Monday, November 19, 2007

The Book Of Lost Things, by John Connolly

I finished reading John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things about two weeks ago. Since then, I've been trying to find a good text-to-world connection to this wonderful adult book that I strongly recommend to readers ages 12 and up.

Like The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, The Book of Lost Things poses some challenges in terms of creating text-to-world connections. Like Zusak's novel, The Book of Lost Things is set during World War II. In addition, The Book of Lost Things consists in the main of a series of fairy tales re-worked in a very modern (some would say absurd or grotesque) way. At first glance, it doesn't appear especially relevant or contemporary.

This thoughtful report, by National Public Radio reporter Daniel Zwerdling, helped me to look at The Book of Lost Things with a more critical eye. In his report, Zwerdling describes the mental health challenges that American soldiers serving in Iraq have faced upon their return home to the United States. According to Zwerdling, who has been covering this issue for over a year now, more American soldiers than ever before are being kicked out of the army for behavior associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Book of Lost Things is clearly not about the war in Iraq, but the connections to Zwerdling's report are uncanny. At the beginning of the novel, readers are introduced to a young boy, David, who has just experienced the death of his mother. Shortly thereafter, David's father remarries, the family moves to a new home, and David acquires a new brother. Simultaneously, the Nazi's begin the bombing of London. All of this is too much for David: he begins to evidence symptoms of a mental disorder, and his father takes him to a psychiatrist. As the first section of the novel ends, a German plane falls out of the sky and into David's backyard. David witnesses this event, and suddenly finds himself transported to an entirely new and enchanted world (if you think this sounds just a little bit like The Wizard of Oz, you are correct).

Even though the new world that David confronts is enchanted, it is strikingly familiar--a landscape not unlike that of contemporary Iraq. Murderous wolves are attempting to seize control of the kingdom, led by a hideous wolf-man named Leroi; other insurgents and criminals are on the prowl. The ruling king appears unable or unwilling to exert control. This is a world where terror reigns supreme, and nothing appears capable of halting it.

The Book of Lost Things is remarkable because the account of David's adventures in this imaginary land is riveting and, albeit in an dark way, humorous. Readers who love fairy tales will especially enjoy the bizarre revisions of Grimm fairy tales such as Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, The Three Billy-Goats Gruff, and Sleeping Beauty. English teachers might find the parallel to The Most Dangerous Game interesting and amusing as well. There are lots of different text to text connections that readers of all ages can make using this book.

But what I find most intriguing about The Book of Lost Things is its evocation of an age of terror. Connolly uses fairy tales and children's literature not only to capture something very important about childhood and the current age, but also to suggest the sort of attitude or mindset that people might need to take in the future to combat terrors both real and imagined. For more about this mindset, read The Book of Lost Things. Or perhaps read Thomas Friedman's recent opinion column in the The Sunday New York Times.

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