Title: The Sin-Eater's Confession I Author: Ilsa J. Bick I Publisher: Carolrhoda LAB/Lerner Publishing
Young Adult literature is defined by the American Library Association as fiction that would be appropriate for children between the ages of 12 to 18. A branch of the American Library Association known as the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) offers the following synopsis for The Sin-Eater's Confession:
In a small Wisconsin town, rumors about Jimmy and Ben ruin Ben's life and brutally end Jimmy's. Three years later, Ben decides to set the record straight.
Actual Plot Summary: Ben is a 20-something year old Navy medic stationed with the Marines in Afghanistan. He has made the decision to set down on paper his memories surrounding the brutal murder of his friend Jimmy back when Ben was an overachieving senior in high school.
After Jimmy Lange's older brother dies in a car accident, Ben's father suggests that Ben could help the family out on their dairy farm. Over the summer, he gets to know Lange family pretty well. Mr. Lange is a hostile, violent Evangelical Christian and often beats Jimmy for not being masculine enough. Jimmy dreams of being a photographer but knows that his father would never allow that because of the reputation that photographers have for their alternative lifestyles. Jimmy decides to enter some photos in a contest in an effort to win a scholarship to a prestigious photography summer camp. He comes in second place and that's where the problems begin for Jimmy and Ben.
Without Ben's permission, Jimmy snaps a sexually suggestive photo of Ben while Ben takes a nap. This causes rumors to fly in the small town of Merit, Wisconsin where no homosexuals have ever lived without being run out of town. It is assumed by all who see the photo that Jimmy and Ben are lovers. Ben finds himself in the middle of an identity crisis as the rumors cause him to question his own sexuality. He thinks that Jimmy might have homosexual tendencies, but this has never been confirmed. Mr. Lange dismisses Ben from his work on the dairy farm. He tells him not to return and to stay away from Jimmy.
Ben becomes increasingly agitated because Jimmy leads his father to believe that Ben has been a corrupting influence on him, and Ben desires vindication. Ben confronts Jimmy at a coffee shop but is quickly thrown out of the establishment by the owner, Pastor John. Jimmy follows Ben outside where he asks Ben to help him mail a portfolio of some additional photos as an application to the distinguished summer camp he wishes to attend. He begs Ben to return the next day so that he can pass Ben the envelope that is to be sent. Ben promises nothing and then leaves.
The next day, after hemming and hawing, he finally decides to meet Jimmy at the coffee shop parking lot. When he gets there, he witnesses Jimmy having a perhaps romantic or perhaps coerced interlude with a person wearing a black hoodie. Jimmy then gets into a car with that unidentifiable person and they drive away. Ben follows them to a state park and witnesses Jimmy getting brutally beaten to death. He runs away from the scene and then finishes out the rest of the story lying to hate-crime investigators about what he was doing the night of the murder.
This young adult book has earned a mature rating for graphic violence and extreme stereotyping. The story contains frequent and extreme profanity. There is extreme gender confusion, aberrant behavior, extreme suspense, mild romance and sexual references and mild alcohol references. It receives one and a half stars for story development.
Review : In The Sin-Eater's Confession by Ilsa Bick, narration is specified as a first person flash back to the main character's senior year in high school. Per the author's dictates, the story should sound like a 20 to 21 year old male stationed in Afghanistan. When I reached the 25% mark in my book, I noticed…and now I'll quote directly from my review notes, "He sounds like a 30 to 40 year old woman who watches too much Oprah."
Ironically, I finished reading the story and skimmed through the acknowledgements and bio to discover that Ms. Bick is a child psychologist of all things…so how's that for prescient? I hate to say it, but this biographical information actually answered a lot of linger questions for me. I couldn't understand, for instance, why the story jumped from one marathon soliloquy about the importance of not judging people based on hearsay and rumors to the next, and why all these high school seniors were so amazingly fluent in psycho-babble. Now I know.
Which brings us to the next irony because, although Ilsa Bick presents her narrative as expert analysis on the importance of tolerance and inclusion, the unyielding stereotyping of small town dwellers and organized religion is noticeably intolerant. A portrayal of Mr. Lange ruthlessly beating Jimmy for taking sexually suggestive photos of Ben…this while as Pastor John and Mrs. Lange look on with an unfettered approval… is only the beginning of the attack upon small towns and Christians:
Jimmy explains that he might be sent away to some Christian school out of state or maybe one of those "fundamentalist ex-gay camps." (For the life of me, I cannot fathom what a fundamentalist ex-gay camp might be, but then what do I know. I'm not a psychologist.)
Ben explains that religion is evil. (His dogmatic thesis is reinforced when he's asked to remember that God and religion are not the same thing.)
Ben chastises a friend for believing in God. (She deflects this by explaining that she doesn't know if she believes in God, but she enjoys meditation and yoga.)
Ben is attacked by a mob of angry Christians as he looks to find Jimmy's killer (even though he's done everything he can through his willful neglect to ensure that the killer will never be found.)
Ben offers a tutorial on the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation – "It hit me that this was probably why Catholics felt so much better whenever they went to confession. A couple of Hail Marys and stuff and they were home free. Maybe I should see a psychiatrist. They were like priests, right?" (Our author thinks rather highly of her own profession, I should say.)
And, of course, there's a fun little link that Ben tries to make between the legend of sin-eaters (people of yore who were hired to assume the sins of a dead person by eating food placed near the corpse) and Jesus Christ:
"Sounded to me a lot like transubstantiation, only in reverse: instead of the bread turning into the body of Jesus, the food turned into the sins that got taken into someone else and cleansed the soul of the dead person…Look at it the right way, and you see that Jesus was the ultimate sin-eater – and people worshipped him…by that logic, a sin-eater was as brave and selfless as Jesus. Hell, he was about as close to Jesus as a person could possibly be."
Again, by getting paid to eat bread and drink ale and by then making a short speech at the graveside, the sin-eater took upon themselves the sins of the deceased…this versus Jesus preaching of a path to eternal salvation until he was imprisoned, brutally beaten and painfully executed even though he committed no sins.
Moreover, Ben sees himself as a sin-eater ("I was in exile, stuck in the desert outside the camp; a sin-eater with no way of getting rid of the filth and guilt and crime unless I went to my Dad of Agent Angela – And that just wasn't happening. Because it would be like Jesus all over again. They'd crucify me.") and, by extension, Christ-like because he's writing what is essentially a confession of watching Jimmy abused but a) not going to the authorities to report the crime, which leaves Jimmy to suffer and die a wretched death and b) hiding evidence and lying to authorities when directly questioned about his knowledge of the offense, thereby rendering Jimmy's crime unsolvable.
Yeah. That's indeed Christ-like. I totally see it now.
Even without the insufferable and weedy propaganda attempts laced throughout this narrative, the book lacks cohesion. It rambles. It's preachy. It's hypocritical and duplicitous. It's in dire need of attention from someone who owns a red pen. The book is simply not well written. Period.
But In this book, the reader will psychologically register the voice of a 20 year old man who is flashing back to when he was a 17 year old boy in order to justify his own disturbing inaction in the face of alarming injustice. The utter brilliance of the YA genre is that a character like Ben doesn't have to be well crafted. As long as Ben can like, you know… totally sound like an "effin" teenager then he can preach the blithering and irrational religion of relativism, he can offer incongruous arguments to sing the praises of tolerance as he condemns the whole of organized Christianity with his snippets of profanity laced hostility, he can promote a twisted logic that attempts to minimize the historic and moral relevance of Jesus the Son of God to fit his warped justifications for inaction. When he discusses his own mother, he can rant about the drive and enthusiasm that she exhibits for his success and make the argument that her devotion to his success is morally equivalent to Mr. Lange's graphic physical abuse of Jimmy.
But the reader… even adults…will be inclined to give Ben a pass for everything he gets wrong because he is after all just a kid. He's not always going to make strong arguments but we can still hear what he's trying to say.
And there's the latent genius of it all. You see, he's not just a kid. He's a premenopausal woman with a background in child psychology. She knows exactly what she's trying to achieve and although her attempt is sloppy and amateurish, the taxpayer funded American Library Association will rate it as one of the best young adult books of 2014. In spite of Bick's atrocious failure, this book has nearly everything that they look for in promotable works of literature. It sponsors alternative or homosexual lifestyles. It glorifies contempt for parents and their authority. It encourages irreverence for Christian values. It can barely get through a paragraph without an obscenity. What more could the ALA want in a book…other than cogent plot development and modicum of applied logic.
I do not recommend this book for children between the ages of 12 to 18. I do, once again, highly recommend this book for all parents who seek affirmation that the American education system is failing our children and for all educators who have had it with State sponsored lunacy. One and a half stars because it's an unreadable mishmash of profanity and propaganda.