Saturday, February 11, 2017

'The Wonder' and the Power of Belief

I'm not going to sugarcoat it - I did not care for the ending of Emma Donoghue's newest novel, "The Wonder." If you don't want to delve into any spoilers, then you don't need to read any further. What I'm going to write about is what the ending says - and what it could have said - about the story that preceded it.

The novel introduces us to Elizabeth Wright, known as Lib, an English nurse hired to come to Ireland to investigate the veracity of a story - an 11-year-old girl, Anna O'Donnell, supposedly has not eaten in four months, not since her first communion wafer. Lib, along with Sister Michael, a local nun, is hired by a committee of men to determine if what is occurring is actually a miracle. For two weeks, the two women take turns making sure the child gets no food.

Lib is a very English woman plopped down into the middle of post-Potato Famine Ireland in 1859. She has a distinctive pedigree, having trained in the Crimean War with Florence Nightingale. She is also a woman touched by death in war and in peace, and it has seemingly robbed her of her faith at a time when advancing currents of knowledge and social change are upsetting the old verities of the church. Lib's observations about the Irish Catholicism practiced around her are those of a woman confident in her view of the real world, forced to deal with a superstitious, insular, obscure faith that would rather see a little girl die than admit the truth of her starving. Even her nickname "Lib" seems to stand in for the subtle tides sweeping away old dogmas that she, as a woman, trained in medicine, unencumbered by faith, seem to embody.

This is a good story that had great potential. It began to sour for me when Lib's willful arrogance became too wedded to the needs of story. Of course, she wants to believe in the credulity of the nun until it becomes obvious that Sister Michael is just as concerned for the child's welfare, and as willing to see the reality of her starving. It takes Lib far too long to realize what the audience gets immediately - that Anna's older brother hasn't emigrated to America, but is dead. And Anna's fast is not just an act of piety, but her attempt to appease the sins her brother committed with her before his death. Then, there's the character of Byrne, the reporter who is Lib's sounding board and, ultimately, one of the reason's the book disappointed me. We spend much of the book understanding that Lib is just fine by herself, thank you very much, only to be swept off her feet by the journalist. It's at least refreshing that the media was more popular in the 19th century, evidently.

The ending - Anna has survived for so long because her mother has slipped her mushed up food in kisses which she told her were "manna." When the nurses enter the picture, the child begins to starve because the mother has no contact. As Anna starts to waste away, the community is too invested in seeing her canonized to prevent her self-destruction. And Anna's mother will not hear of anything that besmirches the memory of her son. So Lib takes it upon herself to finally convince Anna to eat something, spirits the child away with the help of Byrne, fakes Anna's death, and then begins a new life with the journalist and Anna, now passed off as her own child. No one questions anyone too harshly, as everyone is, of course, glad to see the thing over. And so they lived, happily ever after.

There's a rather obvious "born again" aspect to this novel that does manage to touch the reader. It's only when Lib convinces Anna that she can "die as Anna" and live a second life unencumbered by the shame of her secret connection with her brother that she finally succumbs to the imperatives of appetite. But this grace isn't free, because part of the reason Lib makes the offer to Anna is her own need to feel like a mother again. Still, it works as a reminder of how liberating the abandoning of the past is to those who see no hope in a future, unless it is someone else's future.

Consider how the story could have ended: Anna could have died, and we might have been witness to how the story of her death would have strengthened, or weakened, the faith of those who watched her die. But this would have betrayed the tone of suspense in the novel, and the ending would have lacked resolution. A world where Lib goes back to England, shaking her head at the cost of misplaced faith, would not have satisfied.

What if Anna had taken Lib's advice to eat, and had to live with the disappointment of her family and community? In this world, Lib's example of how a woman living alone, overcoming her own disappointments, might have stayed true to the vaguely feminist tone of the work. Would Lib have felt herself a survivor of a misplaced faith, and perhaps have followed Lib out of Ireland eventually? Would that ending have worked?

Or what would have happened if Anna's miracle had actually been a miracle? What is Lib discovered, not that Anna was a child suffering under the weight of a community's expectations, but that she really was being sustained by something supernatural? Approximately a million people died due to the privations of the Irish Potato Famine. What would it mean if a single child in an obscure village was being sustained, just for a short time, by faith rather than food? What might it mean for Lib, who lost her own child?

That's not to say that any of these endings would have been preferable. "The Wonder" feels, at the end, like something Wilkie Collins would have conjured up, which may have been the point. I was more disappointed in Lib's riding off into the sunset with Byrne than her kidnapping Anna, though both felt out of place emotionally with the character I had watched for 250 pages. And I didn't need a miracle to be confirmed for me to be satisfied, though I might have enjoyed the effect this would have had on Lib. 

Miracles act as signs that testify to the glory and mystery of God. They show God's favor on individuals, at specific times, so that those who believe may draw strength, and those who do not believe may be drawn to a tenuous proof of God's existence and love. For most of the novel, Lib is a woman of reason frustrated among a people stooping under the expectations of a faith that keeps them ignorant, poor and fearful, blind to the real dangers even in their own households. But her reason is also frustrated in that it cannot answer everything, cannot save anything, except when it chooses the most irrational solution, trusting that the promise of another day and another chance is all that a child needs to grow.

Which brings us back to the miracle of salvation, because it shows an irrational God alive and active in a rational universe He created, which has at its heart an uncertain certainty in the flights of sparrows and the rise and fall of His children. There is no reason He should want us, yet He was willing to give up everything for us. An implausible ending, perhaps, and full of possibilities in that it is no ending at all.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.


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