Superpowers. We’re fascinated by them. We buy books (usually comic books) and flock to movies that feature humans with extraordinary strength, or speed, or mobility, or whatever. The image of the super-man, whatever “super” might mean, rivets our imagination. (I discuss this in an earlier post.)
To me, our appreciation of these imaginary characters seems largely vicarious: we enjoy superheroes because we like to imagine what we’d do if we had such powers. This may partially explain the growing phenomenon of costumed play (“cosplay”), where participants don costumes and attend conferences and gatherings “in character”, enabling them to indulge the fantasy that we can be immortal, or super-strong, or possess some other super-human attribute that lifts us above the mundane lot of common life.
One thing notably lacking in this view of superpowers is a genuine apprehension of what life would be like for the possessor of such powers. Oh, the better of such tales, such as Iron Man and Spiderman, at times attempt to grapple with the humanity of the heroes and the struggles that accompany, and at times are caused by, their distinctive condition. And though these aspects of the stories do add depth to the characters, the consumers of such fare can only tolerate so much angst-ridden introspection before returning to the exercise of the superpower to resolve matters (this is, after all, a superhero story.)
As a new exception to this trend, I recommend The Rising (Ignatius Press, 2014) by Robert Ovies. It’s a hard book to categorize, containing elements of a supernatural thriller, a conspiracy novel, and a family drama. But in the final analysis, it’s a book about a boy with what we’d call a “superpower”, and what effect that has on his life and the lives of those around him. The plot revolves around an ordinary nine-year-old boy named Christopher Joseph Walker, or C.J., who discovers that he has the power to touch people and heal them – even if they are not only dead, but embalmed. There seems nothing extraordinary about C.J. He doesn’t display any unusual piety or interest in spiritual things. He lives with his mother who is divorced, and they attend a parish in suburban Detroit. When attending a viewing for a family friend who succumbed to swift-moving cancer, C.J. touches her and says, “Be well.” It’s only a wish, he doesn’t mean anything by it and certainly doesn’t expect anything to change. But then the lady proceeds to begin healing right there in the coffin, to the point that she’s animate within ten minutes and is completely restored to health within a day.
Ovies handles this astonishing event with commendable realism. At first the incident is suspected to be incompetence by the medical staff. Then doubt is cast on the funeral director. It takes a while for the truth to come out that C.J. was responsible. This delay gives Ovies time to develop the protective relationship that C.J.’s mother Lynn has with the boy. To the impatient reader this may be frustrating, but it has a point – in fact it is the point – in the story. Her estranged husband, the ambitious but irresponsible Joe, is still engaged in the boy’s life, but Lynn is the primary caretaker – a status that will prove critical as the story unfolds.
As the truth becomes slowly apparent, various tests are arranged to verify that C.J.’s incredible ability is legitimate. Another dead and embalmed person is touched and healed. They learn that C.J.’s gift is not restricted to the dead – he touches some severely ill people and wishes them to be well, and they recover miraculously. (Incidentally, this brings up one of my few quibbles with the book – it keeps referring to the dead returning to life as “resurrection”. “Resuscitation” would be the more appropriate term, since the parties will die again. C.J.’s gift is that of “super-healing”, working on not only diseased but necrotic tissue.) The secret of who is responsible for these wonders is at first kept between Lynn, Joe, and their parish priest, Fr. Mark. Lynn is cautious but Joe dreams of the riches he will (finally) make due to his son’s power. To Joe, this is The Break he’s been hoping for his entire life. But then, due to the duplicity of one of the desperate characters in the story, C.J.’s identity and abilities are made public.
This is when the story makes a sharp departure from the typical “superpower” story. The expectable pattern from here would be C.J. gaining increasing notoriety, doing greater and greater wonders with his powers, going to Impressive Places to meet Important People, perhaps encountering some Nefarious Opposition leading to a Dramatic Confrontation, but emerging as an Important Person in his own right.
Instead, though we certainly have increasing notoriety, we also have Lynn responding with skepticism and reticence to expose C.J. to the forces wanting to make use of him. This may seem odd to the reader, especially given the nature of C.J.’s gift. Super-healing? How can that be anything but good? For Pete’s sake, get him down to the ICUs and cancer wards and trauma centers where he can start helping people! It’s not like it costs him anything, and it could do a world of good! What’s the problem?
Here is where I think Ovies hits the target dead-center. Lynn, with a mother’s canny intuition, discerns the true issue: will her son be reduced to an object to be used by others for their purposes? She appreciates the good C.J. could potentially do, but she doesn’t want him objectivized in the process. Given the dramatic and powerful nature of his gift, she knows that’s exactly what could happen if someone doesn’t look out for him. Even Joe is bedazzled by the prospect of what C.J.’s gift could mean, his (legitimate) paternal concern for the boy’s true welfare assuaged by the fact that a healing gift this powerful can do only good.
This becomes the axis of tension for the entire book, as Lynn seeks to protect C.J. and extricate him from the maelstrom of expectations that swirl around their lives. Ovies skillfully weaves a tale without any “bad guys”, only people responding predictably in the presence of such unexpected potential. Oh, there’s a mob boss – but he’s just a grieving father in danger of losing his beloved son. The hard-nosed lawyer? Just trying to protect his employer and friend from heartbreak. The cardinal? At worst misguided in his response to this phenomenon. Even the cardinal’s ambitious friend, who does the worst thing in the story, isn’t malicious, just overreaching in his hopes and desires – though he does epitomize the tendency to objectivize young C.J.
I won’t reveal any spoilers, because you should enjoy the book for yourself. Redemption comes from an unexpected corner, so in a sense that resolves the story’s main tension. But many questions are left unanswered, and indeed unaddressed. Where did C.J.’s power come from? Why was it given? Is it gone? The people who were resuscitated – what happened to them while they were dead? Did Lynn make the best choice in insulating C.J., or was he given the gift to be used? There’s no tidy wrapping up of these knotty questions, which is probably as it should be.
As a story, particularly as a first story, Ovies did a wonderful job with this book. Perhaps he put a bit too much time into the numerous scenes portraying how much Lynn loved C.J. and would protect him, but not so much as to bog down the story and certainly no more than one might expect in a debut work. There are a few copy editing points (hopefully you’ll miss them – I didn’t), but if The Rising is Robert Ovies initial effort, I’m looking forward to his future works.