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Book Review: In <i>A Gift Upon the Shore</i>, Brave Women Save Books In a Harsh New World

Published over 20 years ago, what author M.K. Wren foresaw is how much humans need books in order to remember our humanity.
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The novel A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren is weirdly (and I hope not completely) accurate about the forces of intolerance that exist today. Published over 20 years ago, Wren did not foresee either the globalization of information or the tentacles of surveillance under which we live, but she did understand that humankind was heading for a disaster of its own making, and that the best force against the impending doom were the accomplishments of our own making i.e., the secular humanistic achievements of scholars, writers, scientists, artists, and thinkers through the ages. What she most definitely foresaw -- and I am here to underscore -- is how much we humans need books -- hard copy books made of paper and cardboard -- in order to remember our humanity and be inspired by our own abilities as we move forward into our unknown and increasingly scary future.

A Gift Upon the Shore was a gift from a reader of my book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, who recognized in my memoir a fellow booklover and believer in humankind. Wren's novel is an unexpected revelation about the power of books, a truly moving and chilling exploration of what if: what if the nuclear decimation of our planet happened, boom and counter-kaboom, leaving only pockets of survivors in its wake, and with them only incomplete libraries of books? In A Gift Upon the Shore, all technology has vanished in the mushroom cloud and its electromagnetic pulse of destruction, and the few humans that remain are back to square one (the Stone Age, basically) in terms of growing crops, establishing communication, and organizing their communities.

For two women, secular humanists both (and an inspiration), the only way to ensure the survival of humanity is by preserving what they can of the books that they still have. By building on the beauty, curiosity, and intellectual discoveries of millennia of human endeavor, Rachel and Mary hope that future generations will use the fruits of civilization (observation, realization, and knowledge), to build a new world free of dogma, prejudice, and violence.

But for other survivors, there is a reversion to a dogma-dominated system of governance for managing their small communities. Zealots have risen from the ashes of the nuclear holocaust and their governance is harsh, maniacal, and paranoid. The zealots rely on religion to keep order but it is not a gentle one: it is the fire and brimstone preaching that can keep cowed survivors in line, and that tolerates no dissension. Only the Bible is the truth, and all other books are feared, and even abhorred.

Rachel and Mary must battle the ancient prejudices wrought of ignorance, intolerance, and fear, and demonstrate through their own survival and their own open-minded kindnesses that there are many ways to live, to think, and to create, and that strength is found in diversity, not in homogeneity or submission. By protecting their trove of fiction and non-fiction books, a collection that offers a slim but rich portion of the creativity of mankind (M.K. Wren includes the list in the book jacket itself and it reads like the best of reading lists), Rachel and Mary hope to allow future generations to build upon the good that has come before in human thinking and to avoid the bad, i.e., the pitfalls of narrow-mindedness, prejudice, and violence. Will the women succeed? Can they prevail against the worst of human nature, and bring to light the very best of human nature, its spirit of curiosity and discovery?

When Wren wrote her novel, digital books were far off in the future. I could not help but think of how every digital book, communication, and connection would be severed under Wren's nuclear war scenario. Let's not rush too quickly into the digital age; let's keep at least a hand (and heart!) in the world of hard copy books, handwritten letters, and face-to-face connections.

But whether digital or hard copy, books are truly the messengers of tolerance, freedom, and creativity -- just skim through Wren's quotations of writers from Dickens to Shelley to Unamuno to Emily Dickinson for proof of this. I believe these forces (tolerance, freedom, and creativity) will ultimately save our world from suffering a nuclear holocaust. M. K. Wren demonstrates that such qualities may be our only path to surviving one.

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