October 2010

Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth by Sandra Dutton; Houghton Mifflin Books For Children, New York, 2010, $15.00, soft cover, 134 pp. Includes a two page Acknowledgment section.

Kid’s Stuff

Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth is a book about an intelligent young woman from a family whose mother, at least, is a staunch fundamentalist young earth creationist. Dad and grandmother seem more inclined to avoid any biblical controversies with mom. Mary Mae is a bright child who attends public school in the greater Cincinnati area. This is where the trouble starts as you can imagine. Dutton has the storyline revolve around church, school and home activities while she gently interjects most of the standard anticreationist arguments. Mary Mae is of an age and intellect to question anything that doesn’t seem to make sense or that is contrary to what she is learning in school. When questioning her church’s teaching of a 6000 year old earth, Mary Mae’s mother tells her that biblical scholars have calculated that age based upon Genesis and the begats of the generations. Further questioning gets her a unsatisfying, “because that’s the way it is,” type of answer.

As Mary Mae continues her questioning, her mother speaks with the church officials seeking their advice. They decide that the kids should put on a puppet show to illustrate the creation story of Genesis. While show prep weaves its way through the book, Mary Mae picks up more blasphemy from school in the form of fossils and their implications towards the age of the earth - tricks from the Lord to test us. Mom has had enough by this point and pulls her from public school for home schooling. Mary Mae’s mom proves to be terribly inadequate as a home school teacher.

The church puppet show preparation has not helped Mary Mae answer any nagging questions either. She has realized the impossibility of the Noah’s Ark story which is her part of the show. She’s figured out that the Ark isn’t big enough for all the animals or their food supply. On top of that, the dinosaurs aren’t even mentioned. All is resolved happily at the puppet show. The family church is visited by a traveling preacher from Oklahoma. Despite being a fundamentalist himself, the preacher is a bit more liberal than one might expect and gives the family an interpretation that satisfies all. All is well; Mary Mae goes back to public school and her mother is a bit more relaxed about biblical literalism although I felt her “conversion” was a bit too easy.

Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth presents a nice tidy story resolved by quality public education and just a bit of liberalism to take the young earth creationism edge off. This is a nice story based upon the same arguments used in adult level anti-creationist books. It is important that these ideas be presented to young people and the earlier the better. Education is an interesting field. We learn from trusted persons in authority whom we respect. As children, we trust and respect the same people our parents do. It isn’t until later in life that we are able to form or re-form those trusts. Information learned early in life is deeply ingrained and very hard to dislodge. Religious training, regardless of how fundamental or liberal it may be is started very early in life and has that advantage over formal schooling. This is a good feature of religions in general as the moral codes necessary for a properly functioning society requires this. The down side is that science education gets a late start and misses some of the early developmental learning time when a child’s brain is sucking up knowledge like a sponge.

I found one factual error in Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth on page 21. Mary Mae’s teacher is explaining geology to the class and tells them that the Cincinnati area was “twenty degrees north of the equator” during the Ordovician when in fact it was fifteen to twenty degrees south of the equator.

Mary Mae’s family and her church members are portrayed in what I would call stereotypical fashion in the eyes of many. They appear as undereducated country folk with the accents and vocabulary to go along with it. Mary Mae’s mother was terribly inept at home schooling fitting another stereotype that often isn’t true. Many home schooled children perform better on standardized testing than their public school brethren. Anyone who believes that fundamentalist Christians fit this mold will find themselves sorely mistaken. I would think that Christians, fundamentalist or not, may be insulted by these characterizations.

Dutton is a Norwood native who is now living in Maine. Readability - Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth is directed at ages from 8 to 12 according to the book’s cover. In applying Fry’s standard Readability Graph for reading level, Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth reveals a third to seventh grade reading level. I checked three passages for this test and the two 7th grade results are highly skewed by the 16+ word length of Dutton’s sentences. From a content standpoint, Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth is probably better suited for 8 to 10 year olds.

On the Upside - Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth brings the scientific arguments against young earth creationism to a youthful audience. More liberal Christians may find the message refreshing and helpful. It is good to see an author bringing scientific principles to a younger audience and demonstrating that asking questions is the best way to learn.

On the Downside - I doubt there will be many converts from the fundamentalist young earth creationist ranks as I believe parental censorship will limit exposure in those groups. Portraying the characters as stereotypical country fundamentalists may not sit well with some. I would be very surprised to see Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth as suggested reading in the public, private or home schooling arenas from censorship on the one hand to political correctness on the other.

Overall Rating - The message and ideas behind Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth are well intended and their presentation is logical for the intended audience. I doubt that child readers will pick up on the things on which I commented negatively.

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