Review of the Day: The Baptism
The Baptism by Sheila P. Moses. A Margaret K. McElderry Book (imprint of Simon & Schuster). $15.99.
I have a love/hate relationship with the books of Sheila Moses. No. Wait. Let me correct that. More of a love/severe dislike relationship. Which is to say that when she wrote, “The Legend of Buddy Bush,” I loved it. Anachronistic yellow telephone and all. But then she followed it up with “The Return of Buddy Bush,” and I didn’t like where she’d taken the novel. In both of those books a Ms. Pattie Mae is the protagonist, telling the tale of her Uncle Buddy’s trials (both literal and figurative). By the end of “Return”, though, I found I seriously didn’t like my narrator anymore. She did not appeal. But remembering how much I liked “Legend”, when I picked up the third in Moses’s series, I had high hopes. Hopes that were never disappointed. In “The Baptism” we have ourselves an entirely new narrator, a new set of circumstances, and a great little story that deserves a lot more serious attention than it has so far received.
“I figure I have six days to sin all I want to. Luke got six days too, if he will go along with the plan.” Twin Leon knows the drill. You turn twelve and suddenly you’re expected to give up all the fun stuff that goes along with being a kid. Part of that? Getting baptized and sinning no more. Well he knows the deal and he knows he doesn’t want any part of it. Sure, it’s his Ma’s intention to get him on the “morning bench” where he’ll be accepted and baptized, but that doesn’t fit in with Leon’s plans. Plus he has a lot to deal with these days. His older brother (who he’s dubbed “Joe Nasty”) is a sneak who doesn’t do any work. His stepfather (“Filthy Frank”) is a no good cheat and gambler. His twin brother Luke (“Twin Luke”) is some kind of Mr. Perfect. And his mom is constantly on his case about being good this week and not sinning. In the course of eight days, Leon will get into trouble, fight the elements, escape from work, get pulled away from fun, and witness the breaking apart and coming together of his remarkably strong family. Set in rural North Carolina during the 1940s, this novel explores big themes with a small intricate little novel.
If there’s one thing Sheila Moses does well it’s write characters with minds entirely of their own. The kids in her books are so headstrong and smart that it’s a wonder that even their author is able to wrangle them into place from scene to scene. In Twin Leon you have such a great kid. Anyone who can say right at the start that if baptizing means not sinning then they just won’t get baptized is going to be fun to watch. But when Leon catalogs his sins you can see that they aren’t all lighthearted Dennis-the-Menace-type romps. He lies, and steals extra cookies, and beats up kids cause they’re white, and calls his older brother Joe Nasty because he doesn’t bathe regularly. Moses slips in the serious with the silly so skillfully you might miss it if you blinked. At the same time, she asks big questions couched in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy.
Leon’s slow change over the course of a week from unapologetic sinner to baptismal hopeful happens over a brief span of time but never feels false or hurried. Really, it’s amazing that Moses is able to pack in as much as she does. There’s Leon’s story regarding the baptism, and his various pranks and problems. Then there’s the story of Buddy Bush on the side. There’s also the story of Leon’s mom and her husband Filthy Frank and how she has to stand up to her abusive new husband. And THEN there’s a story in there regarding the family and how they’re not too distantly related to a local white family because of their long dead patriarch’s philandering during slave times. All this and the story is fast-paced, punchy, and consistently engaging.
It’s a shorter book than its predecessors. Standing at a mere slip of 144 pages, it’s amazing that Moses is able to pack in as much thoughtful commentary as she has. It’s an exercise in watching an author get right to the heart of a concept without extra frills and furbelows. That isn’t to say that she doesn’t punch up the language in all the right parts. Twin Luke, the kiss-up, sometimes agrees with his mom, “like he was going to eat the shoes right off her feet.” The sun coming out behind the rain is what happens when “the devil is beating his wife.” Older brother Joe Nasty hearing about the crimes of his stepfather gets angry and, “All the man in Joe Nasty just rise up like the water down in the river right after a big rain.” And Twin Leon is prone to saying things that just sound good when you read them aloud. “She know that God know I don’t want to get baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and nobody else. I just want to go home and shoot marbles.”
Now Ms. Moses hasn’t entirely grasped the concept of the stand alone novel yet. As such, she’s placed this book in a kind of award jeopardy by including an ending that, not to give anything away, places undue importance on the books that preceded “The Baptism”. This book does hearken back to the other “Buddy Bush” books she’s written, but for the most part you really don’t need to have read them to enjoy this story. Unfortunately, the last moment in the book falls a bit flat. It doesn’t ruin the story or anything, but it’s a distracting coda in an otherwise forthright novel.
Altogether, this is a keeper. Some people might try to convince you that due to some of the serious themes that come up, this is a young adult novel. Personally, I do not agree. It’s got all the kid-appeal and excitement an eight to twelve-year-old would want, but is also packed full of thoughts and ideas that make it perfect for book discussion. A great addition and quite possibly Moses’s best work yet.
Notes on the Cover: All right. So normally I don’t like it when someone sepia-tones a cover image just for the sake of sepia. But Debra Sfetsios did a really stand-up job with this puppy. First of all, it isn’t really sepia. Not really. More golden than brown, the image has all the faux fading/wear and tear of a photograph, but with a kind of interior light. The church on the left and the people being baptized on the right frame an image of Leon. He himself is the source of the picture’s glow and just LOOK at this kid. You could not have picked a better Leon. He’s the right age, he’s handsome, and the expression his face is absolutely pitch-perfect. I’m going to nominate this book for a potential Best Cover of the Year Award, because it manages to balance the publishing industry’s current yen for photographic jackets with something faithful to the text that ALSO happens to be beautiful.
Also Reviewed By: Brooke of The Brookeshelf. It's a good micro-review and it offers an alternate take on the book's accessibility.