Review Of Fearless, by Tim Lott
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 7/22/07
I’ve always believed that a great children’s tale is a great tale. When thinking of the great works in children’s literature, one might think Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass.
Now, Fearless, by Tim Lott, is a young adult book that uses the dystopian themes from many previous ‘adult’ books such as 1984, A Clockwork Orange, The Lathe of Heaven, and Brave New World. Here, we have a society of young girls that are sent away to a ‘City Community Faith School,’ but the school is in actuality, a large prison. They are forced to wear badges with their codes upon them, they endure poor living conditions, lack of sanitation, separated from their families, the whole shebang. The novel centers on a young girl named Fearless who is determined to escape the facility and let others know on the outside about its horrid living conditions. Fearless, of course, is not the girl’s real name, and nor are the other names of the girls: Stargazer, Tattle, Bellyache, and Stench. The school is run by a man named The Controller: a name not just meant for the literal control he has (or does not have) over the girls themselves but also one who is controlled, both in manner and when it comes to being under rules himself.
Early on in the story, Fearless escapes the school by hiding in the rubbish lorry. Her decision to do so is after having gotten into trouble by making up tales about having a family and how the families of the girls are out looking for them. As readers, we are given little background about what life is really like in this ‘school’. A film the situation reminded me of was The Magdalene Sisters, where there we have young ‘fallen’ girls who have been sent away to an Irish penitential asylum for having either gotten pregnant or even so much as been a ‘temptress’ for young boys. There the girls are forced to wash linens as a means of ‘cleansing’ for their sins, all the while being under constant oppression of the nuns. In that film, because we are shown the horrible setting and the circumstances, the want to escape is a no brainer. Viewers undergo what the women undergo. But in Fearless, from the very beginning of the story to the very end, we are dealing with Fearless’ attempts to escape. More time is spent outside the facility than within it, so readers don’t really get to experience it the way the characters say they have. There is no slow build up to her initial escape, and Fearless comes across as a bit too much of a caricature, one who wants to ‘stand up for the right thing’ rather than someone’s escape we are rooting for.
There are also some scenes that are a bit over staged, such as one when Fearless goes to seek the help of a police officer and tries to inform him of the school’s horrid conditions. Yet because of The Controller’s ‘respectable’ reputation, the police officer does not believe her. But then, as the policeman goes to call The Controller on the phone to report her, The Controller suddenly erupts over the phone, and it is by this outburst how the police officer then begins to question if The Controller is really as ‘respectable’ as he is believed to be. “You are scum, man. You are worthless. A liability to the City…” The Controller tells the police officer.
I was not convinced that a man so concerned about his self-image would erupt so suddenly, especially knowing the circumstances if he happened to get caught in all this corruption. Yes, we later find out his personal connection to Fearless, but as a reader I found the scene to be overstated and too obvious.
Once The Controller finds out that a girl has escaped, he orders the girls at the school to shave all their heads, a task which strips them of their identities. Likewise, in another instance, he takes all their ragged clothes and dyes them gray, another act that results in the same loss of identity. The girls cannot tell themselves apart, and they slowly feel their identities are taken. An interesting concept for a punishment, but none of this, of course, is new. In Lathe of Heaven, the people’s skin color all change to gray. 1984 has similar themes. The scope of Fearless the novel is a rework of many of these dystopian themes, but unlike the great dystopian classics, (albeit they themselves range in quality) what is missing from this tale is the subtlety in the writing. For example, by the end of the tale, we learn the girls’ real names: Stench is Lila, Tattle is Abigail, and Fearless is Hero because she was named after “Hero of the ancient tales.” The book then ends with the girls dropping white roses into the sea, calling her ‘a true hero’ albeit we don’t really know if she was real at all or just a tale. While I found the ambiguity interesting, there are other aspects in the book that come across as too preachy, even for a young adult book. In addition, when Fearless is faced with several crumbling statue angels earlier in the tale, she discovers their names to be Truth, Courage, and Compassion. And although she herself finds the names ‘corny’, readers who aren’t children (and even some children) will find them cliché.
Here is the very last paragraph from the epilogue: (underlined mine)
The waves curled into a crest and devoured the white roses, carrying them away along a red river of light towards the setting sun. The girls joined hands and walked slowly away, back to their families and their homes, the voices of the angels of truth, courage and compassion could be heard once more, like the secret refrain whispered by every human heart.
A good editor would have caught this and recommended
revision. And while the names of the angels are their literal names, (a way of
side-stepping the cliché, but still the names could have been less preachy and
banal) they should be capitalized then, no? This is not an end that a child will
remember. The scene is a bit too precious, and the clichés are underlined.
While a child might not have the ability to distinguish cliché from non-cliché,
their minds, like adults, still work to hook onto key phrases and scenes that
are unique and long lasting.
Let’s compare this to the end to Mildred Taylor’s Roll
of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a tale about a black
family in the 1930s, and is narrated by Cassie, a nine year old girl:
I had never liked T.J., but he had always been there, a part of me, a part of my life, just like the mud and the rain, and I had hoped that he always would be. Yet the mud and the rain and the dust would all pass. I knew and understood that. What happened to T.J. in the night I did not understand, but I knew that it would not pass. And I cried for those things which had happened in the night and would not pass.
I cried for T.J. For T.J. and the land.
Which resonates more? Here we have the voice of a nine year
old that is speaking profoundly, yet still sounding nine. This is great
literature, and it is an ending I read when I was in middle school, and I never
forgot it. It is for reasons as these why Fearless does not rise into the
pantheon of great children’s literature. Now, having said that, it is still a
story that I think kids will enjoy. Kids, like anyone, either like books or
really, really like them. I think Fearless is one they will like, but that is
all. The book serves as a good introduction to the dystopian themes, which any
child will later revisit in school, but aside from that, most will read the
novel and move on to another.
And that is not to say there aren’t some nice moments. Here
The journey seemed to stretch the minutes out unbearably. She imagined melting clocks with snails dragging the hands. She felt sure time back at the Institute was being drawn by galloping stallions.
This is a nice child-like observation in regards to time.
Here is another:
“Why won’t the people see when they have a million eyes? Is there just one god? Are there a hundred gods? Is there no god at all? Why are we at the Institute nothing, just because we have no one?
What matters more? How something is, or how something is
seen? Lott addresses these themes nicely. And here is one more:
That her skin was not a barrier to everything but a bridge linking her to all there was. All things were one thing; all events, one event. She felt that she was part of an infinite unfolding that was complete and perfect.
So as you can see, Fearless is not without nice moments and observations. My earlier ‘gripes’ reside just in the wish that the tale, overall, could have been less obvious- even for a young adult book, and that there were more of these three nice examples I’ve shown over such a trite ending that only looks poor in comparison. Part of being a great storyteller is in knowing how to be a great storyteller. Here is something that editors and publishers don’t understand: the way something is told is just as important, if not more so, than what is being told. It’s not about only saying it, but about saying it better than what was before. Or else what need would there be to read a single thing?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]
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