TCC Reads: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

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There are a few parables everybody knows because they are so reflective of human failure to love — and divine persistence in love. One of them is the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15. The son in question is a brat, wondering why he can’t have his inheritance to spend as he pleases.

No matter that desiring his inheritance means desiring the death of his father; this boy wants to party.The father gives his son what he asks and the young man sets off to a distant land, where he lives it up. Literally. Before long, he has spent all his money and he is reduced to caring for the pigs on a stranger’s farm.

Sendak’s book is not pious, but it is beautiful and true, and, so, holy.

The son has a revelation, though not the revelation that he has wronged his father and behaved like an ass. Rather, he realizes all at once that the servants in his father’s house live better than he. So the prodigal sets out for home.

And this is where the story takes a turn we’re still trying to comprehend some 2,000 years after it was first told. While the son is making his way home, the wronged father is walking the roads, searching for his lost child. The father doesn’t seem to understand how badly he has been treated. He just wants his boy home.

When the son comes in sight of his father’s house, the father sees him and goes running out to meet him. Forget dignity or justice or honor — the father races to embrace his son and rejoice.

If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for a child (which you are) and you want to introduce this story to some children (which you should), get a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s a faithful retelling of the story that retains the briskly unsentimental tone of the original. Sendak’s book is not pious, but it is beautiful and true, and, so, holy.

Max is a brat who likes to wear a wolf suit and make “mischief of one kind and another.” Lest you think this “mischief ” is cute or benign, Sendak’s illustration shows Max, a fork in his upraised hand, leaping toward a fleeing dog. The dog’s hind legs are airborne in his haste to reach safety, and his eyes are cast backward, the better to see and avoid his pursuer.

One suspects the only thing keeping the dog from grievous harm is Max’s mother, who calls her son, accurately, “Wild thing!” and sends him to bed without his supper. The picture shows a large door in Max’s bedroom. It is shut, with, one hopes, the rest of the household safely on the other side. But, oh, that open window, with the moon shining bright in the wide night sky.

Max doesn’t thank his mother for her maternal correction. Nor does he accept it. He answers instead with a chilling threat: “I’ll eat you up!”

Max is alone in his room, and the room slowly turns into a jungle. It’s as if Max’s heart takes root and grows the thick feral vines hanging on the walls. Then, like the prodigal who leaves his father’s house for more entertaining company, Max is taken by “a private boat” out of his room “to where the wild things are.”

This is more like it! The wild things “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” And, recognizing one even more fearsome than they, the wild things make Max their king. Which is just what Max had been angling for at home. (If you’re thinking Garden of Eden here, go right ahead.)

Where the Wild Things Are

Max lets loose and cries, “Let the wild rumpus start!” And start it does. The moon under which Max left home was a crescent, but now the moon is round and ripe and full. But Max, who thought a wild rumpus was all he needed, discovers that he is “lonely” and wants “to be where someone loved him best of all.” Also — and this is important for both prodigals — he smells, “from far away across the world,” “good things to eat.”

So Max sets out for home. The wild things try to stop him. Like every sin humankind has ever known, they yell, “Oh, please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so.” (And if you’re thinking about the man who loved you too much to let you have any friends or contrary opinions or a day away from him, go right ahead.)

But something, perhaps the smell of good things to eat, pulls Max homeward, where the punishment he has earned is nowhere in sight. Max comes “into the night of his very own room” and finds, instead, “his supper waiting for him.”

We turn to the last page of  the book, where Sendak finishes with five plain words that capture as well as any the Father’s love. Max came home and found his supper waiting for him, “and it was still hot.”

– Melissa Musick

(This review originally appeared in Celebration the liturgical resource for The National Catholic Reporter. It is reprinted here with permission.)