Sixty Years Later
The sun.The unrelenting sun.
Daniel Paradine adjusted the brim of his hat and gazed upward, squinting in the glare as his eyes followed the lazy course of a buzzard circling high in the distance. The cloudless sky stretched on as it had for weeks, vast and blue, draped upon the wilderness around him. Mountains rose on the far horizon, their whitened tops obscured by the distance.
The steady rumble of wooden wheels filled the air, punctuated by the creaks and groans of the wagon forks and the pounding rhythm of hooves against the hard, baked soil. The sound of dozens of worn leather boots and shoes joined the percussion as they treaded the unforgiving ground.
Twelve fragile wagons, three score oxen, sixteen horses, seventeen cattle, a dozen mules, and fifty-three souls sustained by rationed food, measured water, and unbounded aspirations. An inventory of hope carried upon dreams.
With some serviceable description, some explanations of pioneer life and a dose of saccharine, Shane Johnson sets the scene. Daniel Paradine reminisces about his family’s decision to head west, and we’re introduced to his wife Lisabeth and his eight year-old son Michael.
”How can it be so hot right now, when it’s freezing at night?” Michael wondered aloud. “It wasn’t like this at home.”
Paradine indicated the peaks well to the north. “The altitude here is a lot greater than Ohio’s. At this point, probably a good six thousand feet or so. Not as high as we were, though, when the trail crested at the Continental Divide. Back at the South Pass.”
“Where the ice was?”
From this we are probably meant to see Daniel Paradine the teacher in action, taking an opportunity to explain the effects of higher altitude to his son. This is certainly a refreshing contrast to the introduction of protagonist Cameron Williams in Left Behind:
At thirty, Cameron Williams was the youngest ever senior writer for the prestigious Global Weekly. The envy of the rest of the veteran staff, he either scooped them on or was assigned to the best stories in the world.
We do not see, or even hear about via the narrator, any examples of Camshaft’s brilliant and intrepid reporting. We don’t see him dodging bullets in Belgrade or machetes in Darfur, uncovering corporate scandals or political malfeasance, or learn that his heartrending prose in a story on poverty in Appalachia sparked a national movement to do something about it. Instead, the emphasis is on how much better he is than everybody else. Whatever faults Johnson may have as a writer, he sails high over the bar set by this standard-bearer of evangelical Christian fiction.
On page 17 of Chayatocha, we learn that Paradine is “well liked, and his job as a schoolteacher had brought with it a modest level of local notoriety” in a small town in Ohio. So unlike Ellenjay, Johnson is not compelled, like some 12-year-old writer of fanfiction, to thump his chest and assert that his character is Teh Bestest Character Evar, RAAR!
Paradine does not get the chance to finish his lesson:
He went silent as he noticed something just up the way, only partly obscured within the grasses. After another moment, he recognized its form.
“Michael,” he said abruptly, “climb into the wagon and bring me my other hat, will you?”
“The black one. Be careful now…”
“You stay clear of those wheels,” his mother ordered with a worried tone. “Go around behind.”
“I will, Mama,” the boy said. “I was going to.” He stood for a moment and let the rolling wagon pass, then climbed aboard at the rear, disappearing beneath the heavy canvas cover.
Lisabeth looked toward her husband. “Couldn’t that have waited until we stopped?” She paused as the realization hit, her expression one of increasing puzzlement. “Daniel, you don’t have a black hat.”
His response was a subtle nod ahead… Barely a dozen feet from the trail lay the body of a woman, contorted and decaying. Her stained cotton sundress was in tatters, her long, tangled hair still auburn and shiny.
We learn from the marker on her grave that this woman is “Charlotte Baker, Beloved Wife and Mother, Died of the Cholera, June 1857.” Her corpse was dug up from its shallow resting place by wolves. Paradine keeps his son busy looking for the non-existent hat until the body is out of sight and men from the wagon train go to re-bury it.
While this scene could be nitpicked for plot-holes (e.g, wouldn’t Michael be familiar with what hats his father had available to wear by now?), it does accomplish a few good things for the narrative. It provides a stark reminder of the dangers of the Paradines’ journey. In my opinion, the contrast between the revenant beauty of the woman’s long, shiny auburn hair and her twisted, rotting, animal-mauled corpse lends a degree of poignancy.
It also serves to reveal some information about our characters through their actions. Daniel Paradine shows sensitivity in seeking to shield his child from the worst horrors of the journey. Had he let Michael see the body and told him to “be a man” instead of crying or shying away in revulsion, he would have been shown to be a different, and rather less pleasant man. After a few short paragraphs of explanation about the virulent lethality of cholera, we get a closer look at Lisabeth:
”Dear Father, bless that poor woman and her family,” Lisabeth whispered to herself. “Wherever they are…whoever they are…in Jesus’ name, bring them comfort….” (Ellipses in original)
Lisabeth is devout and prayerful, but she’s not out to impress anybody with it. She apparently feels no need to broadcast her prayers to her family or her fellow travelers, much less impose her faith on her entire nation, as so many fundamentalists are inclined to do. It’s not an opportunity for her to harangue her unbelieving husband, deploy Pascal’s Wager and threaten him with eternal hellfire.
And perhaps most importantly, this implies that her version of Christianity is directed toward compassion for her fellow human beings.