The Book of Sorrows

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I read The Book of the Dun Cow a couple of years ago at Andrew’s urgent recommendation and it has since become one of my very favorite books. It’s a difficult book to recommend because it’s so hard to describe. After all, it’s about a rooster. And yet it’s about pain, and heartbreak, and the cold, disastrous march of evil through the world. It’s about war and heroism and sacrifice. It’s playful and funny and then by turns bloody, violent, and horrifying. It’s a thing almost unique unto itself and it is wholly excellent. Rarely a day goes by that some aspect of Chaunticleer and his coop doesn’t cross my mind.

The book so thoroughly affected me that upon learning of the existence of its sequel, I was mortified. I didn’t think I could bear to read it for fear that it wouldn’t live up to the promise of the original. I was desperately fearful that Walt Wangerin, Jr. might find himself fallen into the same nest of subsequent mediocrity so completely mined by pioneers of hubris like George Lucas.

So a lot of time has gone by and The Book of Sorrows has sat lonely upon my shelf, warding me away with promises of disappointment. But a few weeks ago, I gave in and took down the book. I sank into the warmth of my couch on a cold winter night and returned to The Coop once more to learn what had become of the lordly rooster and his hens and what adventure might still await them.

The story that greeted me was nothing like what I had anticipated. Something terrible and beautiful lay in wait. Wangerin’s masterstroke is not that The Book of Sorrows is another tale of the same cast, but that it is an outworking of the epic consequence of the resolutions in The Book of the Dun Cow.

(If you haven’t read The Book of the Dun Cow, you might want to do so now. The rest of this post will contain references to the events of that book, although no major spoilers.)

The book opens as winter is falling across the land and the Animals are struggling to recover from the War. Although Wyrm is defeated and Cockatrice is dead, innocence is lost. The Animals, the Keepers of Evil, learn that the world is not what it was before.
They are without a home and evil, though overcome, has left fear in their hearts. The dying do not heal. The living grieve. The frozen earth refuses to accept the dead. And Wyrm, though blinded, has studied his defeat and is devising a terrible purpose in the deeps of the earth.

From the first page, Wangerin drops the weight of consequence in the reader’s lap, the weight of the world’s broken nature. Gone is the notion that the Animals themselves can triumph over evil. The reality is that Evil must be borne. It must be kept. And the keeping of it is a matter of eternal significance.

“Ah, but Keepers of the universal evil can never retire to a quiet insignificance. They participate in the universal; the good order of the whole creation looks to them, and what they are gives heaven pause, whether they know it or not. No: never, never did the stars influence the lives of the Keepers; that is a fiction. Rather, the Keepers, when they so much as walk, tip planets. It’s a terrible responsibility, but there it is. The sobbing of a Mouse, that tiny privacy, shudders the empyrean; and though he’d never ask such a vast importance upon himself, yet there it is; he keeps evil. He needs to keep it well. So his well-being becomes a matter of cosmic discussion.”

The central conflict of The Book of Sorrows is played out in how the Keepers, and Chaunticleer primarily, struggle to bear that weight. The result is a book that is almost unbearably painful. So great is the consequence of Chaunticleer’s pride, and guilt, and his need to find redemption through his own suffering and his own action that there are times when I was scared to keep reading.

The emotional landscape of The Book of Sorrows is much like that of one of my favorite films, Magnolia. It’s textured by the pain and suffering we bring on ourselves and on those around us when we are too weak to admit we need help. The weight of evil is too much for any one of us to bear alone and short of that admission, the world itself is lost.

The beauty of the book is that its relentless and heart-crushing emotional blows are essential to its revelations of healing, renewal, and forgiveness.

“When I was hurting the most, this beautiful Cow came to me…she loved me. Isn’t that a mercy? She touched me, she fed me, she washed me, and that is how she loved me. Then this is how she forgave me…all the hurts, every one of the hurts, she took away from me with her eyes and with her tongue, and there was no reason for that. But she did it. Do you know this beautiful Cow? She knows you…she said that she loves you. You especially… You didn’t listen to her when she came to you, but that’s okay, too, because look: she sent me. This is the main reason why I came. To forgive you. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. See? I forgive you.”

I won’t spoil the revelation of who’s forgiving and who’s forgiven. I won’t dare the disservice of telling who lives or who dies, who fights, or loves, or is mended. But let me tell you that I struggled to read the final pages through the blurry sparkle of tears because even in the darkest, most frozen winter, spring is coming. I can hear it singing in the air.

Despite all my expectations, Walt Wangerin, Jr. did it. He wrote a sequel that, while wholly different, is the equal of his National Book Award-winning original. It’s not an easy book by any means; its movements are often slow, its prose dense. Where children might enjoy The Book of the Dun Cow as much as adults, The Book of Sorrows is wholly adult in its tone and its depth. But don’t let the struggle and heartache dissuade you. The Author is in control. Renewal is set in motion. Dawn is sure. The Dun Cow awaits.

If you haven’t yet discovered Wangerin, I beg you to do so. I’m convinced that he is one of the Kingdom’s great storytellers.

The Book of Sorrows and The Book of the Dun Cow are available in the Rabbit Room Store.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


13 Comments

  1. Paula Shaw

    I’ve been waiting for this review. Thanks Pete. The only negative part is that I ordered both books from another source, which is totally unlike me, but I did. Boo! One’s in and waiting to be picked up, and the other will soon be in. I’m sort of wondering, since Lent is about to dawn upon us, if these books are going to give me a Lent like I’ve not known before. Lent is, by no stretch of the imagination, my least favorite season of the liturgical year. Why, I’m not exactly sure, other than when I was a worship leader it was the most exhausting and demanding in regard to the spiritual (and emotional) gymnastics it took to pray until I knew exactly what music to plug in where and everything that goes with making those choices. God was awesome and always showed up, but the process of it all ( especially Holy Week, The Great Vigil of Easter, and Easter morning) was excruciating. I do think, however, that the best service of the year has to be The Great Vigil of Easter. Everything about it is so reverent, “God-otherly”, meaty, stupefying, and yes, emotional. So, maybe reading these two books will be a bit like the process of walking through Lent, but in a different sort of way. I’m ready to find out, but like you, I think I’m a bit afraid. It’s good to know you made it through to the other side intact. That gives me hope! =)

  2. Terry K

    “he is one of the Kingdom’s great storytellers.” Amen to that! His nonfiction writing is pretty wonderful too (filled with lots of stories of course). I’ve bought multiple copies of his “Mourning Into Dancing” to give to grieving friends. He has a new book coming out next week about his recent medical battles – it’s called “Letters from the Land of Cancer.” Bound to be great.

  3. Toni Whitney

    This has been on my list for awhile. Thank you for the review. It has became a reminder for me to read these books sooner rather than later. I did stop at the bold print, however, because I want to completely savor every word of the ‘Dun Cow’ on my own.

  4. Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    Thanks, Pete. Well written, as usual. I read this book during the gray days of winter 2009, quite possibly the worst time I could have chosen to delve into such a difficult and dark story. But the end made it worth every ounce of despair.

  5. kelli

    i love The Book of the Dun Cow, and i had no idea there was a sequel! and i love Magnolia! guess The Book of Sorrows needs to be put near the top of my “to be read” list! thanks, Pete:)

  6. becky

    Like many of my favorite books, I read Dun Cow because of a recommendation here at the RR. You are right, it is nearly impossible to explain to someone else what these books are about. But once they try it they are completely won over. I love these books, and also Wangerin’s Saint Julian, another RR recommendation.

  7. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Pete – what a great service you did to this book (as well as those who will read it because of your review here). This is one of my favorite books. I think I may have even liked it better than The Book Of The Dun Cow, if only for how daring it is in it’s relentless exploration of guilt, shame, redemption, and renewal. You have so eloquently brought the heart of this book to us here, thank you for such a thoughtful review. It was good to remember this book and some of its passages with you today.

    I would like to take a little credit here, just because I’m that insecure and needy of attention. I recommended The Book Of The Dun Cow to your brother (and I think I even loaned him my newly acquired first edition), and was so gratified to see how much it resonated with him, and now you.

    One of my favorite things about my relationship with the Petersons is our exchanging of books. (Currently reading “Notes From a Tilt-A-Whirl, a gift from your brother.) I look forward to more of the same!

    And let’s you and I talk about Magnolia

  8. Chinwe

    FYI: The links for “The Book of the Dun Cow” don’t work anymore. Someone might want to update them.

  9. Dan R.

    I just finished “Dun Cow” for the 3rd (?) time, and while I did read it looking for them, the lessons I gleaned about worship were astonishing this time through. I’ve been meaning to look into this sequel, and after hearing what AP said, in the podcasted session from the last ‘Moot, about the upcoming ‘threequel’ I decided this was the perfect opportunity to try out my shiny new RR member discount.

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