The Title’s the Thing: A guest post on GODLESS by Pete Hautman for #FSYALit (guest post by Lourdes Keochgerien)
Although there isn’t much he’d change if he could write that book over, Hautman does say that he would probably change the name, admitting that even winning the National Book Award didn’t quell everyone’s concerns over the novel’s blasphemous title.
Since reading this, I haven’t been able to shake it off.
When I first picked up Hautman’s novel it was because of the title. Sure, I had heard it won some award or another, but as a teenager I didn’t really care, and it didn’t really register. I just wanted to read things I found interesting, and I found necessary.
I was raised with a Catholic upbringing, but not a very strict one. We would go to church from time to time, I attended Catholic school for a stint or two, and we would celebrate Christmas and Easter as days that were about more than just candy, presents, food, and time off from school. My mother taught me the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish and English, and when I went to Catholic school for the first time, I remember reciting the prayer in Spanish for one of the nuns. My mother always likes to say she was really impressed. I think the nun was just humoring me.
So, when I picked up Godless I was not really offended or upset. I was curious. (Mind you, this is my first reaction to everything. If there is ever an earthquake where I live, my first reaction will be, “I wonder what caused the tectonic plates to do this now?” Safety would be my last concern.) I wanted to understand why there was a random water tower on the cover, and why the book had such an enticing title.
I vividly remember devouring the book in a day, and marveling at how short it was. At the time, many YA books were of the longer variety, and I was so used to the heaviness and weight. The book felt so light in my hands and it felt wrong. But even though I finished it so quickly, I kept it for the entire month, and renewed it at my library for another couple of days. I couldn’t let it go.
The violence in the book and how each character interacted with and utilized their new found religion really kept me thinking. But that water tower. This has lingered in me for the longest time.
Whenever I felt pensive and wanted to be completely, fully, undeniably alone, I would go to a church. In the middle of the day. When there is no service and the lights were out and they hadn’t filled the basins with holy water yet. I would sit in the middle of the grandiose church and just suck in the silence. And the quiet. And the peace. I imagined this is what it would feel like to be in a water tower. You are fully alone, in a spacious place that usually serves as one thing, but you use it in a completely different way. You sit with yourself, which is harder than it sounds. And you just, be. I always wondered what would have happened if Jason just kept the Chutengodian religion to himself. Would it still be a religion if he was the only worshipper? I would like to think yes.
Now back to the title: Godless. Is there really no God in this story? Is there really anything less? I never thought there was, and still don’t. The book is not about being without a God at its core, the book is about how we allow our beliefs to overwhelm our humanity, our judgement, the potential of our true selves. Because even though Jason wasn’t fully sold on what Catholicism had to offer him, he still looked for something to replace it. He needed something to base his morality, his actions upon. Even if you are not religious, you have these guidelines you adhere to. They are in essence, your God.
The title fulfills the job of grabbing someone’s attention, and igniting conversation. It is the job of the reader to give it meaning and weight. The last thing I would change about this book is the title. It is the reason I plucked it from the library shelves. It is the reason I am talking about it more than ten years after it first came out. It is why the book instantly won my respect. A book would not be called Godless unless it had something important to say.
And what did it say to teenage Lourdes? It proclaimed: Question. Learn. Understand. And don’t be afraid of change.
And I learned all this because of a blasphemous title.
Thanks to Ally Watkins who wrote this great post about Hautman’s Eden West, which inspired this one.
Lourdes Keochgerien is the Editor-at-Large for YARN – The Young Adult Review Network. She has been devouring young adult literature since before it was a “thing” to popularly devour. She is slowly losing her hearing due to all the comedy podcasts she listens to, and hopes to one day figure out what this thing called life is. You can find her on Twitter.
Publisher’s Book Description:
“Why mess around with Catholicism when you can have your own customized religion?”
Fed up with his parents’ boring old religion, agnostic-going-on-atheist Jason Bock invents a new god — the town’s water tower. He recruits an unlikely group of worshippers: his snail-farming best friend, Shin, cute-as-a-button (whatever that means) Magda Price, and the violent and unpredictable Henry Stagg. As their religion grows, it takes on a life of its own. While Jason struggles to keep the faith pure, Shin obsesses over writing their bible, and the explosive Henry schemes to make the new faith even more exciting — and dangerous.
When the Chutengodians hold their first ceremony high atop the dome of the water tower, things quickly go from merely dangerous to terrifying and deadly. Jason soon realizes that inventing a religion is a lot easier than controlling it, but control it he must, before his creation destroys both his friends and himself.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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