A Gem Among the Wreckage (of YA Fiction)

What books can we give our teenagers that will help them grow in virtue? So much of the Teen Fiction genre today seems to find its raison d’être in being transgressive and celebrating vice. The result is often a reading experience that drives a wedge between the young person and their moral and spiritual heritage. But there are always a few bright spots, a few gems among the wreckage.

Enter Black Bottle Man, a novel that recently came to my attention. It is a fine example of an exciting story that, while not a explicitly Christian, is nicely compatible with a Christian view of the world. It is the debut novel of Craig Russell, a Canadian from Manitoba.

The story begins in the 1920’s, with an extended family living on three connected farms. Three couples, but only one child: young Rembrandt. The two childless women reach a point of dark desperation and resort to black magic to bring about the children they so desire.  

The magic works, but there’s a very nasty catch, and only a hastily struck deal with the nefarious Black Bottle Man gives the troubled family a glimmer of hope. There are souls at stake and the men of the family, including Rembrandt, must find a champion who will be able to defeat the Black Bottle Man. From this strange beginning we follow the trio as they learn to survive out on the road and as Rembrandt matures into a young man.

The narrative spans the entire life of the protagonist, with chapters jumping back and forth across time so that we see snapshots of the characters’ lives at various stages as the story unfolds. These separate pieces gradually come together for the climatic end, which is framed as a battle between good and evil, the champion against the Black Bottle Man.

The world in which the story takes place is anchored by Christian reference points. The book contains its fair share of the supernatural, but rather than relegate it to the world of fantasy, it is presented in a straightforward manner. The moral compass is calibrated correctly – virtue is good, vice is bad – which is all too rare in teen fiction. And so Black Bottle Man is the kind of book that has something of value to offer the human spirit as it deals with the themes of family, tragedy, loneliness, romance, and grace.

The writing is consistently good. In one memorable scene, Rembrandt finds himself in a small town church where the preacher uses Scripture to cajole and manipulate rather than edify. “Right then and there Rembrandt knew that he’d study that Book like Pa had, until he knew all the funny little corners where the mean, small-minded people like to hide” (p36). That’s insightful.

Scattered throughout the book are clever and thoughtful descriptions. At one point, Rembrandt is eased into the back of a police car: “The back seat is vinyl, patched and repaired from a life spent accepting displaced anger. The car smells of human beings in all their wondrous variety, locked in a perpetual battle with cheap disinfectant” (p91). One chapter opens up like so: “All music contains within itself a kind of divine madness. Few will read a book or watch the same film more than once, but everyone returns to their favourite songs. Of all the arts, music is the king of repeated experience” (p120). These fine touches help lift the book from a prosaic adventure book to something in touch with the imaginative.

Not everything about the book is a complete success. At times the back-and-forth motion from past to present is jarring and hinders the momentum of the story. Also, some aspects of the book are a bit harder for me to believe or understand. But these hiccups do not detract significantly from the overall appeal of the book. Craig Russell has managed to craft a compelling story with a clear moral vision, bring it to life with vivid and memorable descriptions, and fire up the reader’s imagination; all within a world that is infused with spiritual realities. That’s quite an accomplishment.

If every Young Adult book had these ingredients in the mix, we would have much less reason to be concerned about what our teens are reading. 

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author for the purposes of writing a review.

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