Tuesday, August 26, 2014
The Thunder, by Douglas Bond
Bond is well known in homeschool circles for his Scottish novels, The Crown and Covenant Trilogy; its companion series, The Faith and Freedom Trilogy; and even for his ancient Roman stand-alone novel, Hostage Lands. So far I've read most of his fiction works, even a sampling of the Mr. Pipes hymn novels--and it's not hard to tell that his passions are Scotland and the Reformation.
Douglas Bond started off his literary biographies on the Reformation with a stellar novel about John Calvin, told from the perspective of one of his enemies, and continued on with a portrait of another great reformer, John Knox--told through the loving eyes of one of his students.
The latter is The Thunder. As a historical work, it's excellent. As a novel, it's a bit of a conundrum.
Told through the eyes of young George Douglas, The Thunder begins at John Knox's ordination during the siege of St. Andrew's Castle. John Knox and a bunch of stout reformers are hemmed in by the Queen Regent of Scotland, falsely accused of the murder of the local bishop, and outcasts for their Protestant faith. George, his brother Francis, and their cousin Alexander are all students of the intrepid Knox, along with many other men eager to benefit from his biblical teachings.
When the castle falls, George and Francis are chained for nineteen months to a French oar as slaves, rowing a galley ship. (Yuck.) During their imprisonment, John Knox suffers the first illness that is to affect him all his life long. But Knox is convinced that God will deliver him to preach again in his native Scotland, and when he and the boys are delivered, sets his sights on delivering the poor people from the "idolatry of Roman Catholicism" to worship only "the evangel of Jesus Christ". Through poor health and raging queens; Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots; the death of his first wife, Marjory, and the marriage to his second wife, Margaret; John Knox worked tirelessly to train preachers, minister to the poor, and be a fearless herald of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He feared no earthly monarch, was gentle to the humble of heart and terrible to complacent church leaders.
And all this while, George Douglas faithfully looks out for his needs, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly, gradually coming to treasure the cause of the Reformation and make it his own passion, not just Knox's. A faithful, humble servant who has a deep love for his tutor, George himself bears many trials that he speaks little of. Love unrequited, hard work, fatigue, and living his whole life putting John Knox and the gospel of Jesus Christ to the forefront.
He's one of those characters that I didn't know how much he sacrificed, because he never said. It wasn't until after the book closed that I realized the full extent of his sacrifice, and loved him the more for it.
It wasn't until the end of the book that I realized I had mixed up John Knox and John Huss together. Throughout the whole book I was rather dreading the burning at the end, and drew a blank when Knox (sorry for spoilers) dies in his bed with his family and friends surrounding him. That was actually a relief, since it was a better end then I expected.
While this book didn't have time to go into a complete treatise of Mary, Queen of Scots, Douglas Bond chose to take the route of guilty murderer and adulteress. When I first became acquainted with this lady through another novel, it was in a much more positive light; now I see that her life is perhaps as controversial and unknown as Richard III. I wouldn't have minded a more balanced, middle-road view of her life in The Thunder, but perhaps Douglas Bond saw good reason to take the absolute wicked scale based on his own research. It would be a point I must do more research on.
While The Thunder is a wonderful and detailed portrait of John Knox, it has some rather deep flaws as a novel. For one, any fictional characterizations are remarkably flat, and rather pointless to the developing of John Knox's life. George is known for bugging out his eyes and getting sick to his stomach on the least provocation, and Francis I knew even less about--besides the fact that he liked to dig his fingers into his brother's arm to keep him in line. George's only feelings were those that worked to support the reader's understanding of the Reformation. Most of what I loved about him I discovered through inference.
I'm not sensing the passion here. Passion for John Knox, yes. Passion for crafting story and character in an excellent, engaging way--not so much. The last few chapters get much better, and show inklings of what the book could be. I actually started to enjoy them, as George fully embraced his role as deacon, and also cared for Knox's little boys after Marjory's death. But former 2/3 of the book--I wanted to send it back to Bond and say "it's a good draft, but show me. Show me why I should care. Dig down deep, as deep as you can, and deeper still. Don't use the same descriptions and plot incidents you've used in years past. Be fresh--be passionate. Sweep me up in this man's life, and in George's life as well."
In other words, I wanted it to be like The Betrayal--fresh and original in both fictional plot and the Reformer's life.
As one Goodreads reviewer said, "A fascinating life bloodlessly told." It reads like a dry statement of facts. Bond occasionally tries to throw emotion in, but you get the impression that it's there for obligation's sake, since it's supposed to be a novel.
I learned much; before reading The Thunder Knox was a familiar name. Now I actually know facts and details about his life, and could carry on a conversation about him, as well as about the monarchs of Europe during that time period. I love it when a novel gives me a good education at the same time!
It's a hard book to rate. From a historical perspective four stars, possibly even five. From a novel perspective, three stars. But I will say, I enjoyed being able to read a book with no objectionable content, no swearing, and good, straight, clean theology. Those are important books to have around, and I enjoyed giving it a perusal and chewing over its flaws and its strong points. I'll probably read it again; and I'm glad to own Bond's Calvin/Knox collection.
Bond is still writing prolifically, and I can't wait to read his soon-to-be-released novel The Revolt about John Wycliffe, as well as his upcoming historical fiction Hammer of the Huguenots. They both sound intriguing, and he gives a valuable historical education in any of the time periods he writes about. Also, talk is in the works for a movie of Duncan's War. It will be fun to see where that goes.