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Father of Lies Hardcover – Import, 8 Feb 2011
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About the Author
Ann Turner is the author of many novels, picture books, and poetry collections for young children. Her novel A Hunter Comes Home was an ALA Notable Children's Book, and her first picture book, Dakota Dugout, received the same honor. Among her other books are Abe Lincoln Remembers, an NCSS/CBC Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, and Through Moon and Stars and Night Skies, a Reading Rainbow selection. Ms. Turner lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, with her family.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
First, a little plot summary. Lidda, as I have mentioned, lives in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts, on the verge of the eighteenth century. She has no desire to comport herself as expected; she does not want to be a sober, modest, God-fearing wife. As if Lidda’s inability to accept any aspect of the Puritan status quo wasn’t enough, two other complications mess up her life. First of all, she has these episodes with inconsistent symptoms. Sometimes her thoughts race, and she can’t control them; sometimes her bodily sense of temperature is off, or she sees burning auras around people, or she can’t help but yell, laugh, or dance. During these episodes, this man, Lucian, appears inside her at intervals, alternately mocking and complimenting her. He claims that he has given her the power to tell truth from falsehood, but Lidda’s not sure what to do with that.
Lidda’s Lucian-granted power of discernment would certainly be an asset in the case of the second complication, which is, to put it simply, an infestation of evil. Starting with a few girls around Lidda’s age, people all over town have been falling into fits, tortured by the specters of witches. Lidda, who has overheard the afflicted girls planning their accusations, knows that there is no witchcraft here, only petty vengeance and a sense of self-importance magnified by a panicked mob mentality. How can she speak out against this dissembling without being called a witch herself?
…And here we arrive at the problem. Turner frames the central conflict of this story as the struggle of an insightful, independent-minded, rebellious girl to tell the truth in a repressive, ignorant, and sexist setting. Not just any repressive society either, but the Puritans, who, as conventional wisdom tells us, were quite possibly the most uptight and generally miserable people in the history of the United States. In other words, Turner is writing not The Father of Lies, but The Tragedy of Lidda Johnson vs. the Evil Puritans, with Bonus Salem Witchcraft Outbreak to Illustrate Just How Evil the Puritans Really Are. And that’s the wrong story, mostly because it’s a historically inaccurate crock.
While the historical Salem and environs labored under a burden of fear, Turner’s Salem lacks such pervasive anxiety. Lidda herself epitomizes this anachronistic insouciance. For example, all the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony worried about the state of their souls. They wondered incessantly about their damnation and/or salvation. While the Devil was always a real and imminent threat to them, the witchcraft outbreak turned him into a particularly personal adversary. You had to watch out for him because he was going to do everything in his power — corrupting your neighbors and family, sickening your animals and crops, sending nightmares and physical pains, even taking the shape of innocent people and plaguing you — to turn you to evil. However, the Devil does not seem to bother Lidda. When Lucian appears in her head, inciting her to rebellious behavior and implying that God has nothing to do with him, Lidda barely entertains the thought that he’s demonic. In fact, she rejects that conclusion: “How seductive he was, how beautiful, just as Reverend Parris spoke of the Devil, except she did not think Lucian was evil. Something else, but not — the Evil One” [p. 56]. She interprets him as her friend and a flattering source of evidence that she possesses perspicacity that everyone else lacks, even though Turner gives Lidda no reason for her conclusions.
In other words, Lidda is a thoroughly modern fourteen-year-old, inserted into Puritan Salem solely to foment righteous indignation at her plight in automatically sympathetic, modern-day readers. Ugh.
On the other hand, Turner's depiction of Lidda and Lucian’s relationship — indeed, Lidda’s mental illness in general — is powerful, sensitive, nuanced, rich, and basically everything that I wish her treatment of Salem was. Turner takes both Lidda and Lucian seriously in Father of Lies. While definite that Lidda has bipolar disorder, of which Lucian is a particularly egregious manifestation, Turner accords Lidda robust characterization without ableist authorial pity. Because of her mental illness, Lidda suffers physical and emotional pain that those around her do not: when she feels chilled and overheated in rapid succession, for example, or when she panics upon seeing flames emanating from her sister’s head. Yet she also experiences unshared joys: the sense of flight and freedom in a wild onrush of thoughts, the secret solace of a friend inside her who admires her for those traits that people around her chastise. As Turner writes it, Lidda’s mental illness makes her life different from that of most people around her, and it frequently contributes to the difficulties she faces. However, Lidda’s mental illness is never shown as inherently bad, wrong, pathetic, or burdensome. It may be disabling on occasion, but mostly it’s just a difference upon which the author places no negative judgment.
Turner’s respect for Lidda comes across most subtly and pervasively in the way that Lucian is written. As noted, Turner’s descriptions of Lucian as a voice in Lidda’s head, a sensation centered in her belly, and sometimes a shifting, flickering form on the wall demonstrate to the reader that he is an imaginary, unreal hallucination and byproduct of Lidda’s mental illness. To Lidda, however, he is a true, concrete, separate individual with his own agenda and personality. She jokes with him, argues with him, asks his advice, wonders where he goes when he won’t talk to her, fantasizes about him, and otherwise treats him like a real person. Turner reports all of Lidda’s interactions with Lucian in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. Turner never looks down on Lidda for believing in Lucian, nor does she invite the reader to do so. Avoiding the evaluative and contemptuous distance endemic to so many portrayals of people with disabilities and/or mental illness, Turner’s portrait of Lidda shows that she is mentally ill, but also fully human, fully sympathetic, and fully dignified.
I must note that Turner’s treatment of Lidda isn’t perfect, verging as it does on the stereotype of Super Crip with Compensatory Powers. In the concluding paragraph of the afterword, Turner writes, “Was Lidda mad, or was she saner than the villagers? You decide” [p. 239]. Ignoring the artificially binary choice, we can discern that Turner wants us to answer yes to both questions. She wants us to think that, yes, Lidda was “mad” or mentally ill, and, yes, she was “saner” — or, more precisely, more reasonable and accurate in her analysis of the witchcraft outbreak — than the villagers. In fact, because Turner has Lucian tell Lidda that he gives her the wit to separate truth from lies, Turner effectively argues that Lidda’s reasonable, accurate analyses derive directly from her mental illness. Like Daredevil, Professor X, Daphne in Heroes, or any other superhero who loses some capacity, but then gains a magical ability that allows them to do way more than they ever did and thus basically renders the lost capacity irrelevant, Lidda has the superpower of seeing the truth. Her superpower comes from her mental illness and reinforces her unfortunate status as an insufferable Visionary Before Her Time Doomed to Pass Her Days Among the Small-Minded Masses. In other words, Turner risks defining Lidda by — and thus reducing her to and objectifying her with — her disability. Turner’s sympathetic and respectful treatment of Lidda ensures Lidda’s full humanization, but the deleterious authorial tendency to objectification yet remains.
On one hand, Father of Lies is a sympathetic portrayal of a person with mental illness, rendered in frequently gorgeous prose. On the other hand, it commits one of the cardinal sins of historical fiction by grafting modern attitudes onto a protagonist of the past. I read it for Lidda and Lucian, not for the setting.
Lidda wants a life with more freedom than she would have in Salem, without all the restrictions good girls of that time and place must follow. She sees and hears things that others don't, such as a being named Lucien who comes to her. But because of the suspicious nature of the people of Salem, she keeps this to herself. Lucien could be seen as Satan, the father of lies, evil said to be roaming in Salem.
Many other girls and young women are accused of witchcraft. Though Lidda's visions and fevers grow worse, and sometimes she sees Lucien and he speaks to her, other times he disappears for some time. She starts to see that some of the girls are falsifying. She dares not say anything, though, or she would be on trial next.
The novel itself was very interesting; the characters reflect well on the time and place, and the imagery is strong. Readers feel those cold Salem mornings with Lidda, and grow warmer, too, as she stokes the fire. I do get a "You are there!" feeling from this novel.
However, even more interesting than the novel itself is the back matter. Turner spends considerable time and ink presenting theories about what could have been the problem or problems the people accused of witchcraft might have had (Bipolar disorder? Some other psychological problem?) and supports her ideas well.
Teens and up interested in this period will find this book very thought-provoking.
Shortly before the outbreak of "witch fever," or the accusations made by several young girls of other villagers being witches and casting spells, Lidda has her first "episode." She has heat flushes; her thoughts speed up and she also has visual and auditory hallucinations of a spectral being who she feels is a benign presence, but sounds more like a sinister and malign one.
In addition to having to hide her "episodes," Lidda has to put on a brave face for her sisters, Susannah, 16, Charity, 12 and brothers Jacob, 17 and Thomas, who is an infant. Each time she feels heat cover her body and a hallucination strike, she darts out to the privy. She becomes dependent upon these hallucinations, feeling that the presence is her only friend. On days when she is not moving full speed ahead, she is as gray as the New England winters.
When Witch Fever, as the rash of girls who writhe and claim to be tormented by spirits strikes the Village, Lidda does not buy it. She feels her sanity is at stake - in order to save her own mental health, she must expose the girls for frauds. To do so comes at a great risk as Lidda, too could be accused by the girls.
As the trials take place and more people, including 4-year-old Dorcas Good are accused, Lidda has to make a decision. She has to expose Witch Fever for a hoax or put herself and her family in danger.
This is a very riveting story that is replete with wonderful metaphors pertaining to nature. I have always found the Salem Witch Trials to be a very fascinating subject. Like the classic, "The Witch of Blackbird Pond," this book will certainly keep readers wanting to know how the story is resolved.
Ann Turner includes a very interesting postscript about bipolar disorder. In reading her postscript, it sounds very likely that Lidda suffered from bipolar disorder and possibly adolescent onset schizophrenia, as she did have the hallucinations of a presence and had difficulty in separating reality from fantasy. The postscript was a very effective way to close the book and to provide a very interesting perspective. It also helps answer a question as to how people with mental illnesses fared during that time.