Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Fine White Dust by Cynthia Rylant

Cynthia Rylant's, A Fine White Dust, is a book written for children that defies any sort of label.  I'm not sure that a finer book about loneliness, religion, friendship and family exists.  It packs an emotional wallop. Because it deals with a complex subject, religion, but told in a sparse and simple style, it could also work just as well as a young adult book (or a book for any age).  Released in 1987, it was both an ALA notable children's book and ALA best book for young adults.   The title refers to the disintegration of a ceramic cross ( and not to cocaine, as I originally imagined when I first picked this book up!).

The story is told in the first person of Pete, an eighth grader who feels drawn to his local church.   His parents are not religious and his best friend Rufus is a self-proclaimed atheist.  When Pete notices a hitchhiker new to his small town, he first thinks the stranger might be a dangerous murderer.  But when he sees the man again, it is at his church's revival meeting.  It turns out that the drifter is a Preacher Man.  When he declares that Pete is born-again, Pete feels a relentless draw to the stranger.  He decides that the man's mission, is also his own.  Feeling the call from God, and answering Preacher Man's lonely cry for companionship on the road, Peter decides to abandon his best friend and family in search of spiritual meaning.

This is a weighty decision for such a young person (or any person) to bare and ultimately Pete's decision is the heart of this story.  I love this book because it turns the typical coming of age story inside out.  Usually, in stories concerning runaways, a young person abandons their home based on unsupportive parents or personal problems with drugs, self-esteem or a difficult love relationship.  In Rylant's A Fine White Dust, we have the opposite.  Pete is secure in his interests and beliefs, he has a loving family and a good friend.  Yet the desire to escape is still there based on a very personal system of beliefs that only Pete can come to terms with, despite outside forces.  Rylant lets the reader interpret the character  of The Preacher Man on our own terms, without ever revealing too much about him.  He can either be a serious, potentially murderously deadly character - or a rather minor one.

Faith is always a sacred and touchy subject matter, especially when writing for youth.  I'd love to find more daring books like this one, presenting views of different types of religious characters.  I found that not only was this novel touching, but it also gave me an appreciation of accepting people's inherent differences, especially as it relates to personal belief systems.  Rylant proves herself to be a sensitive and thoughtful writer who can think out of the box in presenting a potentially controversial theme in a way that is inviting rather than merely subversive.

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