Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Learning from the Masters

Ah, if only the Hieronymus Machine were real.

Not that we need, of course, a Medieval bit of eldritch, telepathic machinery telling us all to do bad things. We manage that pretty well on our own, even though it might not be all in the coordinate, Molotov-cocktail-throwing, blowgun-using fashion, nor in a style that necessitates building sinister little dolls, belt buckles, watch faces and other gewgaws out of that magical rock malignite in order to spread the influence of the Machine far and wide, as in Robert C. O’Brien’s book, The Silver Crown, in which the Machine plays a central role: Mysterious cult has Machine, brainwashes children who are trained in the arts of arson, assassination and, very likely, the “Earth-shattering kabooms” favored by Marvin the Martian with his Illuduim Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator. In opposition: A ten-year old girl heroine Ellen Carroll possessed of the silver crown, good counterpart to the evil black crown worn by the cult’s leader, an English archaeologist who unearthed the Machine in 1947 Spain and hauled it to what might be rural Kentucky. With her is Otto, the truck-wracking mountain boy of mysterious origin who lives in the woods with his aging, adoptive mother.

Now, you may ask, why am I writing about this book, a children’s novel? Go ahead. Ask. Be like that. I’ll tell you anyway. Because I really like Robert C. O’Brien’s books, notably Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which I read in the third grade and became enthralled with. The Silver Crown could have been like that book, if not for the last chapter which, O’Brien nearly admits in his prose, was slapped together at the last minute. He acknowledges his characters will play the game of “What I don’t understand is. . .” for years, so he has one of the characters sloppily theorize on the entire book’s plot in about eight pages. A disappointing end to an otherwise well-written book. Granted, it’s his first novel (and I have no room to speak, as I have written thusfar a total of zero novels; I could use a Hieronymus Machine to help me finish one of the several that I've started). But it is interesting to learn what we can from those who have paved the road before us.

To me, it’s a lesson that sometimes it’s not completing the story that’s the best thing, but completing it correctly that counts. It’s easy to tell that O’Brien through clearly through the writing process in his NIMH book, and in his other books – certainly Z for Zacharaiah, where he left the fate of his heroine hopeful but entirely ambiguous. In either case, the endings were thought out carefully, or appeared naturally (I know the nature of writing and the possibility of careful planning cannot overrule the happy chance of just having something fall into place). The last chapter of The Silver Crown is forced, painful and muddled in its attempt to tie together every clue and every character unnecessarily.

But perhaps I’m overanalyzing. Like the folks who sell Hieronymus Machines today. I don’t want to look like a weirdo, so I’ll go with the muu-muu.

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