Evolution, Me
Other Freaks of Nature

by Robin Brande

Robin Brande's Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Young Adult

Outgrowing one's church

Warning: If you think “evolution” is a dirty word, you won’t like this review. (Even though you’re precisely the person who should be reading this book.)

Before the review, some context:

Have you, ever been lucky enough to find yourself reading just the right book at just the right time?

Go figure. Here I am, a 48 year old man reading a YA book about a female high school freshman. But here’s the thing, or rather the things…

1) I had recently had my first disagreement with a new friend (okay, girlfriend). I was telling her how a well-written young mother had applied to be a reviewer on this site. From her application, I learned that she was home schooling her young children and that she was not open to books that “promote” evolution.

I was provoked. I angrily wrote back that while she seemed like a bright, intelligent person, I considered the teaching of “alternatives” to evolution a form of child abuse, and that while unfortunately I couldn’t prevent her from inflicting fictional science in the name of religion on her own children, I would have none of it on my site.

My girlfriend was provoked by my response.

2) Just prior to leaving on a two week photo safari in Africa, another friend offered me the YA book, Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande. From my point of view, the book had nothing to recommend it (I’d never heard of it) other than that it was written by a friend of my friend, an author living in the same city in which I live.

I had no idea what the book’s subject matter was. But since I was going to have plenty of reading time (and since I do own this site), I took the book.

So here I am, in the cradle of humanity, witnessing survival of the fittest at its finest, visiting the caves that contributed the most to the fossil record that has helped us piece together human ancestry, and with the most modest of expectations, I open this book…

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature

Mena Reece has been looking forward to her first day of high school for awhile. The thing is, though, that day arrives at a time of rather high crisis.

And we’re not talking about your usual hyper-dramatic teenage angst. No, this sensitive young lady is experiencing something truly existential.

Her Christian church, a rather fundamentalist one, has been central to her existence, as well as her family’s. (She is the only child of two parents.) Her friends were from the church, and church orthodoxy defined the narrow bounds of her existence. To retain her Christian purity, TV is off limits, and most movies as well. In fact, her parents have so many filters on the family computer, it’s a wonder there’s any internet left to surf at all!

But something happened last year in eighth grade. One of Mena’s fellow eighth graders, Denny Pierce, was pretty much declared gay. It wasn’t a declaration Denny made, though it wasn’t one he denied. It was something Denny’s fellow students decided, and something Mena’s church decided they needed to do something about.

Self-righteous eighth graders were set loose upon another eighth grader by their hateful and self-righteous preacher, Pastor Wells. Mena didn’t really take part, but she didn’t do anything to stop it either. What stopped it was Denny’s attempted suicide.

Or perhaps that’s being too generous to the church folk. Perhaps they would have gotten right back to their harassment upon Denny’s recovery, had not Mena taken it upon herself to do something - something from the heart.

She wrote Denny a letter of apology. And in that letter of apology, without meaning anything by it, she spelled out the organized nature of the harassment which Denny experienced.

Denny’s parents then used that letter as evidence to support a lawsuit against Pastor Wells, the church, the offending students and their parents.

Neither Mena nor her parents were sued, but they have not escaped unscathed. Mena has been banished from the church, and Mena’s parents’ insurance business - heavily reliant upon the patronage of their fellow churchgoers - now looks as if it might go under. Mena is now hated - hated - by her former friends, Pastor Wells and the entire church. Even her parents will barely talk to her.

It feels to Mena (and to the reader) like rather extreme punishment for an act of decency. The lone act of decency in the whole Denny Pierce matter.

It’s against this backdrop that Mena begins high school.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature

cover collage

The kids from Mena’s church youth group make up a significant percentage of people in Mena’s new high school; in fact, they comprise a full 50% of the students in Ms. Shepherd’s Biology class. They’re roughing Mena up physically and emotionally from the start, so when Ms. Shepherd announces lab partners, Mena is relieved to be assigned to a peer not from the church: Casey Connor, boy science nerd.

The lawsuit hasn’t made Pastor Wells and the church kids any less confrontational, so when Ms. Shepherd announces that the first subject of the semester will be Evolution, the church kids boycott, turning their chairs toward the back of the room; just one part of a coordinated campaign by the church to force Intelligent Design (Biology for the Small-Minded!) to be taught alongside Darwin.

(Quick note to international readers: Yes, this Dark Ages drama still plays out in many school districts across the U.S.)

Mena is caught in the middle. She’s still a Christian - by her definition, not her church’s - Christ-loving, you might say, rather than God-fearing. And in the faceoff between evolution and a literal reading of the Bible, Mena chooses evolution.

Putting her into even greater conflict with church and family.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature

The story takes place over a single week. Pestered by Casey to join him in an extra credit science assignment, Mena deceives her parents (who would never allow her to spend time with a boy) in order to visit Casey's home, where reside their test subjects: a collection of seven week old Labrador puppies.

For Mena, the Connor household might as well appear in Wizard of Oz color in contrast to the cold black and white of the humorless, unquestioning Reece abode. The Connors communicate with affection and attitude, intelligence, insight and intellectual curiosity. Mena can't get enough of it...but she isn't even supposed to be here.

She gets around her parents by implying that Casey's older sister Kayla is the real Casey (as in K.C., Kayla Connor), but playing with Kayla is like playing with fire, and it's Mena's interactions with the older girl that bring her personal drama to a head.

Kayla is the muckraking editor of the high school paper, a young woman with an aggressive, progressive political agenda. When she discovers Mena's connection to the church crowd, she uses every trick in the book to use Mena to her advantage, turning her into the paper's Bible Grrrl, a Christian voice with a pro-science message.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature

The book completely validated my feeling that indoctrinating children into a belief system that holds solid science in opposition is a form of abuse. No rational being would place the churchgoers as depicted in author Robin Brande's book higher in the moral order than the open-minded, kind-hearted freethinkers personified by Mena, Ms. Shepherd and the Connors.

But that isn't to say that Mena makes the choice I would make...and good for Mena.

(Author Brande has the bona fides to write such a persuasive plea for the reconciliation of science and spirituality. She's been a Sunday School teacher and a community college prof, a lawyer and a yoga instructor. She herself grew up in a fundamentalist church.)

Despite the abuse Mena weathers for her honest, well-meaning moral choice in the gay teen matter, at the end of her dramatic week Mena is still casting a critical eye at her own behavior and finding it wanting.

She doesn't feel good about her own dishonesty with her parents in clearing the space she needs to live in a reasonable way, and she even feels that she could have handled the Denny Pierce thing better - confronting her offending peers rather than quietly writing a letter that held herself blameless.

In the end she's searching out a church that will accomodate science and religion, because Mena herself remains a believer. (As does Evolution champion Ms. Shepherd.) As Mena writes:

Maybe if I had to boil it down to one easy sentence, it would be this: "I believe in evolution, and I believe in God."

I just haven't worked out the details yet.

I don't know about you, but when it comes to religion and science, I respect the person who admits they don't know everything.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature may have confirmed my opinion that forcing children to accept the Bible as a science text is a very real sin, but Robin Brande and her character, sweet, earnest Mena Reece, taught me that anger is an inappropriate response. "Hate the sin, love the sinner," right?

They know not what they do.

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