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A Beautiful and Heartrending Book

Jordan Condon, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This is Leslie VonHolten from the High Plains of Kansas with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

The second book in our “Wisdom of the Natural World” reading series looks to the sky above us—and the mysteries within us. Bewilderment by Richard Powers is a powerful, deeply felt novel, and one of the most beautiful and heart-rending books I have ever read. Ever.

The story in Bewilderment is told through Theo Byrne, a professor and astrobiologist who is left to raise his autistic son after his wife has died in a car accident. The three of them—and now two—are passionate about the natural world: strict vegans, their days are structured around activism for animal rights and a deep curiosity about every living thing: from cellular organisms in our rivers to possible life beyond our planet Earth.

Deeply sensitive, Theo is doing his best. His son, young 9-year-old Robin, is intellectually whip-smart but afflicted by the mysteries within himself: he is quick to anger, cannot make friends, and like his father, is grieving an incomprehensible and cruel loss. He is likely autistic, but Theo is challenged to accept this diagnosis.

Theo and Robin’s relationship is the heart of this novel. Like most fathers, Theo adores and is in awe of his son. Like most fathers, he feels unsure about the best way to handle things at times and must resort to doing his best. Great literature is full of strong stories about the complexities of the father-son relationship, but in this book the author has given us a new approach: a father who questions his dominance, who accepts his role as caretaker and protector, but who is also frustrated with a culture that provides only one path for social acceptance. It is a path that not everyone can possibly follow. How does one raise a child in a culture that in many ways we do not respect? Theo is left wondering where to resist, where to comply, and if his reasons are just.

There is so much more to Bewilderment: a near-future critique of our culture and how we use people. The role of government in science and the slippery imperfections of both. The search for truth and if we will ever find it, within ourselves and in the galaxies surrounding us. Relationships within our homes and in our communities. Also, how does one care for someone we do not understand?

These complexities are what make Richard Powers one of the great novelists of our time. Because although the concepts of his novels are complex, his deep character studies, insightful observation, and easy prose enable the reader to connect to the story and to the natural landscapes where they live. Powers won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature for his book Overstory, about human connections with trees, and I argue that Bewilderment is just as stunning. Join us in reading it this month and you will see why I am so enthusiastic about this wonderful book.

This is Radio Reader Leslie VonHolten inviting you to join us in exploring the complexities in Bewilderment by Richard Powers. Find out more at HPPR.org, or follow us on Facebook.

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Leslie VonHolten explores and writes about connections between land and culture and particularly on the prairie spaces she loves to walk. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in The New Territory, Literary Landscapes, About Place Journal, Dark Mountain Project, and Lawrence.com, among other sites. Leslie has served as a board member for the Garden of Eden art environment in Lucas, Kansas; was a founding member of the Percolator Artspace in Lawrence, Kansas; and has been a book commentator for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, Kansas, since 2015. She was honored with a Tallgrass Artist Residency in 2022. (https://leslievonholten.com/ or https://tallgrassartistresidency.org/leslie-vonholten/ and Matfield Green Works https://matfieldgreen.org/ )