Students at a recent school concert closed the evening by singing I Believe I Can Fly by R. Kelly. They were all wearing white shirts, and for that last song they put on white gloves so that the black light made them luminescent as they gracefully flapped their arms and sang that if they believed in themselves, and tried hard, they could fly
But they never got an inch off the ground. Perhaps I’m being a literalist curmudgeon to point that out. But as wonderful as it is to encourage kids to dream–and to affirm their efforts to achieve their dreams, I wonder about the dark side of that message. What happens when you try your hardest and still fail? What happens when you realize you’ve succeeded at the wrong thing? What happens when you’ve messed everything up by thinking you ought to fly above everyone else?
I wish I could have handed every one of those kids Lydia and Heather (mother and daughter) Munn’s new novel for teens, How Huge the Night.
“Isn’t that beautiful, Julien?”
And so the book begins. Julien, a fifteen year old who has just moved from Paris to rural France, does not give the expected answer, and yet it feels true to him as he looks down on his new hometown. The book might be thought of as a series of such questions and unexpected answers.
“God, won’t you save Paris from the Nazis?”
“Should I use the weapons of love?”
“You can’t use the weapons of love to attack.”
“Should I cover the chopped logs with a tarp?”
“. . . the rain’s what makes them strong. Leaches the sap out, seasons the wood—it’s not worth burning till it’s been out in the storms for a year.”
Each answer is unexpected, yet its truth makes us trust the story. And in the end, many of the answers are illuminating.
And what a need for illumination there is! True to the title, the Munns don’t flinch from the enormity of the night. Julien faces a hostile group of peers at his new school. His mother sinks into depression. The Nazis assault France. A young brother and sister flee the Nazis after their father has died.
Given the dark plot, I found myself almost desperate for light, and when a shaft of grace appeared or a glimmer of kindness, I felt jarred by and grateful for its simple beauty.
The Munns skillfully juxtapose the experience of being the new kid at school with the experience of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied northern France. Julien, like adolescents everywhere, has huge, bad feelings about being the stranger in the midst of a tight-knit group of kids who have grown up together. But even in his self-absorption, he can’t miss the parallels to the experience of the refugees seeking protection in his small town.
As the novel progresses, difficult questions emerge concerning theodicy, pacifism, scapegoating, and the presence of God. How does one become an insider without making others outsiders? How do you fight for what is right if coercion and self-righteousness make you wrong? And by the way, where is our good and loving God in all this?
The Munns don’t answer these questions with simple slogans, but with the logic of story and all the beauty and emotional truth that story affords. I’m almost embarrassed by how much I like this book. I think I like it because it tells the story of someone trying to be good, who fails at it again and again, and as he fails he hurts others in the process—my story. But then there is grace. And the beauty of that grace helps Julien, and me, go on.
The message I heard sung the other night, “if you try you can fly,” may initially seem like a way of esteeming teens. It communicates that we believe in their potential, and that they have the capacity to do whatever they set their minds to.
Only . . . they don’t. At least not in any absolute sense. It just isn’t true. And because of that it is ultimately a cruel and burdensome message. How Huge the Night—this is exactly the word I’m looking for—honors teens. It does so because it tells the truth about the night, and how it has invaded each of our hearts. It believes that teens can handle it. And it invites them, and all of us, into the shocking and grace-full light of God.