Expanding Your Literacy Toolkit: Young Adult Literature + Judeo-Christian Religious Allegory
Charm & Strange by Stephanie Keuhn
“I’m trying to get to Eden, but I forgot a flashlight.”
(Keuhn, Location 716)
Much of the literature we read in school focuses on establishing the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, real and unreal. Stephanie Keuhn’s Charm & Strange (2013) is an incredibly powerful and wonderfully rich take on how the brain handles and processes information, and how outside forces can blur our understanding of what is real. Many well known authors use Judeo-Christian allusion and allegory in order to explore these truths (C.S. Lewis, Thomas Hardy, for example). While you can certainly read Charm & Strange without any prior background knowledge in religion, it does offer the reader an enriched understanding of the text.
Charm & Strange: Examples of Religious Symbolism in the Text
Charm & Strange is about a teenage tennis player named Andrew Winston Winters. He has a really difficult life. He and his siblings are sexually abused by their father and in an effort to escape the emotional suffering caused by this abuse, Andrew, his older brother, and his seven year old sister decide to attempt suicide- only Andrew doesn’t go through with it. In the years following their death Andrew suffers mentally and physically. He has few friends at his school- aside from Jordan, a girl who is new to the school, and is entirely ostracized from everyone else. When Andrew’s mental health declines, and he begins to hallucinate that he is changing into a wolf, Jordan drives Andrew to a mental health facility so that he can receive help.
The book is filled with religious allegory and symbolism, starting first with Andrew’s name, which may be a reference to St. Andrew. According to the Bible, St. Andrew was a disciple of Jesus Christ. He was the brother of Simon Peter, which is significant as the book routinely explores the idea of brotherhood and what it means to be a sibling.
In the novel, there is a place where students sneak off to party which they call Eden. Alumni that visit the school state that it was once called Paradise, which is another word that obviously has religious ties. Eden is a reference to the Garden of Eden, a place where humans were alleged to have been expelled from when they disobeyed God. While for the students, Eden represents a sort of paradise, for Andrew Eden is a place that represents a sort of stability and beauty in comparison to his very scarred domestic life.
There are many instances where religious language or references are made, but perhaps the most significant allusion is to the River Jordan. Andrew is saved in his mania by his friend Jordan. She ushers him from hallucination and delusion towards a new life after treatment. The name Jordan is significant because the river Jordan is the supposed place where John the Baptist baptized Christ. Therefore, Jordan baptizes Andrew into a new life, that is free from the burden of his past.
How to Look for Religious Imagery/Symbolism in a Text
You don’t need to be religious to benefit from a superficial understanding of biblical/religious stories. For many centuries people dedicated their lives and their craft to their religion. Establishing a basic understanding of the major points of the Old and New Testament will help readers pick up on allusions that may be important.
If you sense that an author may be using religious allegory, one of the easiest ways to check for it, is to look up the origin of character names and the title of the story. Regardless of religious allegory, looking up the significance of names can help connect you to other texts and to more fully understand an author’s intent. You can do this by using a biblical reference book in your library or by performing a quick web search.
In Christianity, biblical characters will have specific images associated with them. (for example, St. Peter is always depicted with a key in hand because he is thought of as the father of the church, or John the Baptist will always be depicted in art wearing a hair vest, because he wore one in life out of penance). Don’t glance over images too quickly. If an author thought them up, there will more than likely be significance to that object.
Other Books with Religious Symbolism / Allegory
If you are interested in learning more about religious allegory you can find resources in print form in the library using our catalog, you can find resources on our databases (Bloom’s in specific), and you can also check out some of these titles which have some heavy-duty religious allegory.
C.S. Lewis was a devout Catholic and frequently used religious allegory in his works. If religious allegory isn’t your thing, his books are still very entertaining. The Narnia series is aimed at younger readers, but if you want to try your hand at some of his other works, The Screwtape Letters and Till We Have Faces have tons of religious symbolism (both Christian and Greco-Roman).
This book discusses the concept of immortality and morality. What makes humans human? What happens when something that makes us human (life, death) ceases to be an obstacle?
One day Ignatius wakes up and he has horns coming out of his head and people start telling him their deepest, darkest secrets. This tale is a bit darker than a lot of books with religious allegory, but what more could you expect coming from an author who is the son of Stephen King?
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