Summer Reading Challenge
By Deirdre Parker Smith
The theme for the fifth annual Summer Reading Challenge was courage, and it took some courage for the panel to tackle the books.
Except for John Hart, who was talking about his own book. He told the audience of more than 100 people that he hesitated when organizer Barbara Setzer asked him to speak about “The Last Child.”
“It was the theme that made up my mind,” he said.
Hart spoke just after Salisbury Post Publisher Greg Anderson discussed Kevin Sites’ “In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars.”
Sites’ very serious and intense account of wars around the world held nothing back, including descriptions of deaths, torture and devastation.
Hart said, “This is why I write novels.”
John Whitfield was the moderator and first introduced Gary Freeze to speak about “River of Doubt,” the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s dangerous journey down an unmapped river in the Amazon rain forest.
Freeze, a history professor at Catawba College, brought up some interesting points about the book, which he said could have been titled “The Peril of Being Impulsive” or “Wonder What’s Around the Bend.”
Freeze argued that Roosevelt lived a stretching life, moving to the next challenge and opportunity. “Today, he probably would have taken too high a dose of Ritalin.”
Roosevelt, Freeze theorized, was afraid to stop because he might begin to feel who he really was. He was “the biggest boy to ever be president.”
Freeze said Roosevelt came from an era when you did not doubt that which you could do. Did the former president want to survive the journey, Freeze asked, or was this to be his last great adventure?
“Should you be content with what you see or keep looking around the bend?” Freeze asked. Roosevelt kept looking, and he was courageous, although “I’m not sure courage was necessary. He didn’t have to command courage,” Freeze said, he was strong enough to take the trip without mustering up courage.
But it took something more than courage for Valentino Achak Deng to trek across the deserts of Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya as one of the Lost Boys, panelist Vivian Mathewson said of “What is the What.”
The book is a novel, with Valentino, it seemed to Mathewson, sitting on author Dave Eggers’ lap and telling a story.
She said the importance of reading this book involves learning about history, culture, religion and the people of Africa. Valentino survives many horrors as a 7-year-old boy walking with hundreds of other orphans. He watched his friends die, he saw senseless violent attacks, he lost his clothes and his sense of self.
“There are so many intriguing moments,” Mathewson, a longtime educator, said. The story of this Lost Boy “needed to be a novel” with voices and characterizations that could tell about his incredible journey.
That reporter and television producer Sites survived his coverage of 20 wars in a year is nearly unbelievable.
Anderson described it as “not for the faint of heart” but a fascinating work. “It’s timely and important and worth reading,” he said, with Sites trying to educate Americans about the rest of the world.
The book shows the ultimate effect of war ó the devastation of the people caught in the crossfire.
Sites himself survives several close calls, including capture by a militia, and a face-to-gun encounter with a lone soldier who laughs when Sites tells him, “you have to have a reason to kill me. What is the reason?”
Sites move from mainstream television to this project for Yahoo! allows him to tell the stories his way, but challenges him to look at his ethics and the ethics of the giant Internet company.
“Sites’ struggles with his humanity all the time,” Anderson said, and the book is “ultimately anti-war with vivid descriptions of chaos and pain.”
What makes war easy, one person tells Sites, is that leaders make decisions away from the people, who suffer the most awful consequences.
Sites will speak at Catawba College on Nov. 14 at 11 a.m. The book was required reading for students.
Hart, back in his hometown, talked of the courage of his main character in “The Last Child,” Johnny Merrimon. In “Down River,” Johnny represents innocence for the angry protagonist, Adam. In his own book, Johnny is an angry boy who has lost faith in all the people who should be helping him.
Building layers of meaning throughout the book, Hart tries to keep true to the mystery-thriller format.
For his character, “courage is not an absence of fear, it’s striving and moving forward despite fear.” Johnny is the perfect example of that, as he tries to find his lost twin sister.
Levi Freemantle, a descendent of a slave Johnny’s ancestor freed, also exemplifies courage, even to his strange end, and is inspiration for seeking a deeper meaning.
Hart, working on his fourth book, says it isn’t a sequel about Johnny, but is inspired by Johnny’s ordeal and his response to it. The new character is a man who has had a horrific childhood and must stay strong though many challenges.
Setzer, who has organized the reading and discussion every year, is stepping aside to let others take over in the coming years. “It’s been wonderful,” she said, “and now it needs to move on.”
Look for more on the discussion on Sunday’s book page.