Andrew Peterson is a singer, songwriter and poet who in recent years has emerged as the legitimate heir to the legacy of Rich Mullins in Christian music. His thoughtful, theologically-saturated lyrics set to acoustic guitar-driven melodies are compelling and tend to stay with you long after you physically hear them. That is most evident in his Christmas masterpiece, Behold the Lamb of God, but is also true for The Far Country and his most recent recording, Resurrection Letters, Vol. 2.
Peterson is an artist by vocation who is willing to use his considerable creative gifts to express his faith. In recent years, he has been the hub around which a community of like-minded artists (Jill Phillips, Andrew Osenga, Ben Shive and others) have gathered to encourage each other’s work and collaborate on projects. (Check out The Rabbit Room). He has also begun to write in long form through a series of fantasy tales under the broad them of The Wingfeather Saga. The first volume, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness was published a couple of years ago, and today Book 2—North! Or Be Eaten is released.
North! Or Be Eaten (Waterbrook, 2009) is a rollicking tale, a page-turning adventure that will be a joy for anybody, but just begs for parents and their children to read it out loud and together. It continues the tale of the three Igiby children—Jenner, Tink and leeli—who are heirs to a legendary kingdom, are running for their very lives after an attack by the dreaded Fangs of Dang, and must get to safety in the north on the Ice Prairies. There are chases and betrayals, monsters (toothy cows and a Bomnubble!) and sea dragons, trap doors with secret passageways and forest-dwelling people who are not merry at all, kind-hearted hags and the evil Overseer who steals children, and even an sled ride on ice. This is simply a great story.
Peterson has created another world, much like Lewis’ Narnia or Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It has a unique geography and place names, unique animal and plant life—things which are familiar (seas, waterfalls, forests), but are yet different. It has a specific history, with events and kings or enemies in the past that shape the present. It even has a language and stories or art that are unique to this place. So, to enter the story it to be lost in another world, which is the best sort of storytelling. It invites us to bring our own imaginations into the moment of reading..
North! Or be Eaten is clearly built around a quest, a journey of heroic proportions. But on the journey, in the relationships and the challenges, virtues emerge that can shape a heart and a life. Things like courage, sacrifice, respect, forgiveness, wisdom, fidelity, responsibility, tolerance, servanthood and more saturate the story. The masterful thing that Peterson does, however, is that they are integral to the story and not stand-alone moralisms wedged into the story. They seem natural and authentic to the characters. No Bible verses are quoted, no behavioral application is given; the characters merely live and these virtues are evident in them.
That means of character and plot development reveals an interesting choice that Peterson made as author. This is not a point for point allegory, like Pilgrim’s Progress. It does not have a blatantly identified Christ-figure, like Aslan. Peterson merely tells a story that is immersed in Christian, Biblical thought, so that you get it almost without realizing it. That’s what makes this sort of story so attractive to people of deep faith or people of no faith. This is not a book merely for the Christian subculture, that subtly speaks “the code” of our accepted themes, language and emotions, etc. It is a book for everybody, a great example of art by Christians that has moved beyond Christian art.
Let me point out a couple of other interesting aspects of North! While the story does center around the three children, this is not a Narnia rehash. The three children are set in a larger family with a widowed mom, a grandfather, an eccentric older friend named Oskar and an uncle who is odd, if not crazy. The intergenerational aspect of the quest is refreshing and important. Old and young are both valued and seen as necessary to the quest. There is listening and respect that flows both directions. The children learn from the wisdom of their elders. The older people delight to see the emergence of the younger. There is even a modeling of the need to serve those who are disabled—the young girl Leeli walks with a crutch, the grandfather has a wooden leg and the older friend often struggles to keep up, but the family always find a way to bring everybody along.
Peterson does not shy from the dark side of life. There are genuine threats, real tears and fears—and they are not sanitized for the kiddies. The Black Carriage driven by the Overseer comes to steal children from their parents. The parents go literally insane from the loss of their children. The older boy is punished by the Overseer by being placed in a closed coffin for days. The younger is placed in a cage from which there is no escape. Some moments are a bit intense—and in reading seem more so than the villains of some recent Disney movies. But the intensity of the threat makes the necessity and heroism of rescue even more poignant. I’d just say to be aware of that when reading with your children—sometimes it might be better to read this long before bedtime!
North! Or Be Eaten is a delightful, well-told and beautifully crafted story. It is not merely a children’s book. It is a story that many people will find thoroughly engaging and engrossing. There’s only one problem—I have to wait for Book 3!