Dark Sons

Posted August 21st, 2012

Dark SonsWhenever I’d sit in church listening to yet another sermon about Abraham and Isaac, I’d always think to myself, “Yeah, but what about Ishmael?” I’ve heard maybe three sermons about Ishmael in the last two years, but before then, I can’t remember ever having heard a single one, which, of course, made me curious. What was the deal with Ishmael? With every year that passed, my curiosity grew until finally, I grabbed a literary shovel and dug into the story myself.

What did I find? A racially and culturally diverse teen, jealous of his half-brother, estranged from his stepmother, abandoned by his father, and wrestling with his faith. This was all so familiar. I knew scores of boys like that. They’d walked the streets of every neighborhood I’d ever lived in. As Ishmael’s story got its hooks into me, I felt compelled to tell it.

Dark Sons is a novel-in-verse that tells two parallel stories. One is about Ishmael, son of Abraham, and the second is about Sam, a contemporary teen living in New York City, who is wrestling with similar issues. 

When I began working on the book, my intention was simply to tell Ishmael’s story. However, halfway through, I decided to create a parallel story that would underscore just how timely and relevant Ishmael’s thousands-of-years-old story really is.

Library of Congress

Signing books and posters at the Library of Congress. Definitely, one of my favorite things!

Dark Sons, as you might imagine, was a research-heavy book. I’m always extra careful whenever handling scriptural material and so, in addition to studying the Bible, concordances, atlases, various texts about daily life in ancient Israel, and the like, I traveled to New York to do additional research at Hebrew Union College, where I interviewed several Old Testament scholars and Genesis experts.

It’s always amazing to me what tiny bits of information can bring a story to life. Of course, I never know which bits I’ll end up using. For this book, those bits included the months of the Jewish calendar, feast days, weather patterns, and foods, among other things.

Besides the obvious task of painting the world of the story, I also had to work on staying in voice as I moved from Ishmael to Sam and back again. Call me crazy, but I relish the mental and emotional gymnastics of moving back and forth from one voice to another. I suppose it’s because I’m a sucker for a challenge!

I love the way writing stories gives me the opportunity to blend my own, sometimes pivotal experiences into the lives of the characters in my books. For example, in Dark Sons, on a day when Sam feels especially isolated and in despair, he catches sight of a sign trailed across the sky by an airplane, a sign that read “I am with you always —Matthew 28:20.” That’s something that actually happened to me, once. I was feeling particularly distressed and alone one day as I was wondering through Central Park, and something told me to look up. My breath caught, then I let out a long, slow sigh. I remember feeling comforted, not by the sign itself, but because it showed up, as it did, at exactly the moment I needed it most. In drafting Dark Sons, I got to pass that experience on, in a way. I love that.

I’ll close with the poem in question, titled “Signs.”

Looking to lengthen the distance
between me and home,
I train it to 59th Street,
jet through the subway doors
and run around Central Park
in no particular direction,
trying to leave my anger in the wind.
What’s it get you, anyway,
being mad at God?
“It’s not like You listen!”
I scream at him.
My dad’s gone,
my mom is a holy mess.
So where does that leave me, huh?
Alone. Like You care.”
Out of air
I collapse on the new grass,
blind to the explosion of spring green.
I blink up at the Etch A Sketch
of skyscrapers, gray on gray,
just the way I feel.
I rub the wetness from my eyes
and let them rest on the sky.
Then I see it.
A lane passing overhead
trailing a sign that says,
I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS.—Matthew 28:20
My heart rate slows.
I close my eyes,
whisper the familiar verse
In its entirety:
“‘I am with you always,
even to the end of the age.'”
I let the truth of it in,
feel my thoughts stop spinning
and calmly head back
to the subway.