4Q 3P J/S
"...I hoped my first day of school -- of high school, thank you, which I've only been looking forward to my entire life -- might turn out to be at least slightly better than eating live bugs. But I guess I was wrong."
So says Mena Reece, who might have had the first day of high school she'd been dreaming of if she only hadn't written that letter. If she hadn't written that letter, then her friends might be talking to her now. If she hadn't written that letter, her parents would be speaking to her. Her parents would look at her. But she did write that letter, and now she's been kicked out of her church, her parents are being sued, and she's being harassed at school. Mena and her family belong to a strict fundamentalist church. They believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, that homosexuality is a sin, and that anything that involves magic and wizards is of the devil. None of this is negotiable. If you stray from the church’s teachings or question the pastor, you are asking for trouble. Mena “asked” for trouble when she wrote that letter. Is she sorry she wrote it? Not really. It was the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy with the result. She never imagines her salvation will come at the hands of an evolution-teaching biology teacher and a science-loving lab partner.
Biology is not Mena's thing, but her lab partner is Casey Connor, who sweeps her along in his enthusiasm for science and admiration for Ms. Shepherd, a dynamic teacher who teaches her students how to think and observe. Mena can’t help but get interested. Each year, Ms. Shepherd gives her students the opportunity to earn extra credit by creating their own special project. Casey is determined to do the best project Ms. Shepherd has ever seen. Unfortunately, his idea requires going to his house after school almost every day. Mena knows that that just won’t fly with her parents (#1, she’s grounded; #2, she’s not allowed to be alone with a boy for any reason), but she goes anyway. She’ll figure out how to do deal with her parents later. In the meantime, she's trying to deny the obvious: Casey's a pretty cool guy. In fact, Casey's whole family is pretty cool, and very different from her own.
Casey’s sister Kayla is just about everything that Mena is not: excitable, strong, loud, and opinionated. While Mena wishes she'd never called attention to herself, Kayla relishes making waves. As editor of the school paper, she’s about to make a big one: Pastor Wells and his church’s youth group are protesting the teaching of evolution in Ms. Shepherd’s biology class. He wants creationism taught instead. It’s their own Scopes Monkey Trial, and Kayla is thrilled that Mena and Casey are right in the middle of it. They can be her sources on the scene while she blows this story wide open. Casey, Kayla, and Ms. Shepherd know exactly how they feel about evolution vs creationism. But Mena is torn. Ms. Shepherd is a brilliant scientist, and her lectures are very convincing. Still, Mena’s not used to questioning her church’s teachings. And the last thing she needs to do is get everyone in the congregation and her parents even angrier with her than they are now, if that’s even possible. No, she’s not going to take a stand on this one. But Kayla has other plans for her, and almost before she knows what’s happened, Mena has a piece in the school newspaper and her own blog. She’s Bible Grrrl, and what she has to say about the Bible and evolution gets her more attention than she ever dreamed of. Suddenly, people want to know what she has to say.
Just by being who they are, the Connors and Ms. Shepherd make Mena think about things in a new way and question things she's always accepted without much thought. Will having a boy friend (not even a boyfriend!) really inevitably lead to having sex? Can you really be corrupted just by reading a book or watching a movie? How do faith and facts interact? Can you believe in evolution and still believe in God? Can you disagree with your parents and still have them love and respect you and love and respect them in return? Is it wrong to stand up for the things you believe in, even when your stand isn’t a popular one? Is it time she thought for herself?
If I were creating a Best Books List of 2007, this book would be on it. I like books that make me care and make me think. This one did that. I think Brande did a fine job making Mena a well-rounded character. She's not a perfect girl, and she doesn't pretend that she is. Watching her grow and figure out what she believes is as empowering to the reader as it is for Mena to actually do. It's also fun to watch her struggle with admitting that she's not as impervious to Casey's charms as she'd like to think, and I could empathize with her having a hard time believing that he might actually feel the same way about her. Casey and Kayla are great characters, and if Josh's t-shirts ever go on sale for real, I'm there. I do think that Brande does make Pastor Wells too one-dimensional and stereotypical, but on the other hand, his daughter is portrayed as equally sincere in her beliefs, but far more nuanced as a character.
This book has a lot going for it. I suspect that firm creationists won't be happy/satisfied with it, but those wondering how or if faith and science can coexist are likely to find that this book provides them food for thought.
I'm not going to quote anything because
- I have lost page one of my notes. This proves that 1) sticky notes aren't always the best things to use and 2) reading in bed is not conducive to good organization.
- Page two of my notes is full of things that are too close to the end of the book to quote.
- It's already taken me three weeks to get this post up, and it's high time I stopped agonizing and posted it already. Yeah, I know. It doesn't read like something that took three weeks to write (okay, not twenty-one days of writing, but definitely more than one session of "why won't the words I want come?!" frustration). But I tried.
I was going to point to the URL listed in the back of the book, but when I tried to visit it, I discovered that it doesn't really go to anything about Robin Brande specifically. Random House has turned it into a page to promote several authors. You also need a user name and password. Boo! hiss!
Edited on Jan. 11, 2008 to add Robin's web site, thanks to the comment below. This one actually does work! Check out Robin Brande's web site at http://www.robinbrande.com
Edited on August 30, 2008 to add a couple of missing words. I hope I caught them all, but no guarantees.