Lydia Millet is one of the best novelists too few people have heard of, despite her having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and a winner of a Pen Center USA Award for Fiction.
“A Children’s Bible,” her 13th novel, has a whiff of Ling Ma’s 2018 end-time novel, “Severance,” the cold-bloodedness of “Lord of the Flies,” and, perhaps most of all, the urgency of Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book, “The Lorax.” Not surprisingly, as Millet has said the Dr. Seuss tale of environmental trampling and greed was one of her favorite books as a child.
And “A Children’s Bible” is most successful when read as a parable. It doesn’t have the texture or sinew of Millet’s “Oh Pure and Radiant Heart,” her novel about the creators of the atomic bomb being transported to 2003 Santa Fe. Or the layering of satiric detail of her “How the Dead Dream,” a novel about final animals and species extinction. But if it’s a parable, it’s deadpan-funny, told in the first person by Eve, a youngish adolescent, in an economical, spot-on snarky voice.
Eve is smart, perceptive, and contemptuous of the adults who are supposed to be in charge of the dozen kids, ranging in age from 9 to 17, all stuck together in a lakeside summer home: “The great house had been built by robber barons in the nineteenth century, a palatial retreat for the green months.” Their parents had been close friends in college and have come together for a “Big Chill” type reunion.
These parents are not given the dignity of names. They aren’t like Charles Schulz’s out-of-frame parents in the “Peanuts” comic strips, but are caricatures given labels, such as “the peasant mother,” or “the unraveling mother,” or “‘rents.”
In fact, an ongoing game among the kids is deducing whose parents are whose, since they do their best to camouflage their connections to the adults. The grown-ups, mainly interested in drinking and talking, barely notice the children. A storm of epic proportions is forecast, and the adults prove not only drunken, but completely unqualified to protect the kids or even batten down the hatches.
Eve’s younger brother, the endearing Jack, aged 9, is the sensitive seer in the lot. He also has a love of animals, and when the Category 4 storm blows off part of the roof, and water floods in, Jack escapes to a tree with the other younger kid, Shel, and with boxes of wildlife (a rabbit, a fox, an owl) they trapped and are caring for.
Jack has been given a book of biblical stories for children by “the peasant mother,” who turns out not to be a mother at all, and here the allegory is a little heavy-handed, but not without Millet’s trademark humor. When one of the teenagers finds out Jack is puzzling over the book, she says to Eve: “Tell your baby brother … The only people who take the Bible literally are Alabama inbreds. And wife-beaters in Tennessee.”
Jack insists that he and his pal Shel have decoded the Bible: “They say God but they mean nature.”
The kids decamp, first for treehouses. Then, when the big trees fall because of the floodwaters, they move to a cottage and barn on higher ground, led by the yardman, Burl. At first they peg him as homeless, but he turns out to have the kind of resourcefulness and native ingenuity their more privileged parents lack.
The novel sweeps along with more torrential rains; “trail angels,” who are helpers for long-distance hikers, and who help and teach the kids; a marauding band of “redneck soldiers”; and a landowner who arrives dramatically like an older Charlize Theron in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” There are migrating diseases, food and gas shortages, empty store shelves, and hoarders. A girl named Dee covers herself in hand sanitizer and speaks vaguely of a plague, which Jack also worries about.
In other words, this is very much a novel for our times. The Greta Thunberg-type anger and disdain the children have for the adults is rooted in pressing concern about climate change and the catastrophe that will arrive unless grown-ups act with grown-up urgency about the degradation of the environment.
“Unless,” the Lorax warns ominously in the Dr. Seuss fable. Millet, who has a master’s degree in environmental policy from Duke, wrote in a 2016 essay in The Atlantic, “I’ve wanted, in much of my own fiction, to echo this child’s parable, call forth a ghostly Lorax and adult unless … that entertains the necessity of a continued presence in the world of forests and pupfish and elephants, not only for their own sake but for ours.”
In “A Children’s Bible,” Lydia Millet has given us a compellingly written, compact, slyly funny novel that warns of the catastrophic events that may very well overwhelm us. Unless.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance book critic whose reviews have appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the New York Times Book Review, and the Women’s Review of Books, among other publications.
A Children’s Bible
by Lydia Millet
W. W. Norton, 224 pages, $25.95