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: Susan Ware
We Learn From Fantasy
Can a farce show how a
hero turns alienation into helping himself and a community? The
16-year-old Sean Mason struggles with such a combination in Susan
Ware’s young adult novel, Quest of a Teenage Mystic.
Ware thrusts readers into questions about how to view responsibility to others. How to incorporate philosophies like Buddhism of being part of everyone. And how to face seemingly impossible barriers by using skills from others in the community.
And Ware brings the fantasy world of knights and talking ravens into a story alongside of bumbling elderly advisors who flop into a room with all the grace of a Basil Fawlty. Yet readers become involved by Sean’s questions about how to rise above his alienation by using such fantasy.
Sean’s world is ours and the forces that exist for him, lie down the block and across the street from us. His adolescent world hits him as being empty without a father for three years who vanished, an ongoing misunderstanding with mother, and the vision of impending doom at school. Where could he possibly fit into the world?
Sean’s strange visions take him into another seeming dimension where beings and events threaten his survival. From a wild forest where tribesmen hold him in captivity to a thrilling playground where the imagination can conjure up any physical item, Sean is tested to see what type of character he can become. Will he develop strengths? Will he fall into a morose state and give up? More than worrying about saving himself, Sean fears he would fail to protect the lives of his three friends.
Ware brings readers into another world in the tradition of how Katniss defies the power structure in “Hunger Games” or how Harry Potter finds strength to challenge a system.
Sean’s individual frustrations are cast against his need to survive and find ways to use the strengths of his three friends. On one hand, he has to help his friends discover the tools to develop themselves. On the other, he shows readers that the foursome are called to save the world. So the quest for survival looms larger than a personal yearning.
Ware’s ethical quest of how we blend the fear of survival with discarding selfishness harkens to the classic “Lord of the Rings” where Frodo and Sam ache with labored breaths to continue traveling to Mordor. But they realize the fate of Middle Earth hangs on their shoulders. They could survive by returning home. But then the thoughts of self would take over.
How does one deal with the fear of saving another when the time lost might mean a loss of your own life? Individual responsibility is shown in scenarios where all indications told Sean to think of himself. How does a person learn and change behavior to include a self sacrifice? How does a person stop the process of fear that limits our activity?
A person filled with fear and frustration usually finds it hard to rely on others, but Sean finds the unique ability from each of his friends. In several crises where not all was clear about the location of the group or elements in play, Dale gave direction. He seemed to have more of a knowledge than others and of the forces in motion. With unknowns, Sean’s friend, Sarah, gave an inner sight of how to survive. In many cases, a leader like Sean believes that direction can only come from the leader. Would Sean feel challenged by the contributions from others? Does he feel envy? Sean shows his growth, but is it at the expense of the others or because of them. Moreover, does Sean grow by his recognition of the skills from others?
Ware also pulls readers into the philosophy of how to view barriers. While many people see barriers which divide society into US verses THEM, would we see that with Sean? Sean is not alone, according to the mystic in his traveling. The mystic showed Sean a tree to reveal that Sean, like a leaf, was part of the greater whole.
The Buddhist concept of “dependent origination” focuses on everything existing in relation to other things. Shakyamuni, the Nepalese teacher from around 500 BC, believed that two bundles of reeds leaning against each other showed the idea of being a part of a greater picture. Some South African philosophers believe in the concept of “Ubuntu,” which states that people are people though their acts with other people.
Ware doesn’t fully describe why Sean is considered the only one who can save the world. Of course his profile fits the potential hero. Yet would Ware believe that Sean was the only such person? Some idea of a motivation from the past is needed to gear the potential hero into being the only one for the task. The foursome from Narnia became heroes because of the fears about their world being lost to the enemy in the World War. Yet CS Lewis didn’t suggest they were the only ones who could have risen to the challenge. Lewis simply placed the foursome close to the magic closet.
Frodo fits more of the unique person requirement. And to set that up, Tolkien showed the impact on Frodo from his beloved Bilbo. Frodo’s character aligned with the discovery of the Ring in his possession added to the desire to explore, which came from his love for Bilbo.
However, readers will surmount that minor item to become thrilled by the way Ware delves into the sense of community and how a person can be shown a way to develop responsibility to help others. Fantasy and farce exist not in an escape world, but rather in a way to rethink how we can face our obstacles in this world.