwindled. To that very day, in fits of Irish temper, Bertha’s papa cursed the responsible politicians.

But through it all, Jefferson had lost none of its charm. Brooks House was a prime example of the best the town had to offer, so it seemed only right that someone like Bessie might wind up staying there.

Bertha and Magda positioned themselves outside the hotel and hunkered down to wait—the former on a mission, the latter under duress. It didn’t take long for the girls to learn a good bit about the captivating woman and her cohort. Talk swirled out the door of the hotel soon after the couple sashayed to the front desk to register under the name of A. Monroe and wife, out of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The gentleman, if he could be counted as such, addressed the woman as Annie or Bessie, when he didn’t call her something worse. The two quarreled openly, scratching and spitting like cats, and didn’t care who might be listening. By the time the story drifted outside, the locals had dubbed her Diamond Bessie due to her jewel-encrusted hands, and it seemed the name would stick.

Bertha shaded her eyes with her hands and pressed her face close to the window. “I don’t see her anymore, Magda. I guess they took a room.”

“Of course they took a room. Why else would they come to a hotel?”

Bertha ignored her sarcasm and continued to search the lobby for Bessie. Still catching no sight of her, she turned around. “Isn’t she the most glorious thing? And even prettier close up.”

“That she is.”

“Did you see the way men look at her? I never saw that many roosters on the prowl at one time.”

“And all for squat,” Magda said. “That chicken’s been plucked. The little banty she strutted into town with has already staked a claim.” She grinned. “He wasn’t all that hard on the eyes himself.”

Bertha frowned. “That strutting peacock? Besides his flashy clothes, she was the only thing special about him. Don’t see how he managed to snare a woman like that. He must be rich.”

Magda arched one tapered brow. “Did you see the rings on her fingers?”

“I reckon so. I’m not blind.”

Magda stretched her back and heaved a sigh. “I guess that’s it then. Let’s go.”

Bertha grabbed her arm. “Wait. Where are you going?”

“Home. This show’s over. They’ve settled upstairs by now.”

Lacing her fingers under her chin, Bertha planted herself in Magda’s path. “Won’t you wait with me just a mite longer?”

“She’s not coming out here, Bertha. Besides, you’ve seen enough for today.”

“I don’t want to see her. I need to talk to her.”

Magda drew herself back and stared. “Are you tetched? We can’t just walk up and talk to someone like her. Why would she fool with the likes of us?”

“I don’t know. I’ll think of a way. I’ve got to.” She bit her bottom lip—three words too late.

Looking wary now, Magda crossed her arms. “Got to? Why?”

“Just do.” Bertha met her look head-on. She wouldn’t be bullied out of it. Not even by Magda.

Resting chubby fists on rounded hips, Magda sized her up. “All right, what does this have to do with Thad?”

No one knew her like Magda. Still, the chance she might stumble onto Bertha’s motives were as likely as hatching a three-headed guinea hen. Struggling to hold her jaw off the ground, she lifted one shoulder. “Who said it did?”

Magda had the gall to laugh. “Because, dearie,” she leaned to tap Bertha’s forehead, “everything inside there lately has something to do with Thad.”

“Humph! Think what you like. I am going to talk to her.”

Magda glared. “Go ahead then. I can see there’s no changing your mind. But I don’t fancy being humiliated by another of your rattlebrained schemes, thank you.”

Bertha caught hold of her skirt. “Don’t you dare go. I can’t do this on my own.”

“Let go of me. I said I’m going home.”

“Please, Magdalena! I need you.”

Magda pulled her skirt free and took another backward step. “No, ma’am. You just count me out this time.”

She turned to go and Bertha lunged, catching her in front of the hotel door. They grappled, tugging sleeves and pulling hair, both red-faced and close to tears. Just when Bertha got set to squeal like a pestered pig, from what seemed only a handbreadth away a woman cleared her throat. Bertha froze, hands still locked in Magda’s hair, and turned to find the bluebird beaming from the threshold—though canary seemed more fitting now that she’d traded her blue frock for a pale yellow dress.

“What fun!” Bessie cried, clasping her hands. “I feared this town might be as dull as dirt, but it seems I was mistaken.”

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