The Whipping Boy
J. Scott Bronson
Andrew R. Hall
I have read several excellent pieces of LDS literature over the last12 years, many of which I was introduced to through this list. But Ihave never read a more thoroughly religious work than J. ScottBronson's excellent novella The Whipping Boy. On July 24, 2001 Scottwrote on AML-List about his frustration with his inability to find apublisher for the work, declared that he was giving up, and offered toe-mail a copy to whoever requested one. I did so, and finally gotaround to reading it over the last two days. I am not going to give adetailed analysis of the layers of meaning found in the text, I'llleave that to someone who has the tools that I lack (Harlow, where areyou? I have a job for you). I do want to share why I think this issuch a soul-stirring work, and plead for a way to make it moreavailable to readers.
Bronson unpeals the layers of this book like an onion. At first, Ithought I was reading a domestic novel about a very happy family.Then I realized I was reading a domestic novel about a very troubledfamily. Finally, I realized I was reading an analogy of Christ'satonement. I was never wrong, it is a domestic drama about a happyfamily, but they also (especially the parents) have some significanttroubles, both from outside and within. And Bronson does an excellentjob at showing their joys as well as the trials and foolishness fromwhich they suffer. It is the kind of work that Orson Scott Card andDavid Dollahite talked about in the introduction to their collectionof short stories about families, Turning Hearts: Short Stories onFamily Life (Bookcraft, 1994). They said they were tired of LDSstories that were based on the "revolving door". That is, storiesthat were either about someone joining the Church or leaving it. Byextension, I think they also meant stories that were not about acouple meeting and eventually becoming a family, or a family fallingapart. They wanted stories that dealt with the more domestic dramaswhich faced the bulk of the LDS population, living as alreadycommitted members of a family and believers in the gospel message.Unfortunately there were only a small handful of stories in thatcollection that met their criteria as well succeeding in literary anddramatic terms. Now someone has done it -- The Whipping Boy is thebest piece of domestic LDS fiction I have ever read. Bronson succeedsin the literary ways: strong and clearly drawn characters, dialogue,and a focused but complex narrative. The narrative POV switches ineach chapter between the four main characters, the mother, father,son, and daughter, work well. Often Bronson shows us scenes throughtwo viewpoints, giving the reader greater understanding and charityfor the characters. Even without the truly dramatic events of thefinal chapters, Bronson creates a slice of life of an average Mormonfamily that fascinated and engaged me. Another work of Bronson's Ihave read, the one act play Alters (Sunstone, Sept. 1997), aboutAbraham, Sariah, and Isaac, succeeds as a domestic/religious drama inthe same way. (It is part of his current two act play Stones). EricSamuelson's play Accommodations is another example of excellence inthis genre.
But then it is something besides that. By the end I realized that thework also acts as an analogy for Christ's atonement. Not that thenature of the work changed, just my expectations did. I love it whena book develops in a way which makes me go back and reexamineeverything that I read before. It worked fine on one level the firsttime through, but then I understand the story in a new way, and in mysecond pass through I see things on another level that I hadn't caughtbefore. It is kind of like Card's Lost Boys, a domestic drama whichsuddenly becomes a supernatural tale in the last chapter. (No, thatisn't a good example, supernatural events on the order of Lost Boys,which make that novel speculative fiction, do not happen in TheWhipping Boy, but gifts of the spirit do play a key role.) What I meanis that in both cases it felt for a moment like the rug was pulled outfrom under me as a reader, and some might not like their expectationsshaken up to that degree. I, however, deeply appreciate it.
The miracle of Christ's atonement is the major theme of the work.Bronson sets out that theme in the first scene of the book, in whichthe eleven year old son is deeply moved by a Sunday School lesson byan artistic older man who tells the story of Jesus' suffering in thegarden while illustrating the story on the blackboard with chalk. Itis a powerful beginning. As the story progresses, we come to see thatone source of the family's problems is the Mother's inability toaccept the atonement in her own life. Because she is unable to acceptGod's forgiveness for her past sins and continuos imperfection she isplagued by self- loathing and sadness. She tries to save herself,instead of letting Christ do it for her. Her daughter starts toreplicate her mother's attitudes, feeling like she can't get baptizedbecause she can't be perfect, as she thinks her brother is. The arccontinues from there, including powerful examples of forgiveness andsacrifice which would give away too much if I explained. The focus onthe atonement is reminiscent of BYU religion professor StevenRobinson's book Believing Christ (Deseret Book, 1992). Robinsonfocuses on what I think we should talk about much more in Church, thecleansing power of the atonement and the importance of not trying tosave ourselves without it. I think a lot of people, myself included,too often focus on the admonition to become perfect without alsoremembering that the Lord expects us to make mistakes, and that we cango to Him and cast our burdens on Him. Like the mother in TheWhipping Boy, we try to save ourselves, and despair when we fail,ignoring the atonement. I think Robinson's explanation of theatonement is among the best I have ever read, and I am glad to seethat the book has sold so well. Bronson, in turn, has created asuperb fictional exploration of the same themes.
I said the book is thoroughly religious, but certainly not in a softlyinspiring way. Besides the overarching theme of a painful,sacrificial atonement and its healing power, the religious lives ofthe characters constantly informs their actions, including theirmistakes. These are four good people, trying to do the right thingsbecause of their understanding of God and their own missions in life.I mentioned the mother's misunderstanding of the commandment to beperfect. The father also has religious-based faults, particulary hispride in his understanding of spiritual matters, and his rage whicherrups when his gifts are ignored. Despite their problams, the Lordspeaks to the characters in a variety of ways, through inspiredblessings, through dreams, and through the still small voice. Scottrecently mentioned a frustration with stories in which God does notappear. God does not appear as a character in this story per se, buthe is an active, dynamic force throughout the text.
So, this is an excellent book, I would recommend it unhesitatingly toanyone who values the role of faith in their lives. In fact, I thinkthat it could do a lot of good. It is not often you find literaryexcellence, emotional heart, and powerful religious messages wrappedup in a single work. But I can also see why Scott has not found apublisher. First of all, the tough content could put some off. Somemight dislike the descriptions of the imperfection which needs to beatoned for, including good people doing cruel things, sexualfrustration, and violence. Of course it is the depth of theimperfection which makes the atonement so powerful, but regardless itwill put some off. But if they can handle that, as well as theending, which should knock them for a loop, even makes them mad, Ithink that many LDS readers would be very glad for the experience.And I think they could handle it. But how to entice them to try?
Secondly, it is a domestic novel. There is no adventure or romance init in the conventional bookselling sense. It is about a family whichstruggles, suffers a great deal of pain, and is touched by the hand ofthe Lord. Many successful LDS novels have some of these things, butalso have a kidnapping, a handsome rescuer, an escape across themountains, or some other big thing that you can write about on theback cover. There isn't anything like that we can put on this backcover. It is interesting that as a largely domestic people, we aren'tvery interested in reading a powerful domestic story. I understandthe desire to read about something that the reader him/herself willprobably never experience, I like that too. But I think something aspowerfully close to home as this should also have its place.
So, what to do? Some of you have connections with publishers, don'tyou? Have you taken a close look at this book? Chris/Tory, how aboutIrreantum? I know it has only published short fiction up to now, buthey, use excellence where you can find it. It is around 51,000 words,77 pages in my printout, which really is too long for a magazine, I'msure, but maybe an issue with little else. Or in two parts? In themeantime, I recommend everyone to write Scott (firstname.lastname@example.org)and get your own copy if you don't have it already.
Andrew Hall Fukuoka, Japan
© 2001 Andrew R. Hall < email@example.com >