Are we all born sinners, or do we become that way through our upbringing, our environment? Is it sometimes that we become sinners, even killers, because of what we see and learn or what others force us to do, as in the case of the child soldiers in Africa? How similar are we to animals like the raven, which can be imprinted to accept whatever they see first upon being born as their parents?
David Almond’s remarkable and lyrical novel Raven Summer deals with some of these questions. While I highly recommend it, be aware that it does mention someone getting his head sawn off by terrorists, and there are some violent images in films made by a bully, Gordon Nattrass that might not be appropriate for younger readers.
“It starts and ends with the knife.” This ominous line begins Raven Summer and may be its most memorable, though there are many memorable lines throughout this beautifully crafted novel. Liam Lynch and his friend Max are digging for treasure when they hear and see a raven crying out, “Jak! Jak! Jak!” The two boys decide to follow the raven, which leads them to an abandoned baby girl. A note pinned to her clothing says “Please look after her rite. This is a childe of God.”
Off in the distance, the boys see a hiker with a red cap (they later reason it might be the baby’s mother) who has imprinted the raven, teaching it to lead whomever came across the baby first to find her. Liam and his father later wonder if the same thing might happen with the baby - if she might come to think of Liam’s parents as her own. The baby is placed into foster care, and the boys become minor celebrities, appearing on the news and talking about what happened that day.
While visiting the baby, Liam meets Oliver, a Liberian refugee, and Crystal, a troubled teen who has been in foster care since she was herself a baby and her house burned down, killing her parents. Oliver, Liam learns, is in danger of being deported back to Liberia. He may not be the person he says he is, according to the authorities, and he might be seventeen years old instead of the fourteen he claims.
The novel is told in first-person present tense by Liam. That narrative choice makes both the events in the novel more immediate to the reader and the book in its entirety a powerful read.
This wonderful and touching story feeds Liam’s growing awareness about the horrors of war as he learns that little separates him from people like the child soldiers of Africa, as Oliver was once forced to become. Liam watches himself become more distant from his friend, Max, who gets himself a girlfriend. Liam seems to feel attracted to Crystal but considers her to be a friend who has gone through a lot in her life, even to the point of cutting herself with razors. He thinks of her as wild and exciting, while she tells him she’d liked nothing more than to be normal, like him.
What is the normal state for humans to be in? What makes some of us turn into what others might call monsters? Nattrass used to be more or less of a friend of Liam’s, but as the boys grow older, he starts to have a more violent outlook on life. He thinks Liam acts too innocent, when we all have an urge to view violent acts and to act violently under the right conditions. He bullies and provokes Liam to where Liam finally does,/i> lash out - with a knife - back at Nattrass. Does this make Liam also a monster, the sort of person his mother thinks was behind the art exhibit featuring violent scenes is at a local gallery, scenes like people getting their heads sawn off? People like Gordon Nattrass. And terrorists from other countries?
Oliver tells Liam that he isn’t the person Liam thinks he is: his real name is Henry Meadows, and he is actually seventeen. His parents were slaughtered by soldiers when he was at school, and if he returns to Liberia, he will also be slaughtered. The soldiers rounded up the children and in a twisted way became like new parents to them, imprinting violent behavior upon them, making Henry and the other children eventually much like the soldiers who killed their real parents:
“And so if they take away our mothers and fathers and put monsters in their
place and the monsters care for us and tell us what to do, then we will follow the
monsters, we will love the monsters. And we will think that war is play. Because
we just love to be wild. Don’t we? Yes, we do. And we are unimportant and
insignificant, and there are many many many of us, so it doesn’t matter when we die.”
Raven Summer is a stark, moving book that provokes you to think about what makes some of us turn into human monsters. It’s relatively short but is packed with meaning and will stay with you for long after you close the book. It is wondrous but contains some dark scenes, making it best read by older preteens and teenages.
Author David Almond previously won the Michael L. Printz award for his novel Kit’s Wilderness (this past year, that honor went to Libba Bray’s marvelous Going Bovine). His other novels include Clay and Skellig, which was his debut, and I recommend them as well.