There is a lot of gold, but the darkness is there aplenty

Okay, let me be honest.  I hated this book.  At least, once I was done with it I did.

But let me be honest again, while I was reading it, I couldn’t put it down.  So the relationship was not simple.

And let me now be really honest.  (Because it’s not honesty until you actually reveal something about yourself, instead of just about the book alone.)  The main reason I hated the book because I couldn’t handle it.  Some things are too painful to read, at least for me with my over-active imagination and brain that won’t turn off, even if I want it to.  It’s not that I shy away from tough subjects or even painful subjects in books, in fact, sometimes I am drawn to them, but something about this–maybe the use of animals (I am a vegetarian of the most sentimental kind) or children (I am a new and pregnant mother) or the religious overtones (I consider myself very religious and spiritual)–REALLY got to me.  Which again, is why it’s also such a great book–it’s powerful.

So I guess it’s most honest to say that while I was reading it, I wasn’t sure about it.  When I was done, I hated it more than anything I’d ever read.  Now that time has passed and I’ve had a chance to reflect on its meaning, I’ve come to rethink things.

So why would I write about it?  I was clear that this blog is only to talk about books I consider “page-turners”, books that I liked.  I’m not here as a reviewer.  Well, here’s the deal.  Months after reading the book, I still think about it.  I am drawn to its theories, to its plots, to its characters.  I want to learn more, but I don’t know if I am strong enough.  I thought I would never, ever read the sequels.  But I think I am wrong about even that.  I think someday I will have to.  The pull is just that strong.  So even though the part of me who wants to escape sometimes into a rosy world resists the horrific imagery that at times appears in this book, there is more of me who knows why the author did that, who agrees with him, and who wants books and stories like this to live on until humanity figures it out on its own.

Title: The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)
Author: Phillip Pullman
: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Age: 12 and up

Summary and Review:

Lyra is a out-of-place in her world.  Left alone by a mother and father she doesn’t remember, she is raised in a university by academics and their staff.  She has little formal education, other than what seem like infrequent meetings with the scholars, but is bright and curious.  She spends most of her time flying through the streets of the city, playing rough-and-tumble games with the other children.  We see her curiosity at the beginning of the book as she and her daemon (an that is connected to her by a strong, invisible force, a physical representation of her soul, and something all humans in this world have) sneak into a study and witness an almost-poisoning of (ostensibly) her uncle, Lord Asriel.  After saving him and getting involved with a mysterious woman, she becomes a runaway and joins a party of “gyptians” in a high-stakes adventure to the arctic, where she believes her uncle has headed, and where she and others believe that children who have been kidnapped have been taken.

The story is rife with delicious imagery of her collegiate environment, the busy town surrounding it, and the fantastical worlds up north with flying witches and armored bears.  But the real power lies with the kidnapped children and the story of what is happening to them.  A horrific research project, funded by an all-powerful church, is experimenting with the children, leaving many of them dead in a painful way that is foreshadowed earlier in the book by interactions between Lyra and her own daemon.

On the downside, which is part of the reason I had trouble with at first, I found Lyra to be a strong character who doesn’t necessarily affect things around her as much as she is affected by them.  This isn’t universally true–she makes some important decisions, but she is played as somewhat of a pawn.  On the same note, Lyra is an important part of a prophecy (which is why she is partly played as a pawn by those who know it), and part of this prophecy gets a lot of hype but I felt falls rather flat at its conclusion.  However, in the end, the allegory about religion and the ways in which we treat our souls (and ourselves) eventually spoke to me too powerfully to put down this book for good.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

(For the short version and a quick question, skip to the end.)

Wow.  I mean, wow.  First of all, don’t start off the conversation the same way so many people talk about this book, which is how this is “too deep” for a children’s book and/or “deep enough” for an adult book.  I mean, throw up.  Are children stupid?  Have the adults who say these things never spoken to a middle school or high school student?  Most of them speak much more eloquently about the meaning of life than their adult counterparts who are way too deep in their search for financial security to even remember they once cared about such a question.  Pullman understood that a children’s book would be the best way to raise such profound questions, and for that, I truly admire him.

This book would raise a lot of great questions in a classroom setting.  Too bad our messed up ideals about children’s education would never allow them to read a book that speaks so poorly of organized religion.  (It’s interesting, isn’t it, to even think that?  I mean, it’s obvious a school would never read this book.  But why?  Because religious parents would be afraid that one book was going to bring down thousands of years of religion?  I’d rather think that one book could entice students to think about religion, to think about what it means to them, and in the end, change the way they look at their own religion, probably giving them more authority over their own thoughts and making their own beliefs even stronger.  But alas, our society is too weak for that.)  However, in my fantasy world in which this could be read in a classroom, or in a world in which you are an especially enlightened home-schooling parent who wants to present a myriad of viewpoints to your child, or in a world in which you actually have these kinds of conversations over the kitchen table with your teen who somehow didn’t get the apathetic-towards-things-his-parents-care-about gene, then here you go:

What do the daemons in Lyra’s society represent?  Is there a parallel in our world?  Why do you think daemons are the opposite sex of a person?  Why do a minority of people have same-sex daemons?  Why would removing someone’s daemon release energy?  Why would the church want to eliminate daemons, at least in their natural form?  What is so scary to the church and religious people in general about an alternate world, a world in which living things are different than they are in this one?

If you are the average parent with an average teen and just want to get a chance to see what they thought of the book and maybe have a short but hopefully meaningful conversation, try something like this:

So, do you think the daemon’s are people souls?  Or their desires?  Or did you have another idea?  (If they do, go with it and ignore the rest of what is written here.)

If not, and they agree with the soul-thing, keep on that, and don’t necessarily use the church as the enemy, even though that really is what the book talks about, but maybe something more generic like “adults” or “authority”.  That way, your teen can talk about things that are more relevant in his own life.  Unless, of course, oppression by an organized religion is an issue in his life, in which case, knock yourself out.

As a follow up, if they agree with the soul-thing, you can ask: “why would the adults want to experiment with cutting away souls?  Do you think adults do anything similar to kids today?”  (And if your teen answers that making her go to high school is the same as cutting away her soul, don’t argue; just listen.  She’s probably trying to tell you something important.  Kids often feel like they are trying to be pressed into cookie cutters that are not the right size and shape for them.  See if this conversation can lead you to understand if your child feels that way and if so, if they can tell you who is doing that to them (parent, teacher, coach) and what they feel is being taken away from them.  (And please listen.  I mean, if they argue you are taking away their individuality by not buying them a car, you don’t have to take them too seriously, but at least hear what they are trying to say!)

SHORT VERSION: Don’t even bring up religion.  Use the daemons not as a representation of souls, but as a representation of human desire.  Does your teen ever feel like adults are trying to take away his or her natural desires or instincts just like the experimenters in this book?  Umm, yeah, I’m willing to bet so.  That’s a conversation right now.

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