Over Christmas break I had the great privilege of being able to do a lot of reading. It was a gift to be able to relax in books, even the ones that kept me up late because I was so anxious to find out what happened. Here are some thoughts on one of them.
The Spider in the Laurel by Michael Pogash
It is a neat privilege to be able to read a book written by someone you know and who had an impact on your life. Mr. Pogash was my professor in 2010 for Plays: Classical to Contemporary at Northampton Community College. It was one of my favorite classes and I can attribute the beginnings of my writing journey to the end of the semester assignment: writing our own play.
Mr. Pogash kindly spent time critiquing the play for me and encouraging me to revise. I haven’t done, and probably will never do, anything with that first play, but it was an important step in wetting my appetite for the transformational power of words. More recently he kindly looked over my query and first ten pages of CHRYSALIS and helped me to identify its weaknesses, again encouraging me to revise and push on.
So I was very excited to find out he had published a book.
The Spider in the Laurel is set about forty years in the future when religion has been outlawed. Several people have compared it to a mix of 1984 and The Divinci Code. I haven’t read the latter, but I have unsuccessfully struggled through the former, and I can tell you I found Mr. Pogash’s book much more interesting.
There have been comparisons to Indiana Jones too as the conflict surrounds the recovery of a sacred relic. The book is compelling, complicated, and well written. Being on a quest to learn more about story structure, I appreciated how tight Mr. Pogash’s narrative was. He amped the stakes at the right moments, adding complexity to an already powerful conflict.
It’s very thoughtful too. One of my favorite quotes from the book is:
‘Religion,’ he said, ‘is the one thing I think the Republic got right. It’s nothing but a corrupted invention.’
As a Christian that statement struck me and gave me pause. Only a short one though because I found I agreed with it. I see religion as a corruption of the faith that I follow and hold dear. The book pushed me to think about the ways that Christianity has been made a religion, the dangers of religion, and the ways I am tempted to live my life through the framework of a man-constructed, man-dependent, and man-pleasing religion rather than living my life in dependance and worship of God.
In the world of this book, religion is so corrupt that it turned it’s followers into terrorists. It’s bold and risks offending some, but I’m glad he choose to do that instead of just having simple, innocent religious martyrs. Besides making the characters more interesting and complex it also makes you think.
We’ve had acts of terror committed that are associated with Christians in the past year: the shooting at the African American Church and the shooting at the Planned Parenthood office. For all our attempts to deny otherwise, the church has had a bloody history: the crusades, the inquisition, the reformation, the butchering of the anabaptists, and recent events. I don’t believe that these things detract from the truth of the gospel, but it points to something we are afraid to admit. Our faith can be corrupted and when it is it can become a terrible, oppressive movement.
There is so much more I could say about this, but I want to get back to the book. Just know the book will challenge you to think. The above paragraphs are proof of that.
Last Tuesday I got to attend a reading of the book. It was a great time of getting to hear about Mr. Pogash’s process and listen to the selections he had chosen to share. What I thought was interesting was his response to a question about how he came up with names. He confessed that he often is unsatisfied with the names he chooses for characters. In this case, he was unsure about Rafael Ward’s name (the protagonist of the story). He had struggled to find something with deep meaning that didn’t feel forced.
In many ways Rafael is a great name for the main character. Not only is it the name of an angel who appears in one of the books from the Apocrypha but it also is the name of a famous renaissance artist, best known for his religious paintings. But it did feel forced. It was one of the few things about the story that bothered me all the way through. For a culture that was bent on eradicating religion, it seemed wrong for him to have such a religious name. No one ever questioned it, or made fun of it, or even brought up the fact that his name represented what the Republic was trying to bring down. Maybe that could be addressed in the sequel.
Other then the name there was one tiny thing that felt weak, an oft repeated phrase, and a large story issue that bothered me throughout ninety percent of the book. I kept pushing through because I was confident that the story would wrap up in a way that would show that what I thought was a story issue wasn’t one. My confidence was rewarded.
I bring that up to show really how strong this book is. Two minor problems, a name and a phrase. It’s a thoughtful action story that I look forward to re-reading and I cannot wait to read the sequel. Buy it here: The Spider in the Laurel