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Ring the Judas Bell by James D. Forman
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Ring the Judas Bell

by James D. Forman

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Taken from their homes by guerrillas during the civil war, a group of Greek children try to make their way back from a prison camp in the Yugoslav mountains.

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Adolescent fiction, in recent times, has been promoted as “young adult” literature. Frankly, however, at the same time it seems to me to have become more adolescent than adult—in style, in thematic complexity, in literary sophistication, not to mention its obsession with sex and use of x-rated language.

Granted, in the old days, novels dealing with contemporary adolescents’ problems tended to be pristine, hence unrealistic. But Susie Hinton’s Outsiders broke that barrier in 1967, and then Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, M. E. Kerr, Richard Peck, Walter Dean Myers, Rosa Guy, and many others demonstrated how sophisticated adolescent fiction could be.

In fact, the term “adolescent fiction” or “young adult literature” has become almost synonymous with the teenage problem novel. Highest praise for such works seems to come when reviewers describe them as “shattering”! What has become less prevalent, however, are novels set in the past and in cultures other than Anglo-American. Titles that should have become all time classics were weeded from library shelves; they were neglected by junior-high teachers; without adult influence and encouragement, adolescents did not discover them; consequently, they were not reprinted in paperbacks; and now they are virtually unknown.

A good example is the work of James Forman. Like other “adolescent fiction” published in the 1960s and early 1970s, his novels deal with the experience of adolescent characters told from an adolescent point of view. However, they might also legitimately be called “young adult,” for these adolescent characters are caught in genuine crises that require them to take on adult roles: national and communal crises, not simply the normal calamities of puberty or even of dysfunctional families. War and oppression forced these young protagonists to become independent, responsible, and sensitive to their compatriots. They had to make moral decisions and exert leadership. Becoming adult in Forman’s novels involves considerably more than using four-letter words and being sexually active. For refugees, prisoners, combatants, and victims, such experience could, indeed, be “shattering.”

Several notable books of his deal with World War II, especially from the perspective of young German defectors: for example, Ceremony of Innocence (an account of the arrest and execution of a brother and sister for anti-Nazi underground activities), Horses of Anger (a fifteen-year old soldier, questioning himself in the closing days of WWII), The Traitors (youths of the anti-Nazi underground in Germany), The White Crow (a fictional account of Hitler’s early life, including the unsuccessful Putsch of 1923), as well as The Survivor (struggles of a Jewish family in Holland in WWII).

Very relevant to readers today is My Enemy, My Brother (experiences of a survivor from Poland in an Israeli kibbutz after WWII, especially the growing conflict between Arabs and Jews).

But Forman also explores periods of crisis on the North American continent, including The Cow Neck Rebels (two young brothers in the Battle of Long Island in the American Revolution); Life & Death of Yellow Bird (a Sioux orphan becoming a medicine man), People of the Dream (the trek of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce from their home in Oregon to the border of Canada); Song of Jubilee (a Virginia slave’s experiences during the US Civil War), and So Ends This Day (a whaling vessel involved in slave trade).

But to my way of thinking, his most powerful novels are his first three: Ring the Judas (Greek children in dangerous times after WWII), The Shield of Achilles (youngsters dealing with nationalist extremism on the island of Cyprus), and The Skies of Crete (a young girl and her family, attempting to escape the Nazi invasion).

Ring the Judas Bell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965) focuses on a brother and sister. Nicholos is an ordinary youngster in extraordinary times. “It was early spring, and a boy in tattered homespun lay on a hillside surrounded by sheep. Nicholos Lanaras was happy; warmth stirred his limbs. High above, eagles hung on the air currents, and he watched reverently as though they were the children of Zeus.” But a sound distracts him, and he runs for cover, conditioned by memories of the Hitler war. He is inspired by the ideals of his father, the village priest; grieved by the death of his mother during the Nazi incursion; and loved by his energetic, impetuous older sister. The book tells what happens to the brother and sister when, with the other village children, they are captured by the Andarte night fighters and taken to a Communist prison camp in Yugoslavia, how the two of them react differently to their captors and the hardships of their trek, and how they manage their escape and return to their home village—an altogether traumatic, but transformative, experience.

The New York Times critic called it “superior fiction,” with “more depth, bite and stark realism than most of what is written for young readers.” It is an ideal novel for reaching eighth graders. It would challenge them, engage them, and involve them in serious considerations of conflicts so common in the world today. Forman is such a versatile writer that his book would introduce young readers to a wide variety of literary techniques, but in a context of exciting, suspenseful action. A 1965 novel for adolescents, it suggests a different and, in my opinion, superior definition of “young adult.”

(By the way, because of the weeding of his books in libraries across the country, Forman’s books are available through Alibris and AceBooks, in good condition at good prices. Reading them is rewarding to mature adults as well as “young adults.”) ( )
  bfrank | Jul 18, 2007 |
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