Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels reminds me of nothing so much as True Grit with zombies. It’s plain spoken and profound at the same time, anchored by a tough girl who is trying to do the right thing in a violent world. Unlike True Grit, there’s no one to protect and guide Temple. She’s on her own, with a vengeful man on her trail. In that way, it’s sort of True Grit in reverse. With zombies.
We meet Temple in an isolated lighthouse somewhere in the Florida keys. When a zombie (or “meatskin”) washes up on shore, Temple pulls up stakes and returns to the mainland to find a safer place to live. For a fifteen year old girl, however, the living are just as dangerous as the dead. Temple soon runs afoul of Moses Todd, a giant of a man with a lecherous brother. Temple kills the brother in self defense, and Moses starts to chase her all over the ruined Southern landscape.
Temple is not a bad person, though she constantly fears that she is. She questions what is right and wrong. She desperately wants to do what’s right, even if it is hard. For a large portion of the book, she shepherds a mentally challenged man to Texas to try and find his family. But she is constantly put into situations where she must answer with violence. She’s good at it; she’d be the first to admit it. But one comes away with the impression that this is what scares her most of all: her satisfaction with bloody jobs well done. Temple is a born soldier. She just can’t seem to make peace with that. Her bloody jobs haunt her. Her guilt drives her on as much as her need for safety.
I love these ethically thorny books, and not just because they make me wonder what I would do in similar situations. I love ethical dilemmas because they push us to really consider what is right and wrong. I’m pragmatic, and I would argue that ethics–for the most part–have to be decided based on the situation. But Bell uses this book to also look at the repercussions of the decisions, even when they were clearly the right ones in the situation.
This book has great characters and a great plot. But what made me really love it was the language. It’s plain, sure, but Bell is capable of creating beautiful images with it:
She watches the fire and feels sleepy, and when she pokes it with a stick, the embers fly up into the air like a crazy squadron of insects and then simply disappear as if they’ve gotten lodged in one of the many folds of the night. (161*)
Temple twists English a little, creating malapropisms like aerodynastics. But she’s far from stupid. As she points out later in the book, when she should have been in school, she was surviving. She speaks a bit like the characters in Firefly–that’s really the only way I can describe it. But I could read her for hours because I love the way she bends a phrase.
In a way, it’s a shame that the book is so short. This is a rich environment for stories and characters. But on the other hand, if it had been longer it would have been tempting to natter on about guilt and ethics and right and wrong and utterly suck the life out of the book. I can tell that this is a book that rewards multiple readings.
I’m really looking forward to Bell’s next book. He’s the sort of writer that elevates the genre.
* 2010 trade paperback edition.