Illustrator: by Raw Spoon
Author: J. Michael Dew
Illustrator: by Raw Spoon
The great American poet John Ciardi said we should not ask “what a poem means”; but rather, “how a poem means.” Such an approach also applies to literature that is rich in symbolism, such as Gadly Plain by J. Michael Dew. I think the author would be pleased to have readers experience the deeper questions of life, death, and the hereafter with his characters; and then engage in a discussion as to the interpretation of the events in the book.
This engaging novel is all about seeking, the universal quest for knowledge, the asking of “why?” As in life, the answers are not always obvious, even though they may be hiding in plain sight.
The protagonist, a 12-year old girl called Spring-baby—yes, it’s a symbolic name—is devastated by her father’s death. In fact, the entire family is devastated to the point of having their lives thrown off-balance. Spring-baby’s mother Lorelei leaves her with the grandparents while she goes to “find butterflies”; that is, try to make some sense of her dear husband’s death. However, the grandparents are in the depths of their own grief and therefore emotionally unavailable. Virtually abandoned, Spring-baby wanders down the pasture to the neighbor’s barn. There she makes friends with the kind but mentally challenged farmer and his talking donkey. Yes, there is symbolism in both of these characters as well.
Through the donkey’s stories, as interpreted by the farmer, Spring-baby learns the history of the world. Meanwhile, the Lorelei drives from town to town as she tries to figure out why her husband, only 33 years old, had to die. In a café, she overhears a conversation about Gadly Plain. I’ll leave the surprise for readers to discover on their own.
From the very first sentence, I was taken in by the artistic use of language, the story, and the answers it seeks: “There had been far worse chasms of despair throughout the history of the world—more gripping, suffocating, more inexplicably woeful–but Spring-baby Westbay couldn’t imagine any such chasm because she had fallen into one of her very own… Sorrow bullied her, kept her wilted, sober.”
I found the book to be both worthwhile and engaging. While I personally did not care for The Shack, I believe fans of that book would love Gadly Plain, which is far better written and more intelligent.
Questions for Discussion are included, making this novel a good selection for book clubs.
Ink illustrations by Raw Spoon at the beginning of each chapter appropriately meld with the story.
Author J. Michael Dew holds a PhD in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.