Reviewer Tom Pope: Tom is a writing teacher and fiction coach who strives to spark the imagination. As a teacher, he works with tutoring services to help students organize essays and understand literary elements like the point of view. As a fiction coach, he aids authors to develop characters, brainstorm conflict pacing and design worldbuilding.
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Author: Michael J. BowlerISBN: 10: 1623806550
Author: Michael J. BowlerISBN: 10: 1623806550
The Once and Future Child
When King Arthur’s eyes pang with admiration for the teacher, Jenny, in Michael J. Bowler’s alternative history novel, does he notice a twinge of jealousy from his prize knight, Lance, an alienated lost teen? Can a modern-day King Arthur reincarnate the Round Table to solve the education problems of the lost youth in Los Angeles? Maybe a larger question is whether the King can avoid the flaws of the mythological character.
Bowler takes the reader on a ride through a spirit of hope as he shows a reemergence of Arthur who leads homeless children, gang members and alienated youngsters into a band that operates out of a drainage system underground. Yet their actions inspire others as they clean up graffiti, replace broken doors and show neighborhoods how teams of diverse youth can work together.
Bowler isn’t naive. His characters reach unexpected goals through real struggles. How does a Latino gangbanger respect an African American rival? Or a macho male view gay homeless victims? How does Lance transform from a self conscious, fearful abused teen to become the confident leader of hundreds in the underground?
Bowler’s exploration of what education means draws the reader to look beyond the classroom setting. Instead of rote memorization, team projects and training with key student leaders brings a socialization process to the youngsters. They see how a mini society operates. They plan on obtaining food and housing supplies for their underground. They rotate teams who clean the area, and offer support to those with emotional problems. During the process, the young people break social barriers of freshman versus senior, Latino versus African American, or even wealthy daughter versus homeless teen.
Bowler’s process jerks with the steps of success, touched by the stings of failure as the human psyche is shown as being vulnerable, yet resilient and filled with potential. Key characters face finding out how to reveal their gay behavior. Can they be guilty of a horrible condition because society tells them they are at fault? Can they admit and still retain friends who are not gay? Can a person be gay and no know it until puberty? Bowler not only reveals the fears, but shows how an education can aid understanding. Yet fears linger and lead to pangs of guilt that threaten further learning. The process is ongoing and complex.
Maybe one of Bowler’s shortcomings hits because he doesn’t offer an equal attention to the political complexities that he explores with the psychological make up of the characters. Can the first key gang members who join put aside past tuft issues without the step by step change shown in the social development of the group? Can the media gravitate to the Arthurian cause easily just because a news anchor becomes mesmerized? Will the drug lords and mayor simply sit back until the story climax and see what happens?
In a similar scenario of a group protecting themselves and their community, the Black Panthers faced an increased threat from drug lords, which divided the community. They lost control of sending the message of stopping oppression as key business and social leaders clouded how the media presented the message.
A key scene in Bowler’s political struggle between Arthur’s youth and the police shows how the police become embarrassed when their guns are drawn as they attempt to arrest the king without asking questions. On the other side, the teens simply hold swords and bows in defensive positions. The police could ruin Arthur’s crusade by hurting the teens or arresting them. But Arthur’s archers set aflame some empty police cars to provide a distraction for an escape. The media crew contrast the violence of the police with Arthur’s attempt to avoid violence. The crew shows the rebuilt community compared to the disregard from the police.
But Bowler does not address why the media avoided to show the flaming cars and speak about potential death from Arthur’s approach. That switch of perspective hurt the Panthers and could have destroyed Arthur’s effort. Police are shown as a threat to the movement, but the subversion by police to infiltrate the underground, hinder the media or harass the neighbors is not part of the story.
Bowler’s adroit handling of the psyche is missing with the political factions. When a drug lord sets up an attempted killing to divide the members of Arthur’s flock, he fails to push one former gang leader against another. Arthur’s message has reached his people. Are the political tugs on the character that weak?
The climax does bring into play a blending of the social and political threats. Yet threads of those conflicts could be sown in greater detail earlier. Bowler writes a complex story of how people react to problems that bombard at the same time and blending the political within the emotional would add to his description of the young mind. A mind that learns though interacting with others to understand feelings of betrayal, guilt or love.
Despite the shortcoming, Bowler opens up the reader to an alternative way of thinking. If the person is Arthur, how is that possible? Can the King avoid the war with a Modred-type of person from the past? Is teacher Jenny a reincarnation of Guinevere? Is Lance a new Lancelot? Does that mean the climax leads to an inevitable death for Arthur? Or does Lancelot turn to a jealousy that ruins Arthur’s spirit? Readers will want to find out the power of Excalibur to discover the answers. Does it take a mythical power to reverse the negative trends of today?
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