The Probability of Miracles, by Wendy Wunder


The Probability of Miracles happens, as many YA novels, in that critical summer between high school graduation and leaving the nest for college. Kids cling to the warmth of home and familiar friends, yet they yearn to break free.

Campbell Cooper sees a future for herself. After all, Harvard awaits in the fall.

Life becomes iffy when her oncologist tells Cam that her relentless enemy— neuroblastoma—has advanced to the point that only a miracle can save her life. Unfortunately, Cam Cooper doesn’t believe in miracles.

Despondent and angry, Cam tops off a bucket list of self-abhorrent activities with, “Lose my virginity at a keg party.” It’s not a matter of love, intimacy, or even passion. Cam just feels “lousy with virginity.” Besides, her best friend, a fellow neuroblastoma patient, is doing the same thing for the same reason. No pressure, right? She thinks that her life will be complete if she finds a lover before she dies.

Sometime in the past, Cam’s family was Catholic. What remains is a distorted view of Catholic theology. For instance, on page one, Cam not only denies the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but she thinks that it refers to the conception of Jesus, not Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is a common mistake among the theologically challenged.

By page two, Cam says, “The Virgin Mary probably just got herself knocked up like 20 percent of the teenage girls in Florida.” She seems to like Jesus but doesn’t mind insulting his mother. Later Cam says that Mary blamed her pregnancy on God so she wouldn’t have to admit how it happened. God becomes a convenient scapegoat.

At this point, many Catholics might commit Cam and The Probability of Miracles to the trash or ask for a refund. I kept reading because Cam is the archetype for the postmodern mindset in YA literature and life, and therefore worthy of study as an example of the way many fictional and real kids and adults think, act and develop values. What she treasures as her freedom, objective reality, and absolute truth handicaps her ability to deal with her waning health and spiritual prospects.

Eckhart Tolle, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and others have said, “Man created God in his own image.” People today often find it easier to believe in ghosts, fairies, and the zombie apocalypse than in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While sculpting more convenient gods, the idol makers draw a blank when it comes to facing the end of life dilemma. In Cam’s case, the dilemma comes too soon in her life for her to fully consider her options.

Cam’s mother and her boyfriend work at Epcot. After consulting a spiritualist, a medicine woman, and a distance healer, Mom and Cam turn to the “Disney-like magic” contained in a special town—Promise, Maine—where they hope to find a cure.

Promise is different. Locating it requires a special approach, not unlike the invisible Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station needed to catch the Hogwarts Express. It boasts of unique vegetation, and the sun rises and sets outside Cam’s only bedroom window. No, the house does not rotate.

Faced with uncertainty, Cam grasps at straws as her body seems to take its final plunge. The only apparent magic in Cam’s life is an affair with Promise’s hometown hero.

Is this the depth of life’s meaning, or is there so much more than fleeting pleasure?

Is it worth the risk of believing that complete fulfillment exists for those who give faith, hope, and charity a chance?

Sadly, Cam reminds me of a famous tombstone inscription:

“An atheist lies below.

All dressed up,

With nowhere to go.”

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak’s social/historical novel, The Book Thief, follows the citizens of Himmel Street in Molching, Germany between 1939 and 1943.  In particular, he logs the fortunes and misfortunes of Hans and Rosa Hubermann and their foster child, Liesel Meminger, the book thief. A town near Munich, Molching often witnesses shambles of Jews and other enemies of the state as the Nazis prod them toward Dachau.

“A procession of tangled people.”

“A cauldron swimming with humans.”

“They streamed by, like human water.”

“With bones like smoke and their souls trailing behind.”

“So many sets of dying eyes and scuffing feet.”

“Their eyes were enormous in their starving skulls.”

The protagonist, Liesel, and her preteen and early teen friends participate in compulsory Hitler Youth meetings, endure nights in air-raid shelters, and slurp pea soup for supper every evening. To lift youthful spirits, the children play football in the streets, build snowmen and steal food for the body and the mind.  Some days Liesel joins an orchard- raiding gang, but she prefers to climb stealthily through an open window into the mayor’s mansion to filch books. These adventures win her unusual friends and build her reputation among her peers.

Hans, her “Papa,” teaches Liesel to read her stolen books. In turn, her reading from her stolen treasures calms her adult neighbors assembled in the air-raid shelter, as the Allied bombers hover above.

Her readings, her conversations with a Jewish friend, and her community’s exposure to Nazi ultra-nationalism and brutality teach her the power of words. She learns that Hitler’s verbal seeds of hate and fear—e.g., “A nation cleans out its garbage and makes itself great”—have grown into a forest of a toxic antisemitism and militarism.  She believes that “without words, the Fuhrer was nothing.”

The intensity of the story escalates to a dramatic conclusion as Liesel and her friends mount protests, leading to physical and political reprisals.

This young adult novel stands on the bleak side of the emotional spectrum. As if the novel’s time, place and circumstances weren’t dreary enough, Zusak chose Death as its narrator. Death speaks directly to the reader as if cultivating sympathy for itself. It seems overworked as it gathers souls from battlefields, concentration camps, and cities targeted by bombers. It still manages to narrate this tale and develop an affection and admiration for Liesel, her adoptive family, and friends.

Death clarifies the value of the small things in life and bids the reader grasps the lasting impact behind seemingly meaningless or even adversarial relationships. Death urges us to appreciate persons and significant objects while we are still able to communicate our love and feelings.

Amid the dark, cold narrative, author Markus Zusak flashes jolts of incongruity, hybrids between oxymorons and Zen koans.

“The taste of a whisper.”

“The chitchat of faraway guns.”

“Suitcases under the eyes.”

“His starving arms.”

“Her wrinkles were like slander.”

“Their voices kneaded methodically at the door.”

It’s not only the sum of Zusak’s plot and characters but these poetic details that shape the greatness of The Book Thief.