Columnists > Voices

Words becoming flesh

Treadmill books that make the past come alive

Issue: "News of the Year," Dec. 29, 2007

Christmas celebrates the Word becoming Flesh, but writers who want readers to understand both past and present have a need for their words also to become flesh: They need to make names and dates come alive for their readers. That's particularly the case when historians and journalists want to make our hearts as well as our minds aware of the ravages of sin: Human interest holds our attention.

In This Immoral Trade: Slavery in the 21st Century (Monarch, 2006), Caroline Cox and John Marks give the human stories and specific detail behind what might otherwise seem like a statistic too immense to grasp: "At least 27 million men, women and children are slaves today."

This Immoral Trade has moving stories about what's becoming known-slavery in Sudan and Uganda-and also what's largely unreported: the sex slaves, forced porters, and child soldiers of Burma. A section on the history of Islamic slavery is particularly salient because so little has been written about it; as Bernard Lewis stated, "The documentation for a study of Islamic slavery is almost endless; its exploration has barely begun."

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Alain Besancon's A Century of Horrors (ISI Books, 2007) also notes what is known-Nazi ruthlessness-and moves on to what only scholars and some conservatives have examined, the even greater number of murders by Communism. Besancon notes that "today's historical memory treats the two ideologies unequally to the point of seeming to forget communism," and gives statistics of word usage in a major newspaper during the 1990s: "Naziism" occurs 480 times, "Stalinism" 7; "Auschwitz," 105, "Kolyma," 2; "Magadan," 1 . . . "Ukrainian famine," 0.

(Kolyma is the area of northeastern Siberia where Josef Stalin placed many of his concentration camps; Magadan is its chief town and port. The Ukranian famine was a government-created famine that led to 5 million to 6 million deaths in 1933.)

Two books make the battles of brother against brother come alive. Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006) is a thoughtful response to books glorifying a contest that by early 1865 had become almost a bottomless pit of horrors. Sun Shuyun's The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth (Doubleday, 2006) shows that the ruthlessness of Mao Zedong and other Communist leaders began early; as in the Soviet Union and Spain during the 1930s, Chinese revolutionaries were often more in danger when bucking the Party line than when on the front lines.

All those books make sobering reading, but-as is often the case-fiction shows best the friction of ethnicities and ideologies in combat, as well as the opportunities for healing. Michael O'Brien's Island of the World (Ignatius, 2007) is one of the best Christian novels about forgiveness and grace I've ever read. Its central character is Josip Lasta, a child born in Bosnia in 1933 who loses all he loves at the hands of Serbian nationalists during World War II and Tito's Communists during the 1950s.

The book is long but hard to put down. It includes brilliant scenes of the love of a father for his son, of terror that would make a boy want to die, of a wondrous love at first sight, of terror that would make a man want to die, of a prison island where only dreams of vengeance keep a man from dying, of despair that outweighs vengeance, and of a tipping point where grace outweighs despair.

In the end, the book is about the worst and the best. Flashbacks of the hell Josip has seen keep him from even entering a church. He yearns to leave this world and finds God sending him to a new world. Crucifixion, through God's providence, leads to resurrection, and in turn the opportunity to save other lives. Such a summary of Island of the World sounds theoretical and dry: O'Brien, though, like the best novelists, turns words into flesh.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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