Blackfire: The Books of Bairnmoor, Volume 1. James Daniel Eckblad. Eugene, Ore.: Resource Publications, 2012. 268 pp., $30.00 pb.
“Elli Adams lived as if she were always leaving . . .” begins Eckblad’s elaborate and vibrant tale of four children who are called into a perpendicular world in order to save it.1 As in most young adult fiction, the heroes of Blackfire come to know themselves in the process of leaving what is familiar and safe. But this book is no ordinary coming-of-age quest narrative: its heroes are dramatically and self-consciously broken. Indeed, the deep vulnerability of human bodies is at the heart of this novel. Elli suffers from facial disfigurement and abandonment issues; Beatríz has been blind since birth; Jamie’s confidence is crippled by the familial abuse he has suffered; and Alex lives with Down syndrome.
The reader is led to believe that the weaknesses of these children’s bodies are in some inexplicable way transformed by their selfless immersion into the dangers of a new world.
The children, despite their physical vulnerabilities — or perhaps because of them — find themselves drawn by the Good into what seems an impossible task. They must release Queen Taralina from her captivity to the evil Sutante Bliss, thus returning the land of Bairnmoor to its original state of blessedness and generosity. In so doing, the children are told, they will save not only the strange perpendicular world of Bairnmoor, but also their own world. As the children travel more and more deeply into this sad, strange world, they find that it is less and less like their own world. They pick up along the way a group of beautiful and brave non-human friends who save them from demise more than once. Death and life lose their distinctive boundaries in Bairnmoor. But the children’s physical limitations remain with them. Beatríz never regains her sight. Alex’s dialogue is written in Down syndrome vernacular throughout the book. Yet, the reader is led to believe that the weaknesses of these children’s bodies are in some inexplicable way transformed by their selfless immersion into the dangers of a new world. Further, there is an implied connection between the children’s physical limitations and the salvific nature of the quality of “childnessness” that they bring to the quest.
Blackfire both is and isn’t a Christian allegory. If we respect the author’s claim that Sutante Bliss is not meant to represent Satan and the Good is not meant to represent God, then this book should be qualified as a secular fantasy narrative, albeit one that addresses questions of meaning similar to the questions asked by people of faith.2 To regard Blackfire as not an allegory will be liberating to the Christian reader who would otherwise spend too much mental energy seeking parallels between the terrible but beautiful world of Bairnmoor and the terrible but beautiful reality of our life before God in a broken world. In the face of the numerous details in this colorful novel about strange realities, it’s a relief to acknowledge that sometimes a Sutante is just a Sutante.
But Blackfire is an allegory in the sense that the human characters in the story — Elli and Beatríz, Alex and Jamie — represent the ongoing struggle that all humans face vis-à-vis the vulnerability of our bodies. Called to stretch past their physical and psychological limitations and yet always deeply aware of them, these unlikely literary heroes band together to create a brave and powerful force that challenges the deepest of evil. So too are we, the broken members of the body of Christ, called by God to band together despite our vulnerabilities, transforming the brokenness of our world into something that more closely reflects God’s desire for the healing of all creation.
“I have come to think that it is more important that I live as if the Good is guiding me, and hope my belief will follow the experiencing of its goodness.”
Not knowing where they go but sensing that they are being led, the children of Bairnmoor surpass the weaknesses of their individual broken bodies by living together into an active and courageous faith. As Elli puts it, “I have come to think that it is more important that I live as if the Good is guiding me, and hope my belief will follow the experiencing of its goodness. Already, in fact, I have come to think that the Good not only exists, but is also with us.”3 It is in statements like this that the author’s theological predilections become clear. In addition to being a writer and a lawyer, James Eckblad is also a pastor in the United Church of Christ. “The essence of childnessness,” explains one of the children’s wise non-human companions, “consists of truthfulness, honesty, and trustfulness; of wonderment, belief, and obedience; of gratefulness and contentment; of hopefulness and courage; of joyfulness and love; and, perhaps most of all, of humility, without which none of these other qualities could exist.”4 Embedded within this seemingly simple fantasy novel is in fact a great deal of philosophical rumination, which becomes more explicit (and occasionally borders on the pedantic) as the novel proceeds.5
Blackfire, although it is about children, is not meant to be a children’s book. It will be most enjoyed by adults (or very smart young adults) who are interested in tackling deep questions of meaning and willing to immerse themselves into a complex literary world that is entirely unlike our own. The prose is so detailed that it requires some patience on the part of the reader, but the reward for such patience is vivid immersion in a beautiful, terrifying world that is both unlike and very much like our own. Readers of Blackfire will finish the book with a distinct sense of a truth that is utterly and uniquely Christian: it is in the deep vulnerability of our own bodies that the quest to save others begins.
- Blackfire, 1.
- At a recent book launch party in Oak Park, the author addressed the question of whether the book is meant to be allegorical with a friendly but firm no.
- Blackfire, 114.
- Ibid., 100-101.
- “All that is true, and so all that is real, to the extent that anything is true and real, besides the Good,” another of the non-human friends explains, “is what is ironic and metaphorical. It is the casting away of the literal (as finite and incomplete, and derivative) and then journeying on the basis of simile that is the way to truth. What is true . . . is never what it seems to be, and always infinitely more than it is — like a poem, Elli.” Elli responds with a furrowed brow and “her brain aching from numerous hard thoughts tumbling about” (161).