Suffer the Children
- Kathleen McDonnell (Author)
1212: Year of the Journey. Second Story Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- James Heneghan (Author)
Safe House. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Galway
Safe House, James Heneghan’s novel for young adults set in Belfast in 1999, tells the story of twelve year old Liam Fogarty. The city portrayed in the novel is a place of violence, corruption, and religious animosity. The story begins with the brutal deaths of Liam’s parents, murdered in their beds while their terrified son listens from across the hall. Liam flees, pursued by the killers, and seeks help from his neighbours and the earnest Protestant policeman, Inspector Osborne. The boy arrives at a safe house run by fellow Catholics, but when someone betrays his location he must again run for his life.
Highly suspenseful, the story depicts Liam’s increasing fear and isolation. It follows a familiar convention of children’s literature with its orphaned protagonist who abruptly discovers a menacing world and the need for self-reliance. Heneghan goes beyond this, however, to explore the danger and folly of religious prejudice, revealing the crimes and sufferings of both Protestants and Catholics. Liam’s neighbour Mrs. Cassidy remarks, “‘The IRA is as bad as the police and the soldiers. I wouldn’t trust any of them. They’re all a bunch of murderers.’”
Mrs. Cassidy is critical of each group, but Liam also recalls the words of his father who “saw no important differences” between Protestants and Catholics. “They were all doing their best, he always said . . . to find work and bring up their families. It was just a few who were to blame for the violence and the hatred, a handful of ignorant thugs who knew no better.” Heneghan’s novel explores themes of religious prejudice and narrow-mindedness, portraying the cycle of violence that these attitudes perpetuate. It offers no easy solutions, but does teach children that the first step toward peace lies in asking questions and thinking critically and independently about religious difference.
Kathleen McDonnell’s 1212: Year of the Journey is another novel for young adults exploring religious intolerance. This work of historical fiction follows three French characters as they join the Children’s Crusade, a march by children to the Holy Land in the summer of 1212. It is the story of a remarkable but tragic historical event that will interest readers who want to learn more about the history of this time. Like Heneghan’s novel, 1212 opens with an act of brutal violence as young Blanche witnesses her town destroyed and her family killed by soldiers following orders from the Church of Rome. The massacre is in response to the fact that many of the people of Béziers are Cathars, a group of Christians deemed heretical by the Church. Blanche is able to escape with the help of a Jewish merchant and a soldier who takes pity on her, and she arrives at a convent. The nuns repeatedly tell her that, as a Cathar, she is doomed to hell and then promptly put her to work. Blanche runs away from this harsh existence and joins the Crusade where, surrounded by other children, she initially feels a sense of belonging, but where she must also keep her Cathar heritage a secret.
When Blanche joins the Crusade she encounters Abel, a Jewish boy hiding his own religious identity from those around him. Leading the crusaders is the charismatic shepherd boy Étienne, who believes he is following direct orders from St. Nicholas. Étienne enthrals both Abel and Blanche, who cherish his friendship. As the journey progresses, however, Étienne’s increasing egoism and zealotry threaten these bonds, showing Blanche and Abel that they cannot reveal their true identities without facing scorn and rejection from their friend. 1212 is a poignant story that portrays the loss of idealism and growing disillusionment of its young characters in the face of prejudice, cruelty, and betrayal.
Both novels contain scenes of explicit violence and are suitable for older children. Set in times and places ostensibly different from contemporary Canada, they in fact allow readers to explore questions of religious violence, fanaticism, and intolerance, important issues of current relevance to young Canadians. Together, these two works highlight the dangers of religious bigotry and suggest that rejecting blind faith and asking questions are the first steps toward people of different religious communities finding a middle ground.
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MLA: Galway, Elizabeth. Suffer the Children. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 133 - 134)
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