Friday, February 15, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

“Mortals. I envy you. You think you can change things. Stop the universe. Undo what was done long before you came along. You are such beautiful creatures.”

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the storiesworldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit my latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

     There will be spoilers.


Ethan has bad dreams. A girl smelling of lemons and rosemary continually falls to her death, and he can’t save her. Somehow, she is connected to a haunting song that pops up everywhere:
Sixteen moons, sixteen years, sixteen of your deepest fears…”
Even worse, even when he is awake he occasionally slips into another time full of violence, burning buildings, and death.
Good counsel is in short supply. Ethan’s reclusive father retreated from life following the death of his wife. Amma, a grandmotherly housekeeper keeps the household going -  but she is also a tarot card reader who makes little dolls that aren’t toys. Welcome to life in a small Southern town.
Everybody knows everyone else’s business; the high point of the year is a reenactment of a battle from the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression); even the worst people attend church, since it’s more of a social obligation than a sincere commitment.  
Ethan’s life changes when Lena, the niece of Macon Ravenwood, town recluse and creepy old guy, begins attending school.  Sure, she drives around in a hearse and shatters windows with her mind, but Ethan’s not too concerned. She smells like lemons and rosemary (check), she slips into Ethan’s dreams (check), and she communicates telepathically with him (bonus check!).  What’s not to love?
Ethan soon finds out she’s a Caster, a supernatural being who's just like him, except that she's not.
“[We] can do things regular people can’t do. We’re born that way, we can’t help it. We are what we are…We all have powers. We’re gifted, just like some families are smart, and others are rich, or beautiful, or athletic.”
Well, maybe not “just like” them.  Other families can’t control the weather, manipulate reality, and possess the bodies of others.
On her impending sixteenth birthday, Lena will be Claimed by either the Dark or the Light. Thanks to her ancestor’s bad choices, she will have no choice.  Her fate will be chosen for her.
As Lena’s Claiming approaches, she writes a sentence on her wall that could be the primary theme of the book: How do you escape from yourself?”
Lena desperately wants to Claim herself and decide her own future, but what if she can’t? What if her character and future are at the mercy of forces beyond her control. It’s a concern Ethan shares on a smaller scale.  As he thinks of his stifling town and shallow classmates, he worries that,
 “he was like the rest of them, even if [he] wanted to pretend [he] wasn’t…Maybe Lena was going to be claimed on her sixteenth birthday, but I had been claimed since birth. I had no more control over my fate than she did. Maybe none of us did.”
That’s the heart of the story. Inside all of the supernatural glamor lurks a poignant question with which most teens wrestle: Am I at the mercy of a life beyond my control, or does what I do really matter?
Her potential future darkens considerably when Lean discovers that her mother is Sarafine, the highly feared Dark One.  If history is destiny, Lena has good reason to be concerned that the Dark will claim her.As her birthday gets closer, she begins to use her power in ways she knows is wrong in order to find a way out.  Even Ethan has a moment of concern:
“It felt like a line had been crossed, and now I didn’t know where we stood, or if she could ever cross back over to where I was. Where she used to be.” 
At her Claiming, her grief and rage erupt into cataclysmic destruction.  The Dark Ones appear destroyed – but not before her mother kills Ethan. When Lena uses a powerful but very Dark spell to bring him back to life, she unwittingly sacrifices the life of Macon for Ethan.  Dark Power has a price.
Fortunately for her (and the ongoing sequels), her sprint across Ethan’s moral line alters the Claiming. Now, she is a child of both Light and Dark. She has Claimed herself – at least for another year.  Only one word has changed in the soundtrack of her life:
 “Seventeen moons, seventeen years, seventeen of your deepest fears…”  

I am torn about what to say in conclusion. On the one hand, I really like the message about overcoming the many daunting ways in which life molds us into a particular kind of person.
In an interview, Ms. Garcia  noted that Ridley, who was Claimed by the Dark against her will, “has to live with the consequences of a choice she didn’t get to make. Is there anything more tragic? “ 
Probably, but I’m not going to argue too much. I have seen too many teens forced to carry an undeserved burden of abuse, neglect, disdain, and humiliation.  As far as they can tell, this is life. This is all they have to anticipate. I have to give some kind of shaky “thumbs up” to a book that tells kids that their history is not their destiny.
I wonder, though, where we should rank having to bear the consequences of bad choices freely made.  Is that tragic? Lena is clearly sliding downhill, and she’s picking up speed. Are we supposed to grieve or cheer for her? I wasn’t entirely sure. Perhaps the rest of the series will provide more answers. However, that unresolved dilemma is not my only concern.
The supernatural people in Beautiful Creatures are a bit like the X-Men, with a biological nature that makes them “super,” but there are plenty of nods to the occult and a vague, underlying Force. The Book of Moons claims that Dark power is the source of all power, including the light. It is a spiritually murky world. 
The Christian people in the town are all judgmental and hypocritical. True, many Christians are, but it would have been nice to have at least a few token characters to represent the genuine heart of the faith.  The Casters dismiss the language of God and Satan as human attempts to understand what's going on. What they think is going on is never fully explained. God is absent, but demigods are everywhere. It's southern gothic mythology without the back story.
The beginning of Beautiful Creatures quotes Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Lena has brought on a storm because of her power, but she may yet blow the darkness away as the series unfolds. As of now, the clouds don’t look like they will be going away any time soon. Beautiful Creatures does offer some light, but I’m not sure it shines brightly enough for those who need to be truly set free from the darkness that lurks inside us all.

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