Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review of Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech

Creech, Sharon. The Unfinished Angel. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins, 2009.

I read The Unfinished Angel yesterday, and coincidentally there was an article by Anne Rice in today's Parade about "The Angels Among Us." Having single-handedly begun her own vampire craze a generation before Twilight, Rice has just published a book called Angel Time, which I haven't read. In her Parade article, Rice explains that while she understands the appeal of vampires, "with angels we are most certainly on surer ground....One cannot help but be glad that once the present vampire craze is over, angels will still be busy guarding their earthly charges and answering prayers."

Frankly, I don't think that, as Anne thinks is possible, fans of vampires are really seeking angels. C'mon! Vampires are dangerous and sexy. Angels might occasionally be dangerous, but sexy? There are some intriguing Renaissance paintings and sculptures of famous biblical angels wielding mighty swords and looking most fabulously ferocious - but nope, vampires and angels are apples and oranges.

The angelic narrator of the Unfinished Angel couldn't be more different from a vampire, but it doesn't exactly fit our ideas of what an angel should be, either. Right away, we find out that this angel is far from perfect and is well aware of the fact. It knows it's an angel but doesn't know exactly what it is doing in this place in the Swiss Alps, what its purpose is, or exactly how far its "territory" extends. It has never seen another angel. Although it is supposed to know every word of every language, it realizes that its knowledge is very incomplete. It fears that it hasn't received some kind of crucial angel training. I was reminded of a worker who has been plunked down in an office all alone by an amiable but overworked supervisor and left there after a few vague and encouraging words.

One problem with this angel's assignment is that there aren't very many kids, just lots of old people whose lives are quiet and needs are few. But then Zola and her dad arrive from America with plans to open an international school, and things begin to liven up. For one thing, Zola can actually see the angel, quite a rarity. (For the record, the angel looks person-like, with an attractive face, a crooked yet regal robe, an indeterminate gender, and no wings). For another, she has discovered that there are runaway children, presumably orphans, living rough in a shed nearby - and this fact suddenly gives the angel quite a lot to do.

The angel's uncertainty is both charming and fascinating - many of its questions are the ones that we want to know, too. On the other hand, those questions are the same ones that we humans ask ourselves and each other. Why am I here? What is my nature? What is my purpose? Why am I so imperfect? And although these questions are not answered, what the angel (and the reader) gradually realizes is that one can be imperfect - in fact, one can be one of those amazingly flawed "peoples," as the angel calls humans - and still do a lot of good on this earth. This realization shakes the angel up a bit. "My head, is has flown off to the moon. Is everyone an angel?" But eventually, the angel understands that, like itself, humans are "unfinished."

The way the angel speaks - with a way of getting words and syntax slightly wrong - is a quaint way of demonstrating its imperfection and slight otherworldliness, but it can be a bit too cutesy. Luckily, the angel itself isn't cutesy, having the tendency to be balky, cranky, and uncertain. Always, though, its intentions are good (it's an angel!). The whole orphaned children plot felt rather inauthentic to me, as I simply couldn't believe in their all showing up in a shed in Switzerland (they come from all over) nor in their personalities (each has an odd little quirk) nor in their fairy-tale fates. In fact, I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that even Zola didn't interest me. For me, this book is all about the angel.

One big question I have is about the pigeon. What is this miraculous pigeon that Zola describes as showing up in her preemie brother's hospital room? Is it something of the same nature as our angel? Is it of a higher order? What is its significance (it must have one - a pigeon graces the cover)? The angel wonders all these things as well, but if there are any answers, they eluded me. 'Sokay - I don't always need answers.

This is a quick, quirky, accessible, and thought-provoking story - I suspect that quite a few kids will find its tone quite appealing. Recommended for ages 9 to 12.

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