We left Jay and Lila staring down a cobra. Except that they weren’t really staring it down. See, I think I’ve pinpointed the problem with this book’s use of its young teenage sort-of protagonists. They’re not actually the protagonists.
“Jay!” the walkie-talkie squawked again. “Jay, come in! Can you hear me?”
Jay could feel the pounding of his heart clear to his fingertips as he very carefully and slowly pressed the talk button. He hoped his voice would be loud enough for his father to hear even though it was choked with terror. “Dad … we’ve disturbed a cobra … it has us cornered.”
At that, Dr. Cooper took off at a sprint across the white circle of sand, toward the far side where he’d last seen Jay and Lila. He ran past the cavern in the center, termed the “Dragon’s Throat,” noting an odd spike in adrenaline and terror as he neared it. Finally, he neared his children.
Suddenly the snake’s head disappeared in a spurt fo blood. The loud crack of Dr. Cooper’s 357 reached the kids’ ears was the twitching neck fell to the dust in a roll of death.
Jay and Lila still didn’t move. The snake was dead, but they couldn’t quite believe it.
No, Jay and Lila aren’t this book’s protagonist. Dr. Cooper is. Jay and Lila’s role, here, reminds me of early Doctor Who, where Barbara, the Doctor’s young companion, seems to exist only to scream for help. Now, I’m pretty sure Jay and Lila do ultimately get to do more than this, because I remember liking them when I read these books as a teen. Still, this is the first book in the series, and it seems to be establishing something important.
In most books that center children, the children’s parents are not in the picture. They’re either dead or otherwise sidelined. Think Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter. In fiction, in order for children to have real adventures, their parents have to be absent. Otherwise, parents would step in and stop those adventures. In this story, Dr. Cooper, Jay and Lila’s father, is very much present—and this means that Jay and Lila don’t have to find a way to escape this snake on their own. Instead, their father can swoop in and rescue them.
Lila ran to her father’s side, and he put his arm around her. She burst into tears and let out a few loud sobs.
“It’s okay, honey, it’s okay,” he comforted her.
When they first arrived at the site, they had to put off getting out of their jeeps because of all the cobras. Yes, that’s right—rather than fleeing the approach of vehicles, these cobras were so bold that they slithered right up to just-parked jeeps and threatened their inhabitants. And then, after that, Dr. Cooper sent his children alone around a quarter mile diameter circle in the desert through exactly the same terrain where they had just parked. And it’s not that Jay and Lila were prepared on how to handle cobras, because they clearly weren’t. This was an incredibly dumb move.
Jay, of course, doesn’t cry. Only Lila does.
“Nice shot, Dad,” Jay said, his voice a little shaky.
“Keep practicing yourself.”
Nope. Jay didn’t need a hug. He’s a manly adolescent.
The three of them walk into the odd white circle of sand, which now seems safer. And yet, there’s something odd about it. They all three feel terrified.
“I think,” [Dr. Cooper] said at last, “I’m afraid of that cavern over there.”
Jay and Lila were troubled to hear that. Jay asked. “What do you mean, Dad?”
Dr. Cooper frowned and shook his head. “Jay, that’s what bothers me. I don’t really have a good reason. I can’t quite figure out what exactly would evoke this kind of fear in us.”
Remember, they’ve been asked here to open some sort of door inside that cavern.
“This whole thing is beginning to look like a lot more than a routine archaeological dig.”
Um. Al-Dallam told Dr. Cooper that this wasn’t a routine archaeological dig to begin with. He told him it was dangerous. In fact, in discussion between Al-Dallam and his assistant, Gozan, we learned that they both warned him of dangers.
“Why all the interest in this cavern? And what would make hundreds of people all drive clear out here, so sure they’ll see us die? The superstition around here is incredible!”
Oh I don’t know, maybe they’ve seen it happen before. Dr. Cooper’s expedition isn’t exactly the first archeological team Al-Dallam has had out here.
Oh. Oh, you know what.
I see what’s bothering me.
You want a spoiler? I’ll give you a spoiler. Behind that door are the locusts that will be released during the tribulation to torture humankind. Now who’s superstitious? Peretti believes in a literal tribulation, seven years of oddly specific trials poured out on humanity, but no, it’s the people who’ve come to the Dragon’s Throat to behold the fate of the latest archeological expedition, having already seen unnamed horrors beset the half dozen previous archeological expeditions, who are “superstitious.” That makes sense only if you’ve a priori decided white people can’t be superstitious.
Dr. Cooper, Jay, and Lila walk up to the cavern and look into it. All three feel intense terror.
Lila peered down into the deep hole and said, “There’s something evil about it. I just get that feeling.”
Dr. Cooper didn’t really disagree, but merely drew Jay and Lila close and said, “Now would be a good time to review. Who are we?”
Jay and Lila didn’t answer right away. They were too mesmerized by the cavern.
“C’mon, now,” Dr. Cooper prodded, “who are we?”
“We’re God’s children,” they finally answered.
“And even though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
“We will fear no evil.”
Jay added, “Greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world.”
This series is littered with pep talks like this. I won’t include them all, but wanted to offer an example. The odd thing is that they hold onto this even as they start encountering the skeletons of prior expeditions, later. It’s as though their conviction that God is with them makes them oblivious to taking basic precautions or heading simple warning signs. Indeed, this conviction may be the reason Dr. Cooper felt safe sending his kids off alone through a desert they knew was cobra infested. If so, that conviction just almost got them killed.
When they get back to the others, Gozan is beside himself.
“Did you feel the evil, the curse?”
Dr. Cooper looked up from his list with narrowed eyes and said firmly, “The cavern is a natural formation in the crust of the earth. As for this curse, the evil you speak of is nothing more than your own fears playing tricks on you.”
Oy. It’s not just Peretti’s racist descriptions of Gozan I have a problem with. It’s also the way Dr. Cooper treats him.
What need was there for Dr. Cooper to narrow his eyes at Gozan? Why the need to talk to him “firmly”? Why claim any feeling of evil is just one’s fears playing tricks? After all, Dr. Cooper, Jay, and Lila all believe in real evil, and as we’ll learn this is in fact real evil, and the three of them just mused about it feeling evil. Why not affirm that something does feel odd about it? Why treat Gozan like he’s some sort of superstitious child who has to be put straight?
Just, ew. It feels gross.
“We serve a Lord and Savior who is greater than all curses. We’re not afraid.”
“No god is greater than the curse of the Dragon’s Throat. I have seen what it can do!”
This is not about superstition. Gozan has seen the Dragon’s Throat kill, and drive people mad. He’s the advisor to a president who has already brought in half a dozen archeological teams, remember. Gozan has personal experience in this area, and that is what his fear is based on—that and the same feeling of evil Dr. Cooper, Jay, and Lila all felt too.
We’ll leave them here, pulling up their vehicles and equipment to the Dragon’s Throat in preparation for a closer look.
Within half an hour, the expeditions’ vehicles were driven right to the edge of the Dragon’s Throat. Gozan even brought this jeep, although he whimpered and protested the entire distance.
Good god. I have no idea how I missed how racist this book was on my first read-through as a teen.
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