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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Theme of Child Sacrifice in the Work of Canadian Women Authors

This paper is part of a larger project on the uses of the Bible in the works of contemporary Canadian feminist women writers and artists. Somewhat surprisingly in a national context that is more secular and liberal than the United States, the works of many Canadian women artists and writers are dense with biblical themes and allusions, attesting to the continuing power of the Bible to symbolize that which is most sacred—or most unholy—in human culture and experience. In a longer version of this paper, I discuss five authors of different ethnic, religious and regional identities—Adele Wiseman, Edeet Ravel, Joy Kogawa, Anne-Marie MacDonald and Alyssa York—to illustrate the emergence of a distinctively feminist trope in these writings. [1] Each writer uses images of child sacrifice, redolent especially of the biblical stories of the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:1-19) and, to a lesser extent, the sacrifice of Jephtha's daughter (Judg 11:29-40), to symbolize the destructive power of patriarchy, particularly of sexual abuse perpetrated within and hidden by patriarchal social institutions, in the lives of women and children. I argue that the feminist use of the child sacrifice motif is analogous to contemporary Jewish authors' use of the Aqedah in some contemporary Jewish literature.

For this article, I shall focus on three novels: Anne-Marie MacDonald's bestseller Fall On Your Knees (an Oprah's Book Club selection), since it is the one most likely to be known to an American audience; the Japanese-Canadian poet-novelist Joy Kogawa's most recent book, The Rain Ascends; and Manitoba writer Alyssa York's Mercy.

The Aqedah
The Hebrew term Aqedah refers to the biblical story of the "binding" (or sacrifice) of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19. In Jewish tradition, Isaac's assent to the sacrifice is a model for Jewish martyrdom. On Rosh Hashanah, God is implored to be merciful to his people as merited by Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. In some modern Jewish literature, however, the Aqedah has become a metaphor for what Canadian literary critic Michael Brown calls "the unfeeling, self-aggrandizing sacrifice of children by their actual or communal fathers on the altars of purblind commitment to Zionism and to Israel's wars" (1982, 100)[2]. Brown observes that certain contemporary Jewish writers, both Israeli and non-Israeli, have transformed the Aqedah myth into a symbol not of "faith beautiful, but faith misguided and destructive, especially in a Holocaust context. Abraham and Isaac no longer serve as role models to be emulated, as they did in pre-modern sources, but as object lessons to be avoided" (111). The great Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua went so far as to "declare a personal vendetta against Genesis 22", claiming that "the memory of Abraham's knife throughout Jewish history has become too close for comfort. We can never be sure . . . that the knife will continue hovering in mid-air and not strike home instead; one should therefore prevent the Aqedah from fully materializing by exorcising the myth from the very core of Jewish culture." (Feldman 1998, 160) [3]. The Israeli protest poet Yitzak Laor's challenge to the submissive Isaac to rise up in Oedipal revolt—to kill his father, to lock him up in a prison or an asylum rather than submit to being slaughtered—illustrates a modern Jewish reading of the Aqedah as an "ugly metaphor" of intergenerational abuse (Brown 1982, 100)[4].

Human Sacrifice, the Bible, and CanLit
For the purposes of this article, child sacrifice will be defined as the ritual killing of a human child or youth as an offering to a deity, and metaphors alluding to this practice. In both the biblical and the classical traditions, while animal sacrifice is highly acceptable, human sacrifice is viewed negatively, with two significant exceptions. In Judaism, and to a lesser extent in Christianity, the Aqedah has traditionally been regarded as a story of great profundity. In Christianity, the crucifixion is interpreted as God's sacrifice of his son, and of Christ's self-sacrifice, for the salvation of the world. Of course, famous narratives of such sacrifices are not confined to the Bible. In classical mythology, there are several tales of virgin heroines sacrificed for the salvation of the state, most notably Iphegeneia (Feldman 1998, 169-70)[5]. However, while the novelists considered in this paper do not confine their imagery of child sacrifice to the Aqedah, their allusions to the practice are usually biblical. The daughter of Jephtha hovers behind some narratives; others evoke the numerous references to the sacrifice of children by ancient Israelites and their neighbors.

Fall on Your Knees
Fall On Your Knees is a family saga of biblical proportions, covering the fortunes of five generations of the Piper family of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The patriarch, James Piper, is born in Egypt, Nova Scotia; at the age of fifteen, he rides a blind pony out of Egypt to the big city of Sydney to seek his fortune as a piano tuner. James is both a "Jacob," the founder of a clan like his biblical forerunner Jacob/Israel, and a Pied Piper, a seducer of children. The son of a loving, cultured mother and an abusive, boorish father, as a young man he is energetic and idealistic, thirsting for knowledge, experience, and achievement. At the age of eighteen, he meets and elopes with the twelve-year-old Materia, daughter of a Lebanese Christian family. James is initially enchanted by his new wife's dark, exotic beauty; the couple's honeymoon is described in language from the Song of Songs. But Materia, alienated from her family and community, has no idea how to function as a housewife, and James soon tires of his shy, ineffectual, increasingly corpulent and dark-skinned wife. His new, obsessive love is their eldest daughter, Kathleen Cecilia, who grows up to be a green-eyed, red-haired beauty with a ravishing singing voice.

Compared to her less favored younger sisters, the pious Mercedes and the rebellious Frances, Kathleen is a changeling, a throwback to James's Gaelic heritage. When as a young woman Kathleen goes to New York to study as an opera singer, she falls in love with a black jazz musician, Rose. James receives a poison-pen letter exposing the affair and travels to New York, where he bursts in on Kathleen and Rose making love and rapes his adored fantasy daughter, an act that he perversely perceives as a rescue, vowing that he'll never let anyone hurt her again. She is forced to return with him to Cape Breton, victimized, pregnant by her father, and isolated from her family and community.

Like the Israelite judge Jephtha, James sacrifices his "only beloved daughter" on the altar of his obsessive love and frustrated personal ambitions. The Jephtha allusion is supported by the scene immediately after the rape: Kathleen's ineffectual New York chaperone, Giles, returns to the apartment where her charge has been staying and is surprised to find James there. She explains that she had just popped out for some groceries and got caught up in the celebration: "Oh James, the war is over. This morning at eleven o'clock. Oh wait till I tell Kathleen it's over. It's all over" (678). As the Great War ends, Kathleen's life is effectively over. The patriarch's vow, the armistice, and the sacrifice of the daughter all recall the tale of Bat Jephtha.

Kathleen dies at home shortly after giving birth to twins, a boy who dies and a girl, the saintly, disabled Lily, who is passed off as Materia's youngest daughter. James transfers his incestuous attentions to younger daughter Frances, who grows up to be the town prostitute. She deliberately becomes pregnant by a black neighbor whom she tricked into having sex with her, is forced to give up the child, and dies at the age of forty. Lily seeks out Rose, who has become a successful musician, in New York, where she remains with her mother/sister's former lover. All the family's secrets are finally brought to light at the end of the novel, when Frances' mixed-race son Anthony, an ethnomusicologist, shows up at Rose's door, looking for his birth family. Lily hands him a sealed tube containing a Piper family tree prepared by Frances and invites him to have a cup of tea while she tells him about his mother. The genealogical record of the Piper family contains a long list of children sacrificed on the altar of the family patriarch's abuse: Materia, Kathleen, Frances, Mercedes, Lily, her dead twin Ambrose, Anthony, and even James, an abused child himself.

The Rain Ascends
Joy Kogawa is best known for her first novel Obasan (1981), a story of the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II and the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki. Her most recent novel, The Rain Ascends (2003), is about the very WASP Shelby family, especially the Rev. Charles Barnabas Shelby, an Anglican priest in a small Alberta town, and his loving daughter, Millicent. Rev. Shelby, the highly regarded and benevolent founder of the Shelby Centre of Music in Juniper, Alberta, and a popular Christian broadcaster, has a secret: he has been molesting boys under his care throughout his career. Millicent, who knows about her Father's crimes but continues to adore him, struggles with, and for a long time manages to accommodate, his Jekyll-and-Hyde personae:

When Father is gone, the effects of his wrongdoing will continue, but his loving deeds too will remain. Whatever the two words meant—sex, boys—I still cannot imagine that Father ever intended harm. . . . How can a man so good be so bad? How can a man so bad be so good? He is loved, he is despised, . . . The puzzle spins from dark to light, light to dark, as the earth spins, as the sun spins, as my mind spins and reels and burns a black hole in the palms of my praying hands (89).



She actually likens her Father, whom she sometimes sees as persecuted by public opinion, to Isaac bound on the altar: "Here he lies, exposed to the skies, my father, my lamb, my Isaac. And over there beside him stands ancient Abraham at the impossible altar, frozen as in a painting, his obedient pen raised forever in his foreverness of faith" (61). At the same time, she realizes that his crimes cannot be excused: "Father is not Isaac and I am not Abraham at all but another biblical character, light-footed Jonah the coward, in flight from the task, leaping onto the ship bound for Tarshish" (61). She has a vision of her Father as the King of the Island of Dr. Moreau, a predatory Lion-Man ruling over mutilated animals, "children of the knife, being sliced and cauterized and sawn asunder by a Creator hungry for drama" (89). She, the King's daughter, "knows the law of the Lord. All transgressors are sent to the dreaded chambers where God wields his knife and the screams never cease" (89).

Millicent continues both to deplore and excuse Father Shelby's sins until she finds out that he has molested her "only son," Jeffrey, the product of a summer affair at her Father's music camp. She gradually comes to an awareness of her own life of denial and the enormity of her Father's betrayals: "My father, we have lived for too long under the domination of the Father of Lies. . . . You were no ordinary wolf in sheep's clothing. You dressed yourself in the robes of the Good Shepherd and stole God's lambs. . . . You made them to lie down in green pastures, you led them by still waters and devoured their souls" (173-74). She rejects the patriarchal God of her Father and develops a relationship with the Chinese/Japanese Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin/Kannon, who commands her to "Slay the fiction" of paternal goodness (76). While Millicent admits that the Goddess may herself be a fiction, or beyond fiction, she stands for the hope that the "old house of lies" that she has constructed to protect herself and her father must perish so that "a new and better house may be built" (76).

Mercy
Alyssa York's Mercy opens with a scene of Tom Rose, the town butcher of Mercy, Manitoba, slaughtering and butchering a cow. Tom is about to be married to the pretty orphan Mathilda, who works with her aunt, the parish priest's housekeeper. But Mathilda doesn't love, nor is she attracted to, Tom, whom she nonetheless marries. As soon as a young priest arrives in town, a strong attraction develops between Mathilda and Father August Day, the son of a Winnipeg prostitute. The reader is initially set up to see Tom as a villainous "butcher" ready to sacrifice his young wife's happiness and well-being by keeping her from her true love, but Tom is actually a kind man, who loves his new and reluctant wife and tries to please her. He treats his work as a kind of sacrament, exercising his craft with skill and precision, recognizing his place, and the place of the animals he butchers, in the food chain. The pathological sexual tension that grows between the woman and the priest culminates in the priest's near-rape of Mathilda, her pregnancy, and his abandonment and denial of the relationship. Tom assumes that the child his wife is bearing is his, and Mathilda dies in a deranged flight through the bush after giving birth. The centerpiece of the novel is a chapter featuring an illustrated sermon on the scapegoat. In a flashback to August's first day of seminary, the famous Father Charlebois treats the class to a demonstration of what the Old Testament priesthood entailed. He brings with him a white ram and a butcher knife, asking the seminarians which of them will kill the animal. He explains that his was the priest's role before the coming of Christ:

"Sacrifice." The word rang out. "They understood that much, but what they were unable to grasp was the kind of sacrifice God required. The prophets knew, certainly, but who else?" Father Charlebois jabbed his knife heavenward. "That is why God gave us His Son. His Son." He paused. "And Christ? Christ gave us Himself. What more can you give? Not a stand-in, not a scapegoat, but your self." He lunged at them, gesturing from one to the next with his blade. "That is what God requires!" . . . "None among you shall kill this beast, because those days are gone. You're the rams now, boys. That's what we're doing here—get it?" (145).



August, who has failed to offer himself as an acceptable sacrifice to the church by succumbing to his attraction to Mathlida, deteriorates physically and psychologically after he rejects her and commits suicide shortly after her death. Tom Rose, the righteous priest of the butcher shop, heart-broken by the loss of his wife and child, watches his business decline as the townspeople flock to the new supermarket outside of town; eventually he allows himself to be killed and eaten by the pack of wild dogs he has fed out of kindness.

The second part of the book centers around the daughter of Mathilda and the priest, left by her mother in the bush as a newborn and rescued by Castor Wylie, a drunk who lives in a shack made of bottles out in the swamp. The improbable foster-father tenderly nurtures and raises the girl, who grows up to be known as Bog Mary by the townspeople, a strong and eccentric woman who prefers the bush to the town and who survives by being attuned to the cycles of nature. Mary, in turn, becomes the unlikely savior of Carl Mann, an unscrupulous evangelist from the city who believes that she can help his autistic daughter Claire. At the end of the novel, Bog Mary is revealed as Our Lady of Mercy, a priestess with a Great Grey Owl on her shoulder, at home in her ramshackle glass cathedral, feeding Carl the sacrament of "a chunk of raw, powerful-smelling meat" (332).

Conclusions
The recurrence of the theme of child sacrifice in the works of these contemporary Canadian women writers is striking. In these works, the traditional themes of martyrdom, vicarious atonement, and self-sacrifice serve only to mask, justify, and perpetuate ancient patterns of patriarchal violence. Rather than resorting to traditional religion for comfort, answers, or solutions, the novels cite alternative spiritualities (goddess spirituality, ecological spirituality, mysticism) or no religion at all as sources of insight and inspiration.

Like contemporary Jewish writers' use of the Aqedah as a metaphor for misguided and injurious faith, these Canadian women writers use child sacrifice as a trope for the societal tolerance of the abuse, neglect, and murder of children and youth. To some extent, the rejection of human sacrifice is consonant with the biblical tradition, which typically deplores the practice. However, even the biblical stories that are interpreted in an overwhelmingly positive light in traditional religion—the binding of Isaac and the crucifixion of the son of God—are construed negatively. Like the modern Israeli protest poets, these writers "seek to reveal the ideological function inherent in the myth and to iconoclastically exploit its persuasive power and the sacredness surrounding it, in order to create an anti-myth that will vanquish the original" (Milman 1991, 61)[6]. A mythological system that both abhors and exalts child sacrifice mirrors a social system that simultaneously decries child abuse while perpetuating it on many levels, with, e.g., lenient sentencing of sex offenders, toleration of child prostitution and pornography, and the exploitation of child labor. By refusing to concede any value to human sacrifice, whether literal or figurative, no matter how sacred the source myth, these writers take an implicit stand against patriarchal double-think and offer glimpses of new and better sacred stories.

References
1. Wiseman, Adele. Crackpot. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974.

______. The Sacrifice. New York: Viking, 1956.

Ravel, Edeet. Ten Thousand Lovers. London: Review, 2003.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

______. The Rain Ascends. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2003.

MacDonald, Anne-Marie. Fall on your Knees. Toronto: Seal Books, 1996.

York, Alyssa. Mercy. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2003.

2. Brown, Michael. "Biblical Myth and Contemporary Experience: The Akedah in Modern Jewish Literature." Judaism 31 (1982) 99-111.

3. Feldman, Yael S. "Isaac or Oedipus? Jewish Tradition and the Israeli Aqedah," Biblical Studies/Cultural Studies: The Third Sheffield Colloquium (ed. J. Cheryl Exum and Stephen D. Moore; Sheffield: Academic, 1998) 159-89.

4. Brown, Michael. "Biblical Myth and Contemporary Experience: The Akedah in Modern Jewish Literature." Judaism 31 (1982) 99-111.

5. Feldman, Yael S. "Isaac or Oedipus? Jewish Tradition and the Israeli Aqedah," Biblical Studies/Cultural Studies: The Third Sheffield Colloquium (ed. J. Cheryl Exum and Stephen D. Moore; Sheffield: Academic, 1998) 159-89.

6. Milman, Yoseph. "The Sacrifice of Isaac and its Subversive Variations in Contemporary Hebrew Protest Poetry." Religion and Literature 23 (1991) 61-83.

Mary Ann Beavis, St. Thomas More College, Sasktatoon, Canada

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Citation: Mary Ann Beavis, " The Theme of Child Sacrifice in the Work of Canadian Women Authors," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=476

 
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