Sunday, October 4, 2009

From the Spike S. Collection: Children of the Atom, by Wilmar Shiras (1953)

Plot Synopsis:

This novel is in actuality a collection of five interconnected stories that follow a group of extraordinarily gifted early adolescents. These teens, the narrative reveals, were all born to parents who eventually died from the results of an explosion at an atomic weapons facility; once orphaned, they were adopted by relatives and scattered across the country. Each learned to cope with the enormous chasm between their capabilities and the capabilities of their age-mates in different ways.

The first teen we meet, 13-year-old Timothy Paul, is discovered by school psychiatrist Dr. Peter Welles. Timothy has chosen to assimilate, purposefully hiding the extent of his gifts while at school and reserving his intellectual explorations for the confines of his private garage-based laboratory. Over time, Dr. Welles is astonished to learn that Timothy has independently discovered the principles of heredity, has been published in several media under various pseudonyms, and has even composed a symphony using mathematical equations (as a private joke). Once Timothy’s secret is out, he and Dr. Welles decide to actively look for the other “Wonder Children.”

Further investigation leads Welles to Elsie Lambeth, a girl who was brought to an asylum at not quite six by her overwhelmed guardians and has since learned to feign insanity to persuade people to leave her alone to her books; Jay Worthington, who is devoted to his blind uncle and has written three critically acclaimed biographies under a pen name; Stella Oates, a poet and student of ancient history; and several others. With Dr. Welles’ guidance, they form a special school in which they can fully develop their gifts.

As more children join the school, however, problems crop up. Breeding animals are let loose and experiments ruined. After one particularly nasty practical joke is played on the school’s faculty, the children trace all of these incidents to a boy with a cruel streak named Fred. The other children band together to teach a skeptical Fred how to have consideration for other people, and this seems to bring matters to a temporary resolution. But then a bit of demagoguery arouses the suspicions of the surrounding town and, after a tense confrontation, the children conclude that isolating themselves in their school may not be the best means of contributing to the larger world.

The Ratings:

Overall: 8 – The conclusion fails to impress, but the rest is intellectually exciting.

Characterization: 8

Shiras takes great care to make each one of the teens unique and, I believe, accurately depicts how gifted children often display gaps in their intellectual and emotional development. I have taught bright children who could sail through arithmetic and elementary algebra far beyond their grade level, yet did not understand how to round numbers and estimate. I have also been a gifted child; as a kid – and later, as a teenager – I could not pronounce half the words I had gleaned from my extensive reading, nor was I patient enough to work my way through lengthy higher math problems. SABR Matt, who was also a gifted child, could probably share similar experiences; I definitely recall his seizing upon science – especially meteorology – and math while young and leaving the humanities somewhat by the wayside. That each of Shiras’ “Wonder Children” has his or her specialties – that these children are not, in fact, equally good at everything – matches my own observations precisely.

I suppose the only thing that really disappointed me about the characterization in this novel is the portrayal of the feature antagonist of the fifth story, televangelist Tommy Mundy. Perhaps televangelists were different in Shiras’ era, but Mundy’s rabble-rousing speech condemning the school strikes me as way, way over the top. I have a lot of difficulty believing that so many of the townspeople would swallow such obvious swill; that so many people do in this novel, is, I think, a sign that Shiras doesn’t give the public as much credit as perhaps she should.

Plot/Pacing: 6.5

I think this novel suffers a bit because it is a collection of separately written – though connected – stories. As stand-alones, the first four stories are very interesting, very intellectual pieces. But I suspect that Shiras did not plan to conclude as she did until the last minute, which means she had no opportunity to weave a thread of growing resentment and suspicion among the general populace before throwing Mundy at us in the final act. The ultimate result is that the ending feels tacked on as an afterthought.

Concepts/Themes: 9.5

Conclusion aside, there is much to squeal excitedly about in this book. Dr. Welles is a self-proclaimed Thomist – something that throws me into a blissful state of Catholic geekitude – and the teens themselves are eager to defend traditional morality. When Timothy is asked about his participation in the Boy Scouts, for example, he has this to say:

”…You know, Peter, when you’re very young you take all that seriously, about the good deed every day, and the good habits and ideals and all that. And then you get older and it begins to seem funny and childish and posed and artificial, and you smile in a superior way and make jokes. But there is a third step, too, when you take it all seriously again. People who make fun of the Scout Law are doing the boys a lot of harm; but those who believe in things like that don’t know how to say so, without sounding priggish and platitudinous…”

What many modern-day militant secularists don’t understand about those of us who are religious is that many of us have questioned our respective faiths. I myself have spent most of my life so far separated from the full communion of my inherited church, wandering from Protestantism to Judaism to unaffiliated spirituality in search of the truth. This May, at the age of nearly 30, I finally joined the Catholic Church after months of obsessive study. Questioning is a natural thing, but if you don’t eventually settle on some truths – if you remain mired in skepticism under the delusion that this proves your intellectual superiority – you will be a tragically incomplete person. Those who laugh or rage at the traditionalists are not “brights” – they are stuck in adolescence, shells of human beings.

Shiras’ children understand this deeply. Thus, when cruel Fred casually suggests that a method of pre-natal gender identification could enable parents to use abortion to select for gender, Timothy and Elsie react with instant outrage:

”You’re the one!” [Tim] cried. “You’re the one who has done all these tricks!”

“But how-” cried Giles in amazement.

“How do I know? It’s easy. He’s the one who doesn’t know anything except with his intelligence. He’s completely undeveloped on the feeling side,” cried Tim. “He hasn’t any right feeling at all. Only that sort of person could think of such a plan as he has just told us. He gave himself away!”

“That’s right,” said Elsie excitedly. “It has to be Fred. He doesn’t know at all how people feel about their work, or about killing calves or babies or anything…”

The “Wonder Children” also, refreshingly, recognize the value of adult guidance. For example, when Elsie is asked at the asylum about her former guardians, she displays deep disdain for their leniency:

”They spoiled me rotten,” said Elsie frankly. “Is that good? They didn’t teach me to control my temper, or to be polite to people, or anything.”

“They tried, didn’t they?”

“Not very hard. My aunt always said she couldn’t do anything with me. I was an awful brat. But grown people ought to have more control over a baby, even a bright baby. They didn’t try to tell me things. I could have understood if they had told me. Dr. Foxwell did it right away. Why didn’t they talk sense to me, the way he did? First they laughed and laughed and thought I was funny, and then they got mad with me. Stupids!”

If all bratty children could verbally express why they don’t respect their inconsistent, indulgent parents, I think they would echo Elsie’s sentiments. Meanwhile, Tim insists to Drs. Welles and Foxwell that he and the other children need teachers to supervise their studies. “[W]e are only children after all,” he says. “Nothing takes the place of experience.” Indeed not.

Add to all of the above an argument for balance between the different dimensions of the personality – an argument that, despite its being presented in Jungian terms, should delight my brother the Plato enthusiast – and an acknowledgment that super-book-smarts do not necessarily translate to social or leadership smarts, and what you have is a book that, even with its flawed construction, should delight many a conservative reader.

1 comment:

  1. My co-author is definitely right about one thing...she commented about the oft-lopsided nature of the development of GT youth...I can speak from some experience on that front. What I like about this book, from the sound of it, is that these kids weren't encouraged to run off and become one-dimensional geniuses...instead they were put together so that they might learn from the strengths of their fellow gifted minds and encouraged to become better-rounded and more complete. Especially Fred.

    I had the good fortune to attend the best public high school on the US East Coast (per the Washington Post's most recent survey of public magnet schools for the gifted and talented) - and later, to encounter some brilliant professors in disciplines outside my chosen specialty (meteorology). Between my parents steadily encouraging me to try new things in areas outside math and science (not to mention to go outside and play!) and my well-rounded liberal arts education, I've developed interests outside my career profession that now far surpass my initial interest in meteorology and statistics in their ability to engage my mind and keep me thinking.