I’ve mentioned this series briefly before, but this is my first time recapping one of the books. Wish me luck.
The back cover gives you a good idea of what you’re getting into:
Ouija boards, amulets, charm pouches…
Just kid’s stuff, right? At least, that’s what Rebecca and Scott think when they first move to Crescent Bay. Then they run into the Society—a select group of students who practice occultic rituals using these objects—a group that decides Becka and Scott are a threat to them and their powers.
Soon the brother and sister discover the hidden power behind the “games”—and the dangerous consequences for those standing in its way. Not until the final showdown, when their faith is put to the ultimate test, do Scott and Rebecca realize the awesome power and victory of God over darkness.
Oh boy. Well. This is really readable, enjoyable even (apart from some “voice” issues I’ll get to later), but I am really not the target market here. I’ll do my best to give it a fair reading, but I’m certain there are things that didn’t work for me BECAUSE I’m not the ideal reader. The book opens with Rebecca trying out for the track team, and mentally comparing herself to Julie Mitchell, the team’s best runner. (We’re in tight third-person for most of this book, which is why the occasional insertion by an omnicient narrator who sounds like a folksy middle-aged man irritates me so much):
Fit in. What a joke. Rebecca had spent most of her life living in the villages of Brazil with her mom, her little brother, and a father who flew his plane in and out of the jungle for humanitarian and mission groups. And now, suddenly, she was expected to fit in. Here? In Crescent Bay, California? Here, where everybody had perfect skin, perfect bodies, perfect teeth? And let’s not forget all the latest fashions, right out of Mademoiselle or Cosmopolitan or whatever it was they read. Fashions that made Becca feel like she bought her clothes right out of Popular Mechanics. (p. 3)
Sigh. On the one hand, this sort of “everyone else is pretty and I am not like the other girls” interior monologue is pretty par for the middle grade/YA course. On the other, there’s an added touch of specifically-Evangelical-Christian disdain lurking in Becka’s thought processes at times, and I see a hint of it here. Protip: if you have any interest at all in making friends, don’t be all “whatever it was they read” before you’ve even talked to anyone.
We also learn that Becka and Scott’s dad is missing, presumed dead; his plane went down near “a tribe of South American Indians” notorious for “its fierceness and its use of black magic.” Annnnnd again: I’m not the target reader. It’s not like I adore every cultural practice I’ve ever encountered, either; it’s just that “black magic” isn’t my go-to description for the ones I find abhorrent. But within the context of the book and series it works well, so I’m going to shut up about it from here on in.
After Becka faceplants on the track we switch to Scott, just in time to see him going to the Ascension Bookstore for the first time. I’ll be honest: I like Scott better than Becka as a character. But unfortunately our first glimpse of him is underwhelming:
“You coming of what?” It was Darryl. Scott had met him a couple of days ago at lunch. Darryl wasn’t the tallest or best-looking kid in school—actually, he was about the shortest and dweebiest. His voice was so high you were never sure if it was him talking or someone opening a squeaky cupboard. Oh, and one other thing. Darryl sniffed. About every thirty seconds. You could set your watch by it. Something about allergies or hay fever or something.
But at least he was friendly. And as the new kid, Scott couldn’t be too picky about who he hung with. New kids had to take what new kids could get.
For the past day or so, Darryl had been telling Scott all about the Society—a secret group that met in the back of The Ascension Bookshop after school. Only the coolest and most popular kids could join. (Scott wasn’t sure he bought this “coolest and most popular” bit, since they’d let Darryl be a member. But he didn’t want to hurt the little guy’s feelings, so he let it go.) (p. 5)
Gosh, Scott, could you be anymore judgemental and crappy about a boy who’s trying to be nice to you? Also: I’m not buying “new kids had to take what new kids could get” or “he didn’t want to hurt the little guy’s feelings” as the thoughts of a kid. It sounds like someone’s folksy middle-aged uncle.
But wait, it’s about to get exciting. The woman behind the counter scowls at Scott as soon as she sees him, which causes…he narrative to break out of tight third-person and into omniscient narrator. Damn it.
When she glanced up and saw Scott, a scowl crossed her face. She seemed to dislike him immediately. He hadn’t said a thing; he hadn’t done a thing. But that didn’t matter. There was something about him that troubled her—a lot.
Scott was oblivious to her reaction as he followed Darryl toward the hallway at the back of the store. (p. 6)
We get some exposition about how Scott and his family share a deep faith in God (“and it definitely wasn’t anything weird,” the book tells us defensively), and the decorations on the walls remind Scott of something he can’t put his finger on. It feels cold, an inner voice tells him to leave, and then he encounters the Society kids, who’re hanging out playing with a Ouija board. Scott has to ask Darryl what it is because he’s never seen one before.
When Scott enters the room the Ouija board temporarily stops working, then spells out D-E-A-T-H, then flings itself off the table and lands at his feet. This is the point when I got onboard with the plot, because come on, that’s creepy. And I can see how that’s a compelling fantasy: just by being a Christian, Scott is a threat to them.
We skip back to Becka, who’s being befriended by Julie. Julie thinks Becca should join the team, and is friendly and encouraging. But then Julie wigs out for a minute because she can’t find her “pouch,” which she says is a good luck charm that “the Ascension Lady” gave her. She finds it and leaves, and Becka sits in the locker room thinking about how she’s seen pouches like that before:
They were worn by witch doctors who worshiped demons. (p. 15)
Anyway. The next day Becka is helping her mother clean out the garage. It’s full of boxes upon boxes of junk left by the previous owners, and Becka thinks she hears a scratching noise. Given the plot, I’m guessing it’s not rats.
Scott, meanwhile, is on Ye Olde Primitive Internet, and signs up to a bulletin board called “Night Light.” He uses the name “New Kid,” but then the family’s pet parrot (Cornelius) accidentally disconnects him.
Becka drags some garbage to the curb, and a cute guy pauses to talk to her.
At three in the morning Scott has a football dream in which his dad, dressed in armor, is telling him he can’t play the game without armor. The football turns to a small bronze shield, but Scott gets crushed by the faceless players on the opposing team. Scott is all “what shield? what are you talking about?” and COME ON. There’s no way this very Christian family have never read the “armor of God” verses to their kids. My suspension of disbelief just floundered.
When he wakes up Scott goes back online to “Night Light’s Chat Line,” and asks for info about Ouija boards. Someone called “Z” tells him to be careful, but then disconnects.
Down the hall, Becka is also awake, worrying about whether or not she should warn Julie about the pouch of herbs and evil. In the effort to cement our opinion that Becca is a good person, the book gives us this:
After all, Becka wasn’t like Scott. She couldn’t make friends at the drop of a hat. It took time. The few friends she did make, she made for life. (p. 34)
The book tells us this, but never backs it up. We don’t hear from any friends of Becka’s, she doesn’t talk or think about any friends from her past, and there is no evidence in this book that she even knows anyone outside this town. “Show, don’t tell” gets tossed around as advice all too often (there really are times when telling is sufficient, thank you), but when it comes to characterization of MAIN CHARACTERS whose heads we are INSIDE, there should be some sort of proof of things like “loyalty to her few hard-won friends.”
She goes downstairs to get a snack, and thinks she hears noises from inside the garage. She peeks out and sees a ball of light that streaks through the garage and disappears. So she locks the door between the kitchen and garage, as you would.
The next morning Scott gets grabbed and shoved in a locker by a large kid with a skateboard. Scott sings a couple of lines of “Glory Glory Alleluia” and cracks a few lame jokes, and basically wins me over completely. Even the skateboard guy sounds amused by Scott at one point. (Scott is basically the little-kid version of the beta hero who shows up in Christian romances; he’s not the toughest or the coolest, but he’s the nicest, and witty and strong enough in his own way).
Darryl releases him from the locker, and says getting shoved in there has nothing to do with Scott being the new kid. He also doesn’t want Scott to let anyone know who rescued him.
Julie, meanwhile, is introducing Becka to all her friends and acting as if it’s a given they’ll all like Becka too. I’m not entirely sure I get why Becka thinks this is so weird. I get that she sees herself as someone who doesn’t make friends easily (especially as compared to her brother), but…once you’ve made one friend, is it really so hard to believe that their other friends would also accept you? I *think* this has a little to do with the way some Christians feel “persecuted” by society-at-large; I mean, I think her character is meant to play to that sense of “not fitting in” that Christians feel. But I’m not part of that culture, so I could be reading this entirely wrong.
Anyway. One of Julie’s friends turns out to be the cute guy who spoke to Becka at the curb that one time; his name is Philip, and he jokes about him and Becka being “old friends” on the basis of that one encounter, which is cute. But then Becka notices that all the kids at the table are wearing those same leather pouches filled with herbs-and-evil. Uh oh.
In P.E. Scott gets knocked unconscious by a baseball. I hated gym enough that I’d be willing to believe this is just a standard occurence, but it feels more ominous than that in the context of this book. Someone, or a bunch of someones, are out to get him. He remembers the Ouija board incident.
Julie and Becka (and the rest of the track team, I guess) are practicing. Julie tells her to focus, but Becka is trying to figure out how to warn her new friend that the Ascension Lady pouches are maybe not a great idea. I feel for her. If you really did think something was evil, you’d want to warn your friend, but you’d also have to know they’d be likely to react by assuming you were out to lunch.
Becka and Scott compare notes about what’s been going on.
“They called it ‘The Ascension Bookshop,’ whatever that means.
Becka knew exactly what it meant. She took a deep breath. The Ascension Lady…that was what Julie called the woman who made her the pouch. But it wasn’t her name; it was where she worked. The Ascension Lady—just like they’d call a woman who worked at a drugstore the drugstore lady, or a bank clerk the bank lady. (p. 56)
But it wasn’t her name. I literally laughed out loud when I hit that line. Until now Becka thought “The Ascension Lady” was a NAME?
Becka has never heard of a Ouija board either.
Becka hadn’t, but having lived in the jungles of Brazil, there were lots of things she hadn’t heard of. (p. 56)
But she’s heard of Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle.
Meanwhile Scott has an infodump/email message from Z, telling him Ouija boards have existed in some form since 600B.C. and that they give information that the users don’t know, even if the users are blindfolded and the letters rearranged, which proves “spiritual intervention” is the only explanation. It sounds like a load of BS to me, but I’d have been eager to believe it when I was ten.
Becka says this means the kids are talking to spirits, and Scott asks if that means “demons,” and she says yes. It’s always demons in these books.
At breakfast their mom mentions that she came downstairs in the night, and the door to the garage was open. Becka, who knows she closed and locked it, is creeped out. But she tells herself that it can’t be connected to the Ascension Lady and everything.
Scott corners Darryl by sitting next to him at a school assembly and tells him spirits are what moves the pointer of the Ouija board, and Darryl is all, “duh.” Darryl says they’re the spirits of dead people, and Scott insists they’re demons, because the Bible says you can’t talk to dead people.
So anyway, Darryl doesn’t believe this (although not because he’s been scarred for life by the story of the Witch of Endor).
Meanwhile Becka is telling Julie her lucky charm is evil, and that’s going about as well as you’d expect. Julie calls Krissa over to join the conversation, and we get the least convincing portrayal ever of New Age gibberish:
“I don’t know about evil,” Krissi said brightly, “but they’re definitely Satanic. Sure.”
Becka snapped her head back up in surprise.
Krissi continued to smile. “Oh, don’t worry, not satanic like the mean ol’ devil with a pitchfork. But satanic like they’re supposed to unlock the deeper forces of nature or something like that. At least, that’s what Priscilla says.” (p. 68)
I’ve had more than my fair share of dumb conversations, many of them deeply laden with New Age twittishness, and never hit this use of the word “satanic.” I suspect the author of making it up. Krissa also claims that Priscilla (“the Ascension Lady”) says she is a good witch, which sounds more like something a New Age bookstore owner would claim.
During detention (for talking in assembly) Darryl convinces Scott to have a showdown with the Ouija people.
“Either Jesus is lying when he says you’re stronger, or he’s telling the truth. The only way to know for certain is by going back to the Society and proving it.” (p. 73)
When he tells his sister Becky points out the flaw in this plan:
“Doesn’t the Bible say we’re not supposed to test God and stuff?” she asked. (p. 74)
Scott snaps back that nobody’s testing God, but someone’s got to prove to “those morons” that God is stronger than the demons. Z, meanwhile, has sent him another lengthy message warning that contact with a Ouija board is one of the “easiest and quickest ways to become possessed,” which reads weirdly like becoming possessed is something you’d want to happen. I know that’s not what Z (or anyone else) means, but “quickest and easiest” is a damned weird way to phrase that.
Scott has another dream in which he’s on the football field talking with his dad, only the text takes pains to spell out that of course it isn’t really his dad! Because that would be just like those other people.
He knew he was dreaming, but with all this talk of spirits and demons and communicating with the dead, he still had to be sure. “You’re not really my dad, are you?”
His dad burst out laughing. “Of course not, Scotty. I’m a memory of your dad. Your dad’s in heaven with the Lord. You know that.”
“I’m just your imagination trying to get you to remember something.” (pp. 77-78)
Okay, but I know a lot of people who’d say the same thing about Ouija boards and stuff: it’s a way to communicate with your own subconscious. It’s kind of cheating to allow Scott a dream-based source of info without ever raising the possibility that anyone non-Christian (the kids, the bookstore lady, the “Indians” in South America) could also have non-demonic explanations for their practices.
Anyway. His dream dad tells him to consult the Playbook, the one they read at the breakfast table every day, and Scott finally twigs that he’s talking about the Bible. Meanwhile the opposing football team now appear to be gigantic tough versions of the kids Scott saw in the Ascension Bookshop, and they run over him and stomp him into the dirt.
The next day Becka has a surprisingly sensible conversation with Julie and the others about their charms. Sensible on her side, I mean; they’re just laughing and suggesting she’s saying they’ll turn into “that girl from the Exorcist” if they wear their good luck charms. But she’s not:
“She means like demon possession,” Philip explained.
Becka shook her head. “Not really. It’s just a way witch doctors get people to depend on their charms instead of themselves…or God.” (p. 83)
Philip fakes being possessed, and Becka runs away with tears in her eyes when the others laugh.
At the bookshop, Priscilla isn’t there. Darryl suggests she’s afraid to meet Scott, and Scott thinks that this confrontation is going to be a piece of cake.
At the track, Becka is feeling angry at Julie for laughing at her when she was only trying to help. Powered by rage, Becka sprints past Julie on the track, beating her for the first time—and gloating to herself that she’ll be able to beat her again tomorrow at the actual meet.
Scott jokes around with the bookshop kids, suggesting they let him talk to Fred Flintstone. But when the Ouija board does start to perform, it claims to be Scott’s dad, and easily passes several trick questions Scott throws at it (stuff only his dad would have known, like that Scott’s knife really belonged to his father). Scott ends up in tears, convinced it’s really his father he’s talking to. Awww, poor kid.
The next chapter opens with Becka saying “I can’t believe you thought it was Dad!” which makes me like her somewhat. During the course of the conversation about how they both got “clobbered,” Scott tells her about his dreams, and Becka recognizes the armor reference as being from Ephesians. FINALLY. She reads him the relevant bit.
Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6: 11-17)
Scott realizes that if they’re surrounded by spirits all the time, any one of them could have overheard his conversations with his father and be using that information to fake the Ouija board stuff. I’m going to assume this is something the book’s ideal readers would believe and be familiar with.
That night he has one last dream in which I’m-Not-Your-Father tests him by asking “What do you care?” about the Ascension kids, and then seems pleased that Scotty says the opposing team (whom he now sees as frightened children) need help; they need to be warned.
Scotty feels like he’s passed a test by arguing with his Not-Father that the kids need to be rescued, and his Not-Father has a pleased twinkle in his eyes and reminds Scotty to pray, and holy crap this is a complicated relationship Scotty has with his own memories.
Scotty and Becka talk this over and start praying for the various Ascension-affected people in their lives.
At school Julie is avoiding Becka, but Becka is still praying for Julie. Then Julie loses her charm-bag-thingie and accuses Becka of stealing it. Julie goes to pieces at the meet, unable to focus and achieve her usual smooth speed. Becka pushes herself harder than she ever has before, draws even with Julie, and starts counting out loud to help Julie set an even pace.
Meanwhile Scott goes back to the bookshop to tell the kids that what they’re playing with is dangerous. While he’s there Brooke, their leader, goes into full-on possession. Scotty does the “In Jesus’ name, I command you to leave her!” thing, and it’s pretty impressive.
To me, anyway; when Brooke returns to her sense she insists that being possessed by “Joan of Arc” is a privilege and she wants to go on doing it. Okayyyy then. She kicks Scott out, and he looks back at them one last time, feeling sorry for them.
Becka falls on the track again, but not before getting Julie running properly, and Julie wins the race. They exchange meaningful “number one” finger signs, and Julie cries with gratitude for what Becka’s done.
Scott checks his computer messages while Darryl’s whining about having missed the big showdown. There’s a message from Z, congratulating him on his first victory but warning that the war has just begun.
Ryan shows up while Becka is, again, hauling trash to the curb and looking grubby because she’s been hard at work cleaning out the garage with her mother. He gives her Julie’s leather pouch, which she no longer thinks is lucky since it almost cost her the race. Becka tosses it into the trash.
Ryan says he has tickets to some reincarnation lecture going on in the library next week (the tickets were a gift from the Ascension Lady). Why Becka doesn’t just tell him to sod off at this point I’m not sure, but I guess this is our set-up for book #2.