The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon, author; Paula Wilcox, narrator
In the summer of 1976, the result of what I will call groupthink* came to roost in a quiet English neighborhood. Most of the action takes place on The Avenue, a street in a quiet community in England where homogeneity is the ultimate goal of all of the residents. It is a more innocent time, in this small, tight knit neighborhood of simple people who lack sophistication, resent outsiders and pride themselves on knowing each other’s business and of often believing they know what is best for each other. They seem naturally suspicious of anyone different, but, as a unit, they protect each other from outside scrutiny as they maintain a false picture of a just and harmonious community. Beneath the surface of camaraderie, seeds of suspicion and distrust have been planted, and soon they begin to grow into full-fledged doubts. The Avenue has witnessed a series of events which have both united and divided the residents. Some have circled the wagons to protect each other, to hide their secrets, and some have begun to question their original motives and actions. When a neighbor suddenly goes missing, they fear that their secrets have been uncovered and some grow very fearful of exposure. One neighbor fans their fear with her remarks. She seems to want to reinvent the mob mentality that once ruled the street with tragic consequences. Cracks appear in their united front as neighbor begins to suspect neighbor of wrongdoing.
When two ten-year-old children learn of the mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Margaret Creasy, Grace, the more sophisticated of the two, convinces Tilly to lie with her and pretend they are Brownies, working on a badge. In that way they can visit the neighbors and ask questions as they investigate the whereabouts of a woman they liked very much and hoped would return. **They begin their quest as a search to find G-d, since G-d is everywhere and must know where Margaret Creasy has gone. As they travel the avenue, questioning one then another of their neighbors, they hear them begin to buzz with their suspicions about why Margaret Creasy left. Her husband insists she will surely be back because she would never miss their anniversary. Some begin to suspect foul play and point a finger again, at a neighbor they dislike and have ostracized for years, have blamed for crimes, based on circumstantial evidence and prejudice. Walter Bishop is different and not welcome on their avenue and is the accused.
Many of the residents have made mistakes they have hidden and for which they have blamed others. Their behavior going forward was colored with their shame and guilt, but rarely with remorse. To be fair, the neighbors lacked sophistication. They were all flawed in some way. While they lived with their personal shame, they shamefully took their pain out on others.
***Which of the neighbors were sheep and which were goats? Were they all a part of each? Could they find redemption? What seemed like a simple story, at first, about a woman who disappears, begins to have a deeper secret hidden within it, like that in the parable of the goats and the sheep. Will the two ten year old girls find G-d and/or Margaret Creasy? The book is written with the voice and mindset of a ten year old and it is often humorous with guileless dialogue that comes out of the mouths of babes and encourages chuckling. The young sleuths are charming and the author’s prose is lyrical. The subject matter is clean without filthy language or sex.
The narrator does a great job of expressing the personality of each of the characters, young and old. She defines the childlike voices of Grace Bennett and her friend Tilly and perfectly captures the edge in some of the other characters, their meanness, their shame, their innocence, their differences, using a separate voice for each of them and a different pattern to depict their personalities. Grace’s strength, Tilly’s naïveté, Sheila’s suspicious nature, Mrs. Morton’s humiliation and resultant resentment, Walter Bishop’s strangeness which influences the communities reaction to him, Thin Brian’s lack of confidence, Eric’s equanimity, the tormented Sheila who is ashamed of her past and the racism of some of the neighbors comes alive with her interpretation.
When the book concludes, we don’t discover the final consequences of this community’s code of silence, but we do know that when Mrs. Creasy returns, she will bring with her the certain knowledge of events that she was never meant to discover, knowledge of their secrets, knowledge which will make them face and stare down at their own guilt and shameful behavior, behavior that in the eyes of G-d would possibly make them goats, creatures to be banished from the community, consigned to the fires of Hell. Those they persecuted and ostracized might very well be the ones to sit beside the right hand of G-d. Were some of the characters a combination of sheep and goat or were they simply goats in sheep’s clothing? Are we all part goat and sheep. Does the goat rule in some of us and the sheep in others? Are innocent children the only pure sheep? Another question is, if there is a path to redemption, why do they not take it? If G-d accepts everyone, why would he shun goats? Many other questions will remain for discussion.
One explanation of the parable when referring to the death of Jesus, is that he was condemned, not for a real crime, but for the perceived crime of being different, of having different ideas, and of behaving differently, not fitting in with the crowd. I thought of our current election season in America, in 2016, in which the rhetoric and insults, one to another, simply point out the differences that exist and will not be tolerated by some, publicly crying out for unity, while they privately speak out against it. I believe that the parable of the goats and sheep is meant to teach people to accept and love each other, even with their differences, rather than to judge and condemn each other for being different. After all, are we not all the same? Don’t we stand united and fall divided? That is the message that the book imparted to me.
*”According to Wikipedia, Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision making outcome.” Other sites describe it in a similar fashion.
**The girl’s search for answers seems loosely based on the parable that refers to sheep and goats. In their quest, the girls find out that there are “goats” who will be banished from the left side of G-d, because they are the troublemakers, and there are sheep that will sit on the right side of G-d because they are the peacemakers.” (http://www.gotquestions.org/parable-sheep-goats.html)
***“The core message of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is that God’s people will love others. Good works will result from our relationship to the Shepherd. Followers of Christ will treat others with kindness, serving them as if they were serving Christ himself. The unregenerate live in the opposite manner. While “goats” can indeed perform acts of kindness and charity, their hearts are not right with God, and their actions are not for the right purpose – to honor and worship God.”
While the book seems to have a connection to the parable, it is not a book about religion, it is more about righteousness and having faith in something. It should be good reading for everyone.