Monday, March 26, 2012

Novel Homeschoolers: 'When Sparrows Fall'

*WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS*

I kicked the romance novel reading habit by the time I graduated college and haven’t been interested in them since, save as a mere academic curiosity. But when I noticed homeschool historian Milton Gaither’s review on a recently published Christian romance novel, I thought I’ve give the genre another try. Homeschool mother Meg Moseley, the author of When Sparrows Fall: A Novel, cited influences such as Hillary McFarland, who’s controversial blog and book Quivering Daughters: Hope and Healing for the Daughters of Patriarchy made plenty of waves within the Christian homeschool community. I was curious how Moseley would tackle the oppressive cult problem while coming out in the end strong for Christianity and home education.

When most of us think of homeschooling cults, the effect on daughters comes to mind. When Sparrows Fall: A Novel, instead, is about a mother, someone with whom the author might more closely identify. Burdened with a guilty past, widow Miranda Hanford desperately seeks freedom from the clutches of cult leader Mason Chandler. When an accident places her and her six children under the care of her dead husband’s half-brother Jack, Miranda has to learn how to trust a liberal outsider and take control over her life.

Like the worst of fiction (both “Christian” and “secular”), Moseley’s suffers from an epidemic use of deus ex machine (“god out of the machine”). The heroine’s conflict and its timely resolution are brought about providentially rather than through any deliberate action on her part. The reader is expected to believe that Miranda didn’t try to commit suicide, even though everything points to it. The reader is also expected to believe that the no-nonsense sheriff’s office suddenly and without reason becomes sympathetic and willing to side-step the law to save time. Apparently, even the friendly, neighborhood country lawmen are corrupt.

The plot has other problems too. When Miranda tries to inspire her fellow sheep to break free from the wolf shepherd, it’s as if everyone’s programmed to suddenly see the light. As many women who’ve had real cult experiences have written, there’s often a lot of conflict between members of the congregation as they try to justify the leader’s behavior and reach their own conclusions about the situation. I believe that’s what Moseley was trying to show in her book, but it didn’t come out that way. Instead she trivializes how difficult it actually is for people to get out of the subservient cult mindset, and she preserves family units (e.g., spouses join sides with each other, children join sides with parents), rather than showing the type of alienation many suffer when challenging cult authorities.

The characters collectively are a bit wooden with occasional spouts of personality. Most of the time, they seem to be parroting their lines off a script. Miranda is almost bi-polar, convincingly torn between her old puritanical self and her new rebellious one. Her children’s childish antics are genuine. I’m sure a lot of mothers reading the book will get a good laugh from a number of the scenes. Jack, however, is unbelievable in a really bad way. An objective researcher, he’s able to come to all of the “right” conclusions about Christianity and homeschooling, relying on the Internet to tell him what’s “normal” rather than what he sees firsthand in Miranda’s household. Unrealistic to say the least. And that’s not the last of Jack’s problems.

The male lead is a tenure-track professor with graduate students who’s hounded at work as if he’s a desperate adjunct lecturer. His lady boss, Farnsworth, is so badly stereotyped, I can tell you she’s a white, feminist BabyBoomer who doesn’t show up for office hours with her students. Forget the uncomfortable hint of incest. What woman in her right mind would want a hen-pecked anti-social bachelor who couldn’t even man up and rescue her at the end of the book? It just goes to convince me that Jack is Miranda’s “rebound man.” As soon as her health and household are back in order, she’ll find someone else to kiss. And unless you’re still intrigued by Moseley’s plot, I suggest you find another book read.

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