Thursday, November 18, 2010

Losing My Religion

by Pete Hautman
National Book Award for Young People's Literature 2004
Religion is a very difficult issue to discuss. Questioning religion, which is the main premise of Hautman's Godless, is even more difficult to present well, especially to a young audience. Through the agnostic-leaning-toward-atheist protagonist Jason, the author asks all the right questions pertaining to faith and religion, though none are answered by the novel's end. This is, perhaps, a wise decision, as it permits the audience to decide for themselves whether or not to believe in any given religion, thus enabling the author to present occasionally negative views on organized religion without leading the reader to accept them.

After Jason concocts the idea to create a religion centering around the town's water tower, he recruits his friends to join his newly founded faith. For the most part, the kids regard the whole enterprise as a goofy activity that keeps them from complete boredom. However, Jason's best friend, Shin, becomes totally engaged with the concept, even going so far as to write a holy book to accompany their new religion (the excerpts from which become the headers of each chapter, typically paralleling the events described therein). As a foil to Shin's religious fanaticism, we have the town bully Henry, who uses "Chutengodianism" as an excuse to vandalize public property and dictate the actions of his friends. I must say I was happy to see so many variations of religious experience within the novel, and the portrayal of Just Al, the leader of the Catholic youth group Jason is forced to attend, was spot-on in his blind faith.

I have to admit, though, I'm a bit puzzled as to why this particular work won the National Book Award. It was certainly engaging, and it posed all of the right questions, but it just didn't have much impact. Maybe Octavian Nothing spoiled me, but I was just expecting more from a novel that won such a prestigious award.

Grade: A-

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