North and Song of the Magdalene by Donna Jo Napoli

Back in March when I was overdosing on books and avoiding the blog, I read two books by YA author Donna Jo Napoli. In North twelve year old Alvin emulates his hero, explorer Matthew Henson, when he runs away from his home in Washington, D.C., headed for the far north, maybe even the North Pole. Great adventure story.

Song of the Magdalene is the imagined story of Mary Magdalene, the New Testament character who was delivered from seven demons by Jesus. The story chronicles her childhood and especially her adolescence in the sleepy little Galilean village of Magdala. Miriam, as her name is rendered in Hebrew in the story, is a beautiful girl, spoiled by her indulgent widowed father, and eager to experience life and love and to sing her joy into the world. However, when she is only twelve years old, Miriam has her first “fit” (seizure) and realizes that, according to all that she has learned in her village, she is possessed by demon and can never be married or truly loved by a man.

“I took stock. I knew the source of such fits. Everyone knew. A demon had taken up residence in the shell of my body . . . this was my own personal demon of fits. In me. Inside me.”

Recurring themes in the books I’ve read by Ms. Napoli are captivity, protection, and personal freedom. Adolescent characters are trapped with a culture or a family system designed to protect them, but the young adult must escape, grow up, experience life, even make mistakes. Since I’m the parent of four young adults, this theme hits a little close to home. How protective is over-protective? How much freedom is too much —for a twelve year old? For a fifteen year old? For a seventeen year old? I trust my urchins to make good decisions, for the most part, but I don’t trust the world to treat them kindly or respectfully all of the time.

Ms. Napoli’s books carry mixed messages about this issue of freedom and protection. Miriam in Song of the Magdalene suffers enormous hurt, physical, spiritual, and mental, because of the freedom her father gives her to roam the town and act in ways that traditional Jewish women in that culture are not allowed to act. Alvin in North faces danger and almost pays with his life in his bid for freedom from a loving but over-protective mother; however he ultimately, by running away from home, grows up and becomes a man of strength and courage.

So, is it different for girls and boys? Is the world dangerous for boys, but much too dangerous for girls? I do think that girls need more protection than boys, but something inside me protests that even if that’s true, it shouldn’t be so. Maybe Ms. Napoli wasn’t saying anything about male/female differences —just one protagonist who faces the challenge of growing up in the world and wins and another who loses and is almost destroyed by her encounter with evil and danger.

And I’m left with my questions: how do I love these kids of mine into adulthood? How do I help them to grow into strong, confident, and joyful adults?

3 thoughts on “North and Song of the Magdalene by Donna Jo Napoli

  1. Sounds interesting. Fiction and movies about New Testament people is always facinating because the NT itself really provides so little about people’s personal lives and thoughts.

  2. Sound like good books. I’m sorry to say I am not the one to offer advise on helping kids get to adulthood. Somedays I feel like I did everything wrong, today is one of those days.

  3. Have you read Breathe or Beast by her? They are wonderful books but dark as well**CV

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