The Labors of Hercules Beal
Whenever I gather preachers to talk about the value of having a robust program of general reading to feed their sermon-writing endeavors, I always make a strong case for the regular reading of YA (Young Adult) or Middle Grade fiction. Doing so has a slew of advantages for preachers or for anyone else.
First, the books usually take an adult just hours and not days or weeks to read. Tolstoy these works are not. Second, well-written Middle Grade fiction helps us see the world through young eyes as the characters in such novels negotiate the basic levels of human emotion, grief, loss, and identity in ways that are instructive to any person of any age. Third, Middle Grade fiction embodies a truth about preaching just generally that I have often heard Neal Plantinga articulate: if your sermon can reach the heart of a 12-year-old, it will be just as effective for that young person’s parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Preachers can learn much from how Middle Grade authors wield the English language.
In recent years, then, I have read a lot of the works of people like Katherine Paterson, Kate DiCamillo, Kwame Alexander, Jarrett Krosoczka, and my friend and colleague Gary D. Schmidt. Lately I was particularly taken with a trilogy of books by DiCamillo: Raymie Nightingale, Louisiana’s Way Home, and Beverly Right Here. I highly recommend all of them.
But this summer I was thoroughly taken with Gary Schmidt’s latest novel, The Labors of Hercules Beal. Schmidt has won the Newberry Honor and been a finalist for the National Book Award for his works such as Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, The Wednesday Wars, Orbiting Jupiter, Okay for Now, and Just Like That. Every one of them is amazing. And now in this newest novel comes also one of Schmidt’s finest works.
The story centers on middle-schooler Hercules Beal who is being raised by his older brother Achilles and his somewhat Goth girlfriend Viola (who Hercules suspects is a vampire) following the sudden death of Hercules’s and Achilles’s parents in a car wreck nearly one year earlier as the story opens. And like other works by Schmidt, as the story unfolds, we see a startling series of events in which young Herc tries to make his way back to some kind of wholeness following the destruction of almost everything he knew and the wreckage this has left in his own young heart.
As the story begins, Hercules is about to enter a new school, specifically the Cape Cod Academy for Environmental Sciences. His first encounter is with a former Marine who is Herc’s homeroom teacher for the year: a seemingly hard-bitten, tough-as-nails man’s man who insists on being addressed ever and only as Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer. (Soon enough the Lt. Col. will be revealed as having a heart of gold but he sure looks tough.)
Lt. Col. Hupfer gives the entire class a huge assignment that will carry them through the entire academic year ahead. Each student will be required to complete a Classical Mythology Application Project. One Asian student has the assignment to map classic Greek mythology onto the mythology stories that came from Vietnam. Another was asked to sketch a graphic novel version of The Odyssey. And young Hercules? His name made his assignment obvious enough: he has to find ways to replicate–right there in his life on Cape Cod–the Twelve Labors of Hercules and then submit a 150-word reflection paper on each Labor.
And with this set up that takes place early in the novel, the action is off and running in ways that I found scintillating, harrowing, and in the end always extremely clever and often very witty. Throughout the novel I also experienced something I find happens basically every time I read Schmidt or DiCamillo or Paterson or Krosoczka or Alexander: I find myself almost weeping.
As I finished this book on the airplane ride home after a recent vacation in Maine, I had to keep taking my reading glasses off to dab my eyes and blow my nose. The ways in which Schmidt manages to articulate the angularities of the human heart as we see them displayed in Hercules’s journey back toward wholeness are instructive, revelatory, and for also any of us readers who have our own issues to deal with, Schmidt’s presentation of what happens to Hercules can be a healing experience. Schmidt manages to provide valuable life lessons on family, friendship, faithfulness, and love.
Already on the first pages of this novel, we are made privy to a practice Hercules has been doing for almost a year as the story opens. Every day when the weather is not foul, he gets up very early and treks through the pre-dawn darkness to a dune that overlooks the Cape Cod beach on the ocean. And then he waits for the sunrise.
At the top, the wind is usually pretty high. It’s still mostly dark, and for a little while I stand with my back to everyone else on the whole freaking continent. Then I sit and watch. The light starts to change. I begin to make out the ocean . . . The sun rises and rises, until its bottom is still attached to the horizon, like a sticky caramel that can’t pull away. And then it does, and the sun jumps into the sky, and everything is yellow and red and gold, and I whisper, “Morning, Mom” and “Morning, Dad” and the light is all around me now (pp. 5-6).
That is what reading The Labors of Hercules Beal is like: when it’s over, the light is all around you.