(Originally published on Labor Day 2012)
Labor Day, according to Wikipedia, was born of the Management/Labor battles of the late 19th century–particularly the Pullman strike of the 1880s. Back then, strikes were not just a matter of shutdowns and picket lines–people got killed. The root problem at the bottom of the labor wars was that work had lost its dignity. Industrialization had led to mechanistic thinking, where workers were seen as interchangeable parts in a machine: when one wore out, management simply replaced it, and with immigration swelling the ranks there were always plenty of replacement parts. Unions did a lot to restore material compensation for labor, but nothing for the deeper problem of devaluing work itself. As Dr. Gene Edward Veith pointed out in our interview last year, work dignifies individuals in a Christian context; even busing tables is honorable labor. But beyond performing necessary tasks, every Christian has a vocation (literally, a calling), for which God has created him or her. Children like to say, “When I grow up, I want to be . . .” But kids usually don’t give the idea much thought beyond what they think they’d like to do or be. And few children’s books deal seriously with the idea of vocation. Here’s one that does:
Heart of a shepherd, by Rosanne Parry. Random House, 2009, 161 pages. Age/interest level: 9-up
Anybody named Ignatius is sure to prefer a nickname, but that’s all “Brother” Alderman is sure about. His parents have raised plenty of questions in his mind: first his mother left the family many years ago to pursue a career in art, and now his dad, an army reserve officer, has been called up for a 14-month tour of duty in Iraq. It seems to Brother that Dad belongs on the Oregon family ranch that he has worked all his life—especially since the four older Alderman boys won’t be around this year. After summer vacation they’ll be off to pursue their educations or service careers, leaving Brother to run the ranch with his grandparents. It’s a task he feels very unprepared for, especially with his beloved grandfather growing frail. But Grandpa, a Quaker, is almost aggravatingly serene: “Protest is my calling. Your dad’s is to take care of the men in his command. He can be faithful in that.”
The action is episodic, unfolding over the cycle of ranch life: birthing, nursing, and protecting the lambs, finding pasture for the cattle, storing up for winter, repairing fences in the spring. Through it all, Brother struggles with the idea of vocation–not just his parents’, but also his own. As the youngest and smallest in the family, he just doesn’t seem good for much. But faith plays a big part in his reflections, and is expertly woven into the stuff of everyday life:
“Land shapes a man’s heart, too, and his aspirations,” [Grandpa would say]. “A man near the mountains learns to look up, and it calls his mind to God.” And then he’d do that Quaker thing where he sits quietly and says nothing, and the rest of us go back to playing chess or poker and a dozen hands later he would say something like, “God’s in the valleys, too, in the coolness of the water and the softness of the ground. That’s the tender side of the Almighty.” I love it when he talks like that, because then when I go wading in the creek, I think of the Holy Spirit squooshing up between my toes.
Earth and weather rhythms carry Brother toward a crisis that only he can handle, the one that will determine his vocation. Though the narrator’s voice at times seems a little too reflective and wise for a 12-year-old, Heart of a Shepherd is beautifully written, with a quiet tone underscoring the dignity of honest labor. Brother’s work leads, in steady footsteps, to his calling; his hands instruct his heart.
Two objections, and one of these might be a deal-breaker. There are a few instances of bad language, in particular the s— word, which is certainly not uncommon among families who tend livestock. It occurs once, in the middle of a family squabble, along with Grandma’s “Jesus, Mary, Joseph” outburst (she’s Catholic) (so is Brother). If the book is read aloud, those words can easily be skipped; for personal reading, parents should use their judgment.
I feel a bit more strongly about the way the mother’s desertion is treated. Making and selling her art, first in New York and then in Rome, is said to be Mom’s calling, but giving birth to five children seems to me a calling that has priority. She doesn’t even come home for Christmas! The kids seem to be turning out okay, mostly due to the steadying influence of their father and grandparents. But such a decision has its effects: “A person can live a little bit broken,” explains one of the neighbors. “Most of us do, I guess.”
Building something positive out of the brokenness is everyone’s calling, but figuring out the specifics requires careful listening. Brother is listening. Are we?
- Literary value: 4.5 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4.5
Don’t miss Emily’s “Books to Get Your Kids Working” from last year, including the links. And in case you missed it, here’s Part One of our interview with Gene Edward Veith, Provost of Patrick Henry College.