In the age of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket it is rare to find “young adult” fiction that tackles serious subjects. Fiction that does attempt to deal with real issues can all to easily fall into preachy cant or sentimental schmaltz but “young adult” fiction can be serious without turning into a bad Made for TV movie or after school special.
How do I know this is true? Because I just finished reading a great example The Flame Tree by Richard Lewis. The Flame Tree deals with serious subjects like faith, hatred and violence, tolerance and friendship in the course of an exciting and poignant story. Although it is labeled as young adult, I found it moving and captivating. It is a remarkable look at religious conflict and personal relations in a post 9/11 world
Flame Tree tells the story of Isaac Williams, a twelve-year old living and going to school in Wonobo, Indonesia with his missionary doctor parents. Isaac is a gifted student and has already mastered the local language. His curiosity has lead him out into the community and to a friendship with a local Muslim boy named Ismail. Despite their religious, cultural, and economic differences Isaac and Ismail have become best friends. Having recently returned from a visit to America, Isaac wants nothing more than to seek out adventures with his friend.
But ugly events intrude on Isaac’s formerly idyllic world when Muslim extremists begin to agitate in Wonobo. Tensions are high and the violence begins to escalate following the events of 9/11. Soon the missionary hospital, and the attached school, become a focal point of escalating world wide conflict. As events unfold Isaac is estranged from his best friend, separated from his parents, and taken hostage by the Muslim extremists.
The terrible events force him to face issues and challenges that seem beyond the skill of a twelve-year old; even one as gifted as Isaac. Is he ready to be a martyr for his faith? Can he overcome the bitterness and anger he feels toward his captors, toward his former friend, and even toward his parents for abandoning him in a time of danger? Is God there for him in these desperate times?
I won’t spoil the ending, but what is impressive about The Flam Tree is the way Lewis simultaneously reveals the ugly side of humanity and yet shows the power of faith and the meaning of true tolerance. Coming from a Christian background it would have been easy to make all the Muslims evil or at least tragically mistaken. Sure there are cruel and violent Muslims involved in Isaac’s captivity, but there are also people with compassion and even wisdom. While being forced to learn about the Islamic faith, Isaac is able to catch a glimpse of the devotion of the truly faithful. He is able to recognize that Christians and Muslims alike have their extremists just as they share a devotion to God. Isaac is able to help his mom in her crisis of faith by taking her to see a Muslim holy man.
But Lewis doesn’t try to paint a simple picture of sentimental tolerance that papers over differences and slopes toward relativism or moral equivalence between terrorists and missionaries. Instead, Isaac, and his mother, must come to terms with their own faith; they must decide what they believe and how they are going to act upon that belief. Their tolerance comes not from rejecting absolutes but from valuing human beings as God’s creations; and from a humility that realizes that some things are beyond our understanding.
A clear signal that Lewis has achieved something is that I would feel comfortable recommending this book to people of either faith or of no faith. It is powerful because it takes its characters seriously. The characters are not caricatures or symbols (although the fact that the boy’s names are Isaac and Ismail does have obvious symbolism) but believable portraits of people struggling to live out their lives within their cultures and communities.
As I hope I have made clear, The Flame Tree is a remarkable book. It is a coming of age story, a adventure story, and a story about faith and friendship in an age of violence and conflict. It is remarkably relevant and highly thought provoking. I would recommend it to adults young and old*.
*There are, however, some issues dealt with in the book that might not be appropriate for younger children. Friends and family will want to make a judgement about whether a particular “young adult” can handle it. The publisher says 12 and above but not all 12 year-olds are alike.