Written in 1955, The Chrysalids is the third post apocalyptic book by John Wyndham author of Day of the Triffids. While Triffids tells us how the world might end, at the hands of a biological menace probably unleashed accidentally by the Soviets, The Chrysalids takes place long after the fall of civilization, this time caused by nuclear war. Most of the world is left devastated by the war, uninhabitable except by mutated plants and animals, most of them just able to eke out a living along the fringes of the barren lands.
Except for several small communities on the island of Labrador where a new form of religious fundamentalism has taken hold, one based on the Bible and on the belief that if man is created in God’s image then “accursed is the mutant in the sight of God and man.” Newborn children, animals and crops are examined for any physical deviation from the accepted norm and condemned if any are found. No one is allowed to stray from the path without severe consequences, namely forced sterilization and life in the fringes.
The story’s narrator, David, is the son of the local religious patriarch, an unyielding believer in the new Christianity. When David’s aunt arrives with a baby that has not passed inspection hoping to hide it with her sister, his father physically casts her out of his home and turns her in to the authorities who take the child away from its mother. David’s aunt dies soon after, a probable suicide. So what can David expect when he befriends a young girl who has six toes on each foot? Or when he discovers that he can communicate with seven other children in their village through the use of mental images instead of spoken language? Are all mutations bad? Are they all bad enough to warrant sterilization and life on the fringes?
Even if you are not a fan of science fiction there is much to enjoy in The Chrysalids. John Wyndham tells an excellent story. He gradually introduces the more fanciful science fiction elements as he goes, leading us on with the father/son conflict and the story of a societal outcast trying to survive before asking us to believe in telepathy. The book has many memorable characters and raises more than a few issues that are still relevant some 60 years after its initial publication. How many modern readers can identify with a boy who has a secret he cannot tell his family for fear they will reject him? One way to read The Chrysalids is as a classic narrative of life in the closet and coming out. Another way to read it is as a critique of religious extremism. David’s family and his society have made Christianity so narrow minded that many humans are rejected as inhuman. (The Chrysalids could almost be a commentary on contemporary religious fundamentalism.) There is also the issue of just what makes an acceptable child. Today we can test in utero for many conditions that used to remain undetected until after a child was born, sometimes years after. Modern parents are faced with decisions their own parents and grandparents never had to consider at all. In The Chrysalids a mother cannot decide if her child is normal enough to keep– the decision is made for her by religious authorities–but the question is pertinent to today’s society. Remember how controversial it was for Sarah Palin to keep her Down’s Syndrome child?
When I picked up John Wyndham’s book The Chrysalids, I expected to find an entertaining story, but I found much more than a good read. The Chrysalids is a novel that will stay with me for some time. I’d rank it with the best of Octavia Butler’s science fiction which uses a futuristic setting to show us what our present is like and to explore what it means to be human.
I’ve corrected only one error that I found in the original version of this post which first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009. In the introduction I used the phrase “eke out a living” but I spelled it “eek out a living.” Eek is a sound some people make when they see a ghost or a mouse. Eke is to subside on a very tight budget.
But no matter how you spell, or misspell, it, The Chrysalids is an excellent book.