First you should know that this book was published by Random House. And the next obvious thing about this children’s novel is that it’s very Catholic. I am surprised, pleasantly surprised, to find those two aspects together: a book not only respectful of Catholicism and Christianity but actually featuring orthodox Christian religion published by a secular publisher.
Next surprise, Heart of a Shepherd is a book about the war in Iraq that is neither pro-war nor anti-war. Some of the most sympathetic characters in the book are officers and soldiers in the U.S. Armed Forces, and they are not presented as ogres or as misguided dupes. On the other hand the protagonist’s grandfather, a central character in the book also, is a Quaker and a pacifist. And he is not an idiot or an unpatriotic curmudgeon. It’s refreshing to read a book about war written for children that has no axe to grind, no political agenda, only giving children things to think about as they begin to process the fact of war and people being killed and injured in their service to their country.
A brief synopsis: Twelve year old Ignatius Alderman discovers the “heart of a shepherd” as he helps his grandparents take care of the family ranch when his father is deployed to Iraq. Nicknamed “Brother”, Ignatius is the youngest of five brothers, named for St. Ignatius, and searching for his own gift, talents, and career path. He’s not sure that ranching or military service, the two traditions that dominate his family, are truly his gifts, and although he learns to live up to his responsibilities, it will take a major crisis for Brother to find his own “right road” to maturity.
The book is rather quiet, the pacing slow and deliberate, like Brother himself. Even when the crisis I mentioned comes, it sneaks up on the reader rather than announcing itself with trumpets. I think this book will appeal especially to boys. In addition to its coming of age theme, it also has lots of little details about ranching life and rural Oregon and the life of a soldier in Iraq and even about chess that will capture the young man who’s interested in any of those subjects and make him pay attention to the larger themes in the book.
This first novel by author Roseanne Parry is a treat to be savored. I look forward to her next with great anticipation. I definitely hope to see this one nominated for a Cybil Award.
Postscript: Here’s a list I found at Ms. Parry’s website of ways that teachers can support the chilld of a deployed soldier. I thought it was a good list.