It took a while to finish, but I enjoyed it. The beginning chapters were Wodehouse-ian, the majority of the middle chapters were Ecclesiastes-ian, and the finale was simultaneously disappointing and deserved.
I apparently didn’t write a review the first time I read this in July of 2009 (reading it to the kids if I remember correctly), and I only gave it 2 stars! My appreciation for fiction, and Narnia, has certainly grown. Read it this time along with our school board. A delight.
Read in 2018 with the ECS board. This must have been my third, maybe fourth, time through. It was also my first time through after having read Planet Narnia a couple times. It was better than ever. Apparently I am “old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
Here is a story I wrote for the final assembly. It references a bunch of books our students read this year, so your appreciation may vary.
In the year of our Sayers 71, a small group of children and adults prepared to enter something they called Summer Break. To initiate this sense of freedom they performed a variety of very old rituals. They exchanged ashen colored vestments for royal colored ones, they sang and chanted verse, they ate meat grilled over fire, and many of them sought to hold back tears of exhausted gleefulness. The festivities lasted throughout the afternoon until all the students and teachers said goodbye to one another and loaded up their heavy bags one more time for home.
Only a handful of people returned over the next week to do different sorts of work. Many things were moved around, sorted, counted, and put away. Eventually even those activities came to an end, and the campus became uncommonly quiet.
But if anyone had walked through the now desolate building ten days later, and if they had ears tuned to hear, they would have heard murmurs of discontent, disappointment, and disturbance. The noises came from multiple rooms, usually smaller rooms called Closets in our world, or rooms the size of a closet. Sounds could be heard coming out of beige boxes, off of burdened shelves, and even from stacks that looked like tapered chimneys on the floor. If you had listened closely, you would have heard voices coming from books.
An ominous word had begun to spread among the characters in the books left behind: school was done for the year. Students, and therefore the Readers, were not expected back. This caused no little worry, not because the characters feared to be forgotten, but instead because they feared their stories would be unfinished.
Each assignment came directly from the Ministry of Fiction under the command of the Curriculum Controller for Division 17 in the SnoHoPaNoWe Region. These deployments were a crucial piece of the plan to equip a new army, though they called themselves Students rather than soldiers, which was part of the Ministries’ strategy of inconspicuous conquest. Each character had arrived from the Terra of Truth, the Ordnance Depot of CP, or even the Amazon Arsenal. Each had been recruited to do a specific job. But some of their jobs were only partially done.
Though in most situations it was not the fault of the character, too many of them were left only partway through the plot. The Reader had just left, left the book, and left the story hanging. If you have heard of the land of misfit toys, these were the characters of unfinished books.
A meeting was called of the Committee for the Finishing of Books for Character Squared, or “CFBC2” as the patches abbreviated. Characters were elected to represent the various grades, though not all could make the journey to the far corner of the Desk of the Unruly Headmaster. Some of the characters required extra travel time because when they asked for directions from the local gnomes, the gnomes were drunk on the joy of so much silence without so many laughing students around that good directions were hard to gather.
Presiding over the meeting was Henry York Maccabee. While not the oldest or most mature of Committee Members, it was he, as a seventh son, who was most fit for helping a school seeking to begin its seventh year. Mr. Maccabee had great personal interest in the proceedings because he himself was caught in a dark valley of the shadow of the unfinished, less than a third into the third book of his work. It was only the previous day that his father had left for Endor, his uncle had been taken captive, and his raggant locked in a closet. It was not a good time to stop reading his story. There were rumors that his book would be completed, and so his case was not quite as desperate as some others. Nevertheless his precocious cousin pestered him for a quicker resolution, and young Mr. Maccabee called the assembly to order.
The first to speak was Morris the Moose, who was very angry. Though some students at K-Level had finished the story, others had not, and so he was arguing with Cow again and hearing her complain that she was not in fact a moose even though she had four legs, a tail, and things on her head. Morris yelled above the crowd, since yelling was a thing he did, “It’s maddening to be stuck here. I’m tired of making moosetakes, and just want to see myself in the stream again. But what if the stream dries up in the summer sun before I can see my reflection?“
Representing Level Half (those under the “1/2” symbol) were Uncle Nick and Uncle Pete, along with Mr. Gump and his seven hump Wump. Granny and Grandpa Amos stayed in their walls to watch Baby Betsy, and the Red Fish and Blue Fish were trying to figure out along with One Fish and Two Fish if a Yink really does like to wink and drink ink that is pink. The Littles and the Seuss families were phonetically and poetically up in personified arms about not getting to their ends.
On behalf of TertiaQuarto, the brave squirrelmaiden Triss had traveled by herself. Though she had already tried many things, including a party with treats and costumes, she still could not get readers to send she and her friends to Riftgard to free the slaves of the ferret king, King Agarnu (who was a second cousin to Gary Gnu). Triss had not yet figured out the riddle and needed to find a good sword. “Why won’t they finish the story?” She cried. “We can defeat the Ratguards and the King if someone would just turn the pages!”
A guy named Guy spoke next. “We have traveled 451 miles, as the pages turn, to represent the High Grammerers of Eejitsland. They have been so busy that they have left a fire burning that must be put out or great libraries of the world will be destroyed.” His traveling companion, a Mr. Underhill, explained that some fires can be very beneficial, even necessary, but that humanity is doomed if they destroy the wrong items.
The next to present were those speaking on behalf of the Logicians and the Rhetoricians. More of these characters came to make a case for themselves because they knew how important their work was, and they even argued among themselves whose story was most important as they rode together on a six-story bus. One was named Pilgrim, and despite his name, he did not desire an endless journey but rather sought the end of his journey. There were two Toms, both headed south on rivers for different reasons and neither with all their plot lines tied to the shore. There was a Mr. Gatsby, who’s story was short, and meaningless, but regardless, he wanted to get to his party. There was also a Mr. Ahab and a Miss Emma, who hadn’t met each other prior to the trip but shared a fate of still not finding what they were looking for. “Perhaps that has happened to you, too,” they said.
With the cast assembled on the Headmaster’s desk Henry called for proposals on how to encourage the readers to finish more of these books. This was an urgent mission for two reasons. If the books remained unread, some characters would be in plot purgatory. Mr. Ahab would be getting more mad, but no nearer to his catch. Henry himself would never know how his family was or what witchery Nimiane would commit.
Mr. Underhill proposed the use of a very old game. He said, “My uncle had a saying. ‘I haven’t read half as many books as well as I should like; and I like less than half of the books as well as they deserve.’ In order to promote more page turning he developed a game named after himself called Bilbo. He later changed it to ‘Bingo’ because he liked the ring of it better. Let the readers cross out various symbols in rows and columns and earn prizes for completing books.”
Triss urged that a proclamation from the U.H. be sent directly to all the concerned parties over invisible wires buried under ground. Most of the characters were not familiar with such technology, but were happy to see an example program from the U.H. Pilgrim similarly advised that a sort of allegory be narrated about the dangers for all involved of not finishing stories as well as the rewards of reading to the ends.
Mr. Gatsby recommended that a spectacular car crash could take out an electrical transformer leaving entire neighborhoods without power for long stretches. Kids without access to telescreens and digital games might be desperate enough to read. A small Seuss said, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere. Send them to the lake, reading on the shore is great. Any sort of trip, packing a book will be hip.”
The characters were now refreshed with hope, both that their stories might be finished soon and that the stories of their readers’ lives would be back on track. As they said their farewells and headed back to their closet or cubby or classroom, they said to one another, “This may be the best summer of our Sayers yet.”
2018: What Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is to The Abolition of Man, so N.D.’s Empire of Bones is to Death by Living. I reread this along with the Capstone class at our school for sake of leadership training. Great truths enfleshed in great characters. Makes you want to sing while they cut your heart out. You have a life. The time to spend it is now.
And I forgot how much I really am interested in the fourth volume hopefully coming soon.
2013: If you’re looking for a stout, fictional story to complement the philosophy and autobiography in Death by Living, then look here. In other words, this book will fire up your laughing and life-spending cylinders.
Huxley portrays how brutishly selfish mankind is, and it is shameful. As Lewis would later say, we are far too easily pleased. While Orwell shows in 1984 how capably the State can control it’s subjects through power, punishment, and fear, Huxley demonstrates how the State can enslave us by our own passions.
I love our school board. While so many books and articles about productivity lament the bane of meetings, I always look forward to our time together. (I have the same attitude about our church’s elder board meetings). We do have enough minutia to discuss, but since we’re still in the early institution stage we’re always happy to connect the details back to big ideas.
We also are always reading and discussing something together. Last night we finished The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse. It is almost perfect reading for those connected to classical Christian education, and Mr. Sasse quotes Dorothy Sayers in his chapter on education. Really good stuff.
Then we talked through our options for a next book. There were a number of options, and all of them had appeal. But it was suggested that maybe we try another novel, having read That Hideous Strength previously, the only fiction book in a overall diet of non-fiction. We’ve decided; motioned, seconded, and approved (or something less formal than that).
We are going to read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series together. We’ll tackle one book per monthly meeting, so we should finish seven months from now (unless we need to table our book discussion due to a high amount of other business any given night).
This is fabulous. Some of the guys have read all of the series, but a while ago, and others have read only a little bit or none at all. But this is not a waste of precious admin, decision-making time, this is exactly the sort of thing we want for our students to practice. I thank God for more opportunities to grow, and to do it on behalf of the next generation.
It was late one Wednesday morning, and boy, was I bored.
Summer break had started out fun. I would sleep in, have a bowl of Captain Crunch when I finally woke up, then go with my mom on a bunch of errands that she’d been holding off doing till school was out. When I got home I’d play in the sprinkler, or shoot the basketball, ride my bike around the neighborhood, or put together some Legos.
All of that entertained me for the first two days, but then, boy, was I bored. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to take off. I made myself a PB&J, grabbed a pocketful of pretzels, and walked out the front door in search of something to fix my boredom.
About a mile from home I was passing by the house of my good friend Pete. We go to school together. He was in his front yard throwing the baseball with his younger brother and asked me what I was doing. I told him: I was bored. There was nothing any good to do, nothing any good to see, so I was on the look out for something impressive, something exciting. He said he didn’t know of anything like that, but tossed me a mitt and said I could play catch with them if I wanted.
It’s sort of cool to think about how a little applied force causes a ball to fight gravity for a while. And if you flick the ball just right you can get the seams to catch the air and make the ball start out right and end up three feet to the left. Pete’s dad had recently taught him how to throw a knuckleball, and told him that “lateral deviations and the wavelengths affect the the unsteadiness of lift forces that can produce a change in lateral directions. The obtention of a large knuckle effect requires the ball to be launched in a particular range of initial velocities corresponding to the drag crisis of the ball.“1 I don’t know what any of that means, but it sure is crazy to watch the ball dance and zigzag. We were having a lot of fun until my arm started to get sore, and then I remembered how bored I was, so I said goodbye.
Not too far from Pete’s they’re building a brand new five-story hotel. We’ve driven by that place a bunch of times when it was just trees and signs, but today they were leveling the dirt with some of the biggest machines I’d ever seen. I stopped and watched through the fence for a while when one of the workers came over and asked if I wanted a closer look. He opened the gate and let me in and yelled up to one of the driver’s. “Hey, give this kid a ride.” He gave me a hard hat and told me to climb up.
It was pretty great riding on that bulldozer. We were pushing tons of dirt, making high piles disappear into low spots. I could see front loaders scooping up big rocks, and a special truck was pouring concrete in the shape of a curb as it was coming out the chute. The curb started to form a driveway as it connected to the main road and it seemed like it was done in no time. I thought it would be great to make stuff like that someday, until I remembered how bored I was, and I took off.
I headed down toward the city park where I hoped something good might be happening. It was getting hot so I sat down in the shade of a big tree to cool off for a few minutes. While I was staring up at the sky, feeling down because of how bored I was, I noticed that there were a bunch of different clouds. There were some stratus clouds that seemed close to me, stretched out like a thin cotton blanket. To the east some wispy clouds even higher in the sky looked like the tail of a horse, I think they’re called cirrus clouds. To the west there was a tall, dark, and pudgy cloud made up of some fancy Latin words I’ve heard my older sister say. They looked like they might rain later. But I was bored, so I left.
When I got to the park there were a lot of kids running around. I recognized my friend Jill and said, “Hey,” as she walked by. She was headed over to the ice cream truck and asked if I wanted some too. I don’t usually like to tag along with girls, but I do like ice cream, so I said, “Sure.”
When we got to the truck the guy had about 80 different treats to choose from. It’s kind of hard to believe. Who even invented all those flavors and combinations? And who figured out how to put a freezer on wheels and keep everything so cold?
I guess I must have said my questions out loud because Jill asked some questions back. But then she answered herself. “Have you ever wondered how they get the milk ready for us to drink? My teacher told our class all about pasteurization. Since it usually takes a few days or weeks from when they milk a cow to when we drink it, they run the milk through hot pipes or between metal plates heated to more than 160 Fahrenheit for 15 seconds. It kills all the disease causing microbes without removing all the micro organisms. Isn’t it amazing that we can do that?”
I remembered hearing once about Louis Pasteur, and I’ll admit that it is actually sort of impressive to drink milk or eat cheese or ice cream from a cow on some farm in Nebraska. More than that, it’s just tasty what comes from cows. I think I’ll have a cow someday when I grow up. But then I remembered how bored I was.
I was almost out of the park when I saw my school principal walking around staring closely at the ground. He looked up and saw me and said, “Hi, Robby.” I said, “Hi.” Then he said, “How’s your summer break been so far?” And I said, “Boring.” He replied, “Well, that’s too bad,” and went back to looking at the ground.
It surprised me a little that he didn’t give me a speech about being bored, but it was even more surprising that he kept pacing and staring at the ground. So I asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “Looking for sticks.” That sounded even more boring than my day had been, but he just kept on looking. After another minute or I asked, “Why are you looking for sticks? To make a fire?” He said, “No, to make arrows. Come over and help me look.”
He told me that certain sticks can become great arrows that fly far and straight, then he showed me what to look for: not too thick or narrow, not too crooked but they don’t have to be perfect either. After we found a few more good ones we went over to a table where he had some tools. He let me borrow his knife to whittle off the bark, then he showed me a pile he had already prepared. I’ve never looked so closely at sticks before. He explained how to bundle and dry and straighten sticks, how to attach feathers to the end, and he even let me shoot at a milk jug with a bow he’d made himself. I thought, I think I’ll make my own bow and arrows when I grow up, too.
My principal said he had to go home and said goodbye. I said “Thanks” and “Bye” and started walking home. I was wondering if there were any good sticks in our yard when I walked into the house and remembered, “What am I doing? I forgot how bored I was!”
But something smelled good. It was homemade pizza night, and I could see that dinner was already on the table and the food was still steaming. My dad prayed for the meal and gave thanks for all God had given like he usually does, but I was thinking back about how many things I’d seen that day to be thankful for. While we were eating I told my dad and mom about my day and how stupid I felt for being so bored. My mom said something about how boredom keeps us from seeing beauty, and how opening our eyes just a little makes it almost impossible to be bored.
After dinner I took a hot bath then got in bed. I was really tired. It was a good day, that day when I was bored.
Here’s a short story I told the students for the ECS year-end assembly.
On the day before the very first summer break, the planets talked about their plans for the next three months. There were eight planets in the class, and their names were: Sol, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Luna, Mercury, and Venus. (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto weren’t old enough for school yet, though they had finished Kinder Prep and were enrolled for the Fall.) If you were counting, you may be wondering about the one planet still unnamed. Her name was Amy, and this is the sad story about why no one knows about Amy anymore.
In another classroom down the hall, some of the stars were taking about getting away from the city and out into the woods where there was a lot more space. Next to them, many of the moons moaned about being assigned a planet to follow around and longed to be off on their own. Most of them were still too young to understand the gravity of the situation. A few meteors hoped to form a rock band.
Back in room 1543 almost all of the planets were excited to take their turn telling about their future intentions. All of them, that is, except Amy.
Sol went first. He was always trying to outshine the others. He said, “Every morning I’m planning to get up and run. I mapped a course that only the strongest can enjoy. Once I finish my run, I’ve got my eye on some little seeds that need a tutor. They need to be knee-high by the 4th of July, and I can help them as long as the clouds don’t get in my way. I’ve also been invited to a bunch of pool parties, family reunions, and camping trips. It’s going to be busy. I just hope I don’t burn out.”
Amy could not have been less impressed. She never appreciated that Sol acted like the universe revolved around him.
Mars raised his hand next. “I’m planning to play a lot of golf. I just got a new set of woods and irons, and I’m dying to try them out. My teammates and I, Phobos and Deimos, have been having some astronomical battles, so it should be fun.”
Amy thought to herself, “What a waste! Playing games all day? He might as well sit around and eat candy bars, too.”
Big Jupiter laughed like friendly thunder. “This summer is shaping up like a prince for me. I’m going to organize a canned food drive, and every Thursday we’re going to make a huge dinner for the homeless. Not everyone has great fortune like we do, so it’s good for us to give something back, you know?”
“Why would you give your stuff or your time to others?” Amy asked. Jupiter laughed again and said, “At least I won’t be too celestial minded to be any earthly good.”
Saturn said sadly, “There is never enough time. By the time I’ve penciled out my to-do list, summer break will be done. The whole thing is going to be a disaster. All you other planets will run rings around me. I really need to give some thought to this before it makes me sick.”
“What an Eeyore,” thought Amy.
Luna had been reflecting on all the previous plans, especially from Sol. She new she’d go mad if she didn’t work and make some money, and was looking forward to her graveyard shift job at the lake. She did wonder if it would mess up her cycle, but the silver lining was that she’d have plenty of time to hang with her friends at high tide.
Mercury said that he had a lot of people he wanted to write to, and might even start his own novel. He also hoped to study at least one new language. “And don’t forget about reading bingo; keeping track of all the books will be fun.”
Venus, who was one of the older planets in the class, said she was planning to surf a couple online dating sites. Some of the other planets laughed. Of course Jupiter did, and his face turned a little red.
There was only one more to go, and all the planets spun to look at Amy. She was thinking that she thought every other planet was stupid. She was thinking that she just wanted class to be over. She was thinking that thinking was hard. She was thinking…meh.
The teacher asked the question again in case Amy had forgot. “What are your plans for the summer? Are you going anywhere special? Doing anything in particular?”
And Amy said, “No.” (She would have said, “Huh?” if she had been a junior high planet, but she wasn’t.)
The teacher asked again. “There’s really nothing that you want to do?”
Amy said, “Why would I? This is supposed to be summer break, not summer “bust-my-behind.” This is time for vacation, not vocation. I have the rest of my life to work. My only aim is to do as little as possible.”
And this is why you’ve never heard of Amy. She lost her way that first summer break and never made it back to school. Every planet doesn’t need to follow the same course, but an aimless summer is out of place on our planet. Consider how to expand your sphere of influence, and model your plans around those who are determined to do great things. Don’t be like Amy.