physical dimensions of Orson Scott Card’s diminutive new
seasonal story, A WAR OF GIFTS, brought out the Christmas
stocking-stuffer in me right away. What a “cute” little
book, I thought.
A cozy evening of reading later, I was amazed at the breadth and
depth of wisdom I encountered within a mere 126-postcard-sized
pages. The journey to Card’s futuristic world of the popular
Ender series --- specifically to an elite Battle School for preteen
children housed in an orbiting space station above Earth --- offers
a concentrated experience of artificially constructed peer-group
societies in which any deviation from prescribed behavioral norms
carries enormous risk.
Created to indoctrinate the younger generation by weaning students
away from any “distracting” attachments to family,
culture, religion, ethnicity, passion, altruism and the like,
Battle School’s mandate is to select the best, brightest and
potentially most dangerously independent children and reform them
into wholly focused galactic warriors. In essence, however, Battle
School is really an ultra-sophisticated and high-tech version of
old-style American boot-camp training --- or, perhaps more potently
for Canadians, the infamous “residential” schools of
the 19th and early 20th centuries, where aboriginal children were
forced to learn in an environment stripped of their native
traditions and languages.
But Card (despite having abundant theological qualifications to do
so) doesn’t spend time abstractly moralizing or preaching
from some distant pulpit about various forms of child abuse,
war-footing mentality or social conditioning. He mainly leaves it
to a group of precocious and inventive young boys who discover (or
re-discover) the joys and challenges of daring to celebrate
anything not on Battle School’s strictly secular and
It all starts with two feisty Dutch lads, whose staunch pride in a
small nation that built itself from the sea comes out in a
lighthearted but surreptitious observance of Sinterklaas Day. In
Dutch tradition, children put their shoes outside the door, hoping
that the legendary saint of random generosity will fill them with
treats. North Americans know him of course as Santa Claus.
When the hopeful shoe ritual is reciprocated, the effect spreads
throughout the orbiting academy, first as a ripple, then as a tidal
wave of long-suppressed national and religious traditions that come
bubbling to the surface, regardless of rules and regulations.
Muslim students renew their five daily prayers, Jewish students
remember the High Holidays and Hanukkah, Christian students dare to
talk about Christmas and how their families down on earth will
celebrate it without them.
But the key to Card’s deft insight into human behavior under
discouraging conditions is the presence of one little boy whose
extreme fundamentalist upbringing makes him the kind of fanatical
kid who is usually disliked and avoided by everyone. Convinced that
all traditions but his own are inherently evil, he sets about
trying to sabotage his colleagues’ morale-building fun by
reporting them so often that even the Battle School authorities
wish he would simply get lost.
The real story behind A WAR OF GIFTS --- the story that reads much
better than I would presume to describe it --- is how a group of
boys, isolated on the threshold of personal and collective
maturity, discover, almost accidentally, the indispensable grace of
roots and redemption. No one tells these perennial truths with more
delightful élan and subtlety than Orson Scott Card.
This little book with its big and generous ideas belongs on your
holiday reading and gift list and is suitable for any age.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 24, 2011