Steven Merle Scott

ISBN: 13: 9780985809508

Sin Lies in the Eye of the Beholder

What is sin? Does that horror strike when a child disappoints his father, or a teacher shares knowledge of the world different from that of the local community? Or does sin occur when the mother feels a failure for not having a child? Those questions haunt the coming-of-age novel, Celebrate the Sinner, by Steven Merle Scott.

Scott strove to show the value of the sinner through the eyes of pre-teen Teddy, growing up in a lumber town during the depression. That depression might be felt throughout the story as Scott tries to expose the grownup world to an alienated youngster. 

Midst this evolution, Scott wanted to unveil the overriding forces of a society in turmoil as the child matures.

While Scott excels in having the reader watch the wide world unfold into some form of understanding to Teddy, his choice of a child puts the reader in a delayed mode to pick up on the social forces that affect his characters. The full impact of the flaws in Teddy’s family and town only explode during the last third of the story. That’s natural since a younger Teddy would need time to digest the powers around him. 

But the novel’s pace could take away from the impact of how those social forces highlight Scott’s Steinbeckian attempts. Teddy grows up next to his father’s mill in Oregon where social forces frame the way people think about good versus evil. A resurgence of the Klan adds to social oppression while many people fear the influence of the Catholic Church. Economics drives people to seize the most of any opportunity, exemplified by the broker who sold the mill to Teddy’s father and the role played by using the railroad to move the mill’s lumber. How does Teddy’s father respond to these pressures — perhaps like another version of a sinner?   

Scott pulls readers into the life of a young person who grows up unaware of the pressures that form his early thinking. Teddy becomes fascinated by the saws and machinery at the mill and spends hours watching them. Yet, he has no idea why that activity attracts him more than being with his family. Teddy accepts his limitations of failing to read until fourth grade without wondering why certain limitations exist. He follows his father’s instructions about being on the lookout for fires that destroy mills, or carrying water to the workers. But he has no notion of whether his father really fills the role support of a father.

If Scott’s main goal aimed to follow the development of a child, dealing with learning the world around him, then he succeeded. Readers can stumble with Teddy as he grows into life. Readers can feel the sawdust and their noses might twitch from the fresh cut lumber. Scott paints the canvass of details to show the world of a lumber mill town.

However, if Scott wanted readers to link the social forces around the character with their actions, then he might have chosen a later age for his protagonist where the person could sense the vital implications of social oppression.

For example, John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath, directly links the protagonist Tom Joad with an ability to see the linkage of the forces around him that push him on a set course. Joad’s conversation with a neighbor who lost his farm to the bank hits readers right away. The problem is a system or structure, chaining people like Joad. Joad’s anxiety of leaving Oklahoma clearly shows on how he feels about a loss of control over banks, weather, and greed from union busters.

On the other hand, readers can not expect such insight from a young Teddy in Celebrate the Sinner. Teddy is a preteen who struggles with digesting the problems he sees. Rather, readers watch a child who hears about his father’s hatred of FDR, unions, and his ambivalence to the Klan. While Teddy hears those ideas, he fields those forces as though they existed in the distance. Only during the last third of the novel does the reader fully see the connection between those forces around Teddy and Teddy’s actions.

A major focus Scott exposes is the arbitrary way a community declares someone as a sinner. A sin once meant taking the path opposite to a religious belief. However, the ways a community treats the sinner has grown beyond forcing a person to wear a scarlet letter “A”. Communities can shy away from children like Teddy who show a slow ability at reading or struggle with a lisp. Those communities can consider people from another religion as sinners. They can feel that workers who demand equal bargaining rights act as sinners. And the Black performer at the bar must be a sinner since his skin shows a difference from those in the community. Even the mill owner could become a sinner if he fails to accept an overbearing loan pressure from the town controllers.

Scott might have completed the circuit better to show the linkage between Teddy and the social forces, but despite that comment, Scott takes the reader into a child’s world where ideas about right and wrong have to be challenged. Readers might read about the mill town in Oregon, and then gaze out their window to see social pressures right on their doorstep.

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