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The Book of Sorrows

I read The Book of the Dun Cow a couple of years ago at Andrew’s urgent recommendation and it has since become one of my very favorite books. It’s a difficult book to recommend because it’s so hard to describe. After all, it’s about a rooster. And yet it’s about pain, and heartbreak, and the cold, disastrous march of evil through the world. It’s about war and heroism and sacrifice. It’s playful and funny and then by turns bloody, violent, and horrifying. It’s a thing almost unique unto itself and it is wholly excellent. Rarely a day goes by that some aspect of Chaunticleer and his coop doesn’t cross my mind.

The book so thoroughly affected me that upon learning of the existence of its sequel, I was mortified. I didn’t think I could bear to read it for fear that it wouldn’t live up to the promise of the original. I was desperately fearful that Walt Wangerin, Jr. might find himself fallen into the same nest of subsequent mediocrity so completely mined by pioneers of hubris like George Lucas.

So a lot of time has gone by and The Book of Sorrows has sat lonely upon my shelf, warding me away with promises of disappointment. But a few weeks ago, I gave in and took down the book. I sank into the warmth of my couch on a cold winter night and returned to The Coop once more to learn what had become of the lordly rooster and his hens and what adventure might still await them.

The story that greeted me was nothing like what I had anticipated. Something terrible and beautiful lay in wait. Wangerin’s masterstroke is not that The Book of Sorrows is another tale of the same cast, but that it is an outworking of the epic consequence of the resolutions in The Book of the Dun Cow.

(If you haven’t read The Book of the Dun Cow, you might want to do so now. The rest of this post will contain references to the events of that book, although no major spoilers.)

The book opens as winter is falling across the land and the Animals are struggling to recover from the War. Although Wyrm is defeated and Cockatrice is dead, innocence is lost. The Animals, the Keepers of Evil, learn that the world is not what it was before. They are without a home and evil, though overcome, has left fear in their hearts. The dying do not heal. The living grieve. The frozen earth refuses to accept the dead. And Wyrm, though blinded, has studied his defeat and is devising a terrible purpose in the deeps of the earth.

From the first page, Wangerin drops the weight of consequence in the reader’s lap, the weight of the world’s broken nature. Gone is the notion that the Animals themselves can triumph over evil. The reality is that Evil must be borne. It must be kept. And the keeping of it is a matter of eternal significance.

“Ah, but Keepers of the universal evil can never retire to a quiet insignificance. They participate in the universal; the good order of the whole creation looks to them, and what they are gives heaven pause, whether they know it or not. No: never, never did the stars influence the lives of the Keepers; that is a fiction. Rather, the Keepers, when they so much as walk, tip planets. It’s a terrible responsibility, but there it is. The sobbing of a Mouse, that tiny privacy, shudders the empyrean; and though he’d never ask such a vast importance upon himself, yet there it is; he keeps evil. He needs to keep it well. So his well-being becomes a matter of cosmic discussion.”

The central conflict of The Book of Sorrows is played out in how the Keepers, and Chaunticleer primarily, struggle to bear that weight. The result is a book that is almost unbearably painful. So great is the consequence of Chaunticleer’s pride, and guilt, and his need to find redemption through his own suffering and his own action that there are times when I was scared to keep reading.

The emotional landscape of The Book of Sorrows is much like that of one of my favorite films, Magnolia. It’s textured by the pain and suffering we bring on ourselves and on those around us when we are too weak to admit we need help. The weight of evil is too much for any one of us to bear alone and short of that admission, the world itself is lost.

The beauty of the book is that its relentless and heart-crushing emotional blows are essential to its revelations of healing, renewal, and forgiveness.

“When I was hurting the most, this beautiful Cow came to me…she loved me. Isn’t that a mercy? She touched me, she fed me, she washed me, and that is how she loved me. Then this is how she forgave me…all the hurts, every one of the hurts, she took away from me with her eyes and with her tongue, and there was no reason for that. But she did it. Do you know this beautiful Cow? She knows you…she said that she loves you. You especially… You didn’t listen to her when she came to you, but that’s okay, too, because look: she sent me. This is the main reason why I came. To forgive you. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. See? I forgive you.”

I won’t spoil the revelation of who’s forgiving and who’s forgiven. I won’t dare the disservice of telling who lives or who dies, who fights, or loves, or is mended. But let me tell you that I struggled to read the final pages through the blurry sparkle of tears because even in the darkest, most frozen winter, spring is coming. I can hear it singing in the air.

Despite all my expectations, Walt Wangerin, Jr. did it. He wrote a sequel that, while wholly different, is the equal of his National Book Award-winning original. It’s not an easy book by any means; its movements are often slow, its prose dense. Where children might enjoy The Book of the Dun Cow as much as adults, The Book of Sorrows is wholly adult in its tone and its depth. But don’t let the struggle and heartache dissuade you. The Author is in control. Renewal is set in motion. Dawn is sure. The Dun Cow awaits.

If you haven’t yet discovered Wangerin, I beg you to do so. I’m convinced that he is one of the Kingdom’s great storytellers.

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