21

Galastel did a spin off question based on one of mine. Mortal danger in mid-grade literature. And hers has spurred a new one for me.

This is an issue I've been grappling with for a while and I still don't have a solution for it. I had thought to wait until I was closer to writing that scene, but the other question has similar elements and it feels right to ask it now.

Background:

In my middle grade novel, kids from 1995 America time travel back to Ancient Egypt to join the Exodus. They arrive between the 9th and 10th Plagues and leave about 3 months later, shortly after Moses returns from the top of Mt. Sinai with the second set of tablets.

While my book is fantasy, I'm also viewing it as a historical novel, as if the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) were (more or less) factual. While I'm not claiming a religious history is real history, it's real in the book. Obviously I'm adding a bunch and changing a few things. But there are some events I can't leave out that are violent and problematic for my audience:

  1. The 10th Plague, the Killing of the Firstborn (Exodus 12).
  2. The battle with Amalek (Exodus 17).
  3. The punishment of the people after the Golden Calf (Exodus 32).

I can do a fair bit of handwaving and sheltering of the children, but I can't ignore these events. I can and do ignore several other violent events because they happen after the children return home. I also pick and choose how I talk about the horrors of slavery and plagues 1-9 because they happen before the children arrive.

The Problem:

#1 I can tell, not show. None of the Jewish households lose anyone and they are required to stay inside all night. They can hear about the deaths of people they didn't know in the morning.

#2 happens outside of the camp. A couple of my children are the only POV characters and none of them are part of the battle. They can hear about it briefly when it's happening and/or over. This one I could leave out or reduce to a line or two.

#3 is the one that concerns me. Moses has just returned from the mountaintop with the first set of tablets to discover that some of the people have forced his brother Aaron to create a Golden Calf to worship. The Levites (the tribe that includes Moses and his family and where all the kids are staying) did not participate in this and are not punished. The kids were pivotal in keeping them out of it (this is a large part of why they are here).

Here is the text, with some cuts noted, other words in square brackets are part of the translation (Exodus 32:17-35):

When Joshua heard the voice of the people in their shouting, he said to Moses: "There is a voice of battle in the camp!" But [Moses] said: "[It is] neither a voice shouting victory, nor a voice shouting defeat; a voice of blasphemy I hear."

Now it came to pass when he drew closer to the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moses' anger was kindled, and he flung the tablets from his hands, shattering them at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the calf they had made, burned it in fire, ground it to fine powder, scattered [it] upon the surface of the water, and gave [it to] the children of Israel to drink.

[Cut: Moses talks to Aaron about what happened.] So Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said: "Whoever is for the Lord, [let him come] to me!" And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them: "So said the Lord, the God of Israel: 'Let every man place his sword upon his thigh and pass back and forth from one gate to the other in the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his friend, every man his kinsman.'"

The sons of Levi did according to Moses' word; on that day some three thousand men fell from among the people.

[Cut: Moses returns to the mountaintop and asks God to forgive the people.] Then the Lord struck the people with a plague, because they had made the calf that Aaron had made.

This is not something I can pretend didn't happen. It's the consequences for the main event in the book. Nor can I dampen it down to, say, Moses yelling at the people who made and worshiped the calf. We have forced drinking of the remains of the Golden Calf and a plague. And in-between is the wholesale murder of 3000 adult men with swords.

This is hardly the first middle grade story to have this issue. Any story about the Holocaust or other genocide must deal with it, as well as the nonfiction Diary of a Young Girl (by Anne Frank). And books set in wartime.

Question:

My question is not should I include mass murder and other horrors in my story, but how.

  • 1
    You might want to take a look at King Matt the First. It is for children, and deals with quite adult themes. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy on me at the moment/ – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 19 at 19:11
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    How about dealing with the absence of these people and the grief that it brings to those who had survived? Children can relate to someone's absence. If you tell them to imagine that mommy isn't there and that she will never come back, they will understand that pretty well. – kikirex Mar 19 at 20:29
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    I have observed kids at that age that deal with death if parents and relatives. Unfortunately, I've had close relatives who went through this as kids. Only when they grew up did they appreciate the loss. I think at that age kids have better tolerance, or some mental shock absorbers, for death. Personally, as a kid, I've seen bodies in the streets. Indeed it's engraved in my memory, but I turned out OK, I guess. – iamtowrite Mar 20 at 0:22
  • @imatowrite yeesh. No one, kid or adult, should see bodies in the street. :-( – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 20 at 0:33
  • Watch "Minions" (from Illumination Entertainment, I think) it is a Kids show and they kill a lot in there -- but in a fun way – D. Kastier Mar 20 at 11:55
26

You have two problems here:

  1. Lots of good people dying, "on stage" - in front of the children
  2. Good people killing other good people

The first is dealt with very well in The Hobbit, for example.

Already behind [Thorin] among the goblin dead lay many men and many dwarves, and many a fair elf that should have lived yet long ages merrily in the wood. And as the valley widened his onset grew ever slower. His numbers were too few. His flanks were unguarded. Soon the attackers were attacked, and they were forced into a great ring, facing every way, hemmed all about with goblins and wolves returning to the assault. The bodyguard of Bolg came howling against them, and drove in upon their ranks like waves upon cliffs of sand. Their friends could not help them, for the assault from the Mountain was renewed with redoubled force, and upon either side men and elves were being slowly beaten down.
[...]
“It will not be long now,” thought Bilbo, “before the goblins win the Gate, and we are all slaughtered or driven down and captured. Really it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through. I would rather old Smaug had been left with all the wretched treasure, than that these vile creatures should get it, and poor old Bombur, and Balin and Fili and Kili and all the rest come to a bad end; and Bard too, and the Lake-men and the merry elves. Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious. It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.”

There is both a general picture of the battle, with many dead, and the personal connection - multiple beloved characters are in danger. Fili, Kili and Thorin are killed, bringing heart-wrenching grief. All the relevant emotions are presented to the reader, evoked, explored: the horror of the battle, the MC's fear for his own life, his fear for those he (and the reader) care for, a moment of despair when the battle turns against them, hope unlooked for when the eagles come, grief when, although they've won, a great many are dead.

There are no graphic details - no blood and gore. The scene is filtered through the narration. Bilbo is focused not on the visceral - not on cries of pain and spilt guts, but on other emotions. Almost, Tolkien paints not a picture of a battlefield, but a picture of a picture - the unsavoury bits have been cleaned up.

The "cleaned up" part is very noticeable in a slightly later scene:

There indeed lay Thorin Oakenshield, wounded with many wounds, and his rent armour and notched axe were cast upon the floor. He looked up as Bilbo came beside him.

A very emotional farewell follows. The focus is all on the grief of Thorin dying, there's no descriptions of bloodstained bandages and whatnot. I think that's the right way to go in a book for children. Gory descriptions would be "too much", overwhelming the reader and distracting from what you want to tell.

tl;dr: focus on hope/despair, grief, concern for friends. Avoid vivid descriptions of gore. Tell that people are dead, but don't show their death throes.


The second depends on how you want the people who do the killing to deal with the situation, emotionally. The children might be too young to participate in the killing, but when Moses calls "Whoever is for the Lord, to me!" they are for the Lord, aren't they? So they would be part of the party doing the killing, even if they don't actively participate, and by extension, your readers are party to that too.

In stories for children, good guys kill bad guys. Many goblins are killed in The Hobbit, and nobody bats an eyelash. But those people who made the golden calf - they were misguided and afraid. Can you truly paint them as monsters, whose death is nothing to be sad about?

You've got to decide for yourself how you want to present this situation, why those people deserve to be killed (or maybe need to be killed although they don't deserve it). You've got to figure out how those men who do the killing rationalise it to themselves. Only once you've got that, can you think of how you present it all to your child-protagonists, and through them - to your readers.

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    This is a very good answer. Perhaps the problem is that I can't rationalize it. I think it's awful. But then a lot of things in Torah are horrific and done by the people I'm supposed to empathize with (and be descended from). OTOH a lot of people dismiss all of Judaism because of the horrible things. The only way to address that is wade into the water and deal with it head on. Reading your post though gave me the idea of framing it more as a civil war (skirmish for control?) than divine punishment. I have a lot of thinking to do on it. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 19 at 19:16
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    It might be worth it to point out that this occurred immediately after God Himself showed up on the mountain, offered them all a personal relationship with Him, and got refused, which is why Moses went up on the mountain to get the Law in the first place. Then, while God was still sitting on the mountain right in front of them, they went and built an idol to another god - and in so doing, broke the very rules that they had literally just asked for, and were punished accordingly. – nick012000 Mar 20 at 2:27
  • Well said. I always find it interesting that in the religious primary school I went to they talked about coming up the mountain but then just said "he was very angry and smashed the tablet" without ever mentioning the massacre. – Tim B Mar 20 at 17:48
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    @nick012000 I don't know what your background is, but in Jewish interpretations, it's much more nuanced than that. According to Jewish tradition, the golden calf was supposed to be a replacement for Moses as their intermediary with God. Not as a replacement for God himself. – Daniel Mar 20 at 20:56
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    @Daniel is right about the Jewish perspective here. – Cyn says make Monica whole Apr 15 at 21:06
10

This kind of killing is never done with a light heart. While you can easily jump over the act itself, you can show the turmoil and torment that goes through the mind of those that have to execute it. While it may seem that everything happened in the spite of the moment, it is far from being believable that Moses would immediately commit to such an action without a single doubt. As discussed in another question, Judaism is about challenging the Word, questioning, engaging a direct confrontation with religion. This moment must be the apex of it.

The kids will see a troubled Moses, one who would do anything else but resolve to kill his brethren. You can build all the tension in these moments, show your kids becoming afraid of the hardening of Moses heart. You could also show how the kids find it increasingly difficult to interact with him: after all if they come from a world where killing is never justified (unless there is death penalty in their home States), then a man who can commit murder out of choice is as far as it can be from their understanding.

Also, would they feel safe? The man is visibly on the verge to commit something out of the ordinary, perhaps something violent. One can give all the assurances but 5000+ years of history should be a big gap in terms of mind-sets, values, and moral standards.

You can actually use this to your advantage, and show how they mend their communication afterwards; show how Moses will endeavor to convince them that what has been done was necessary, and that it was just. Do not make it easy for him to come across this, or you may rob him of the depth of such a fundamental character, and you may rob your kids of their character development.

As for the killing itself, if you are afraid of showing it, then skip it. I exaggerate, but you could easily go for a dramatic cut: "Moses left the house with a dagger under his cloak and a stern look across his eyes. No one spoke a word of goodbye. The next morning, the sleepless faces of the kids were still frozen in terror."

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    This is very good, and it made me think of an approach that might work. My book has plenty of male characters but is very focused on women/girls. The primary Hebrew character isn't Moses, but Miriam. When the Golden Calf was made, the Levites didn't participate (except for Aaron, who was coerced). Also, the women didn't either. The men freely gave up their gold jewelry to be melted down, but the women refused (for good reasons). Many other punishments affect men and women but this one is clear, it's men who are killed. Every dead man has a mother, sister, maybe wife, daughter. (more) – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 19 at 20:33
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    The women might be pissed at their men but they didn't want them to die. Showing their reactions, their grief, their attempts to stop the killings, or at least doing so secondhand when the Levite women return from consoling them... that may work. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 19 at 20:36
  • @Cyn that is also a very nice idea! – NofP Mar 19 at 21:05
7

I will tell you the horrible truth. Nobody actually cares if people get killed. Not even if it happens for no real reason and in a horrible and painful way. And your case is actually much better than that.

So what do people really care about or what do you actually need to worry about and assure them about?

Could it happen to me?

In your case the answer is clearly no. It is time travel and to a mythical past at that. I understand the current consensus is that this event did not actually happen and does not make much sense if taken literally and actually refers to politics of when it was actually written.

Make that detachment clear to readers from the beginning. Make clear that it is "once upon a time". Make clear that it is mythical.

This is actually kind of convenient as you probably want to show some magic and wonders anyway. It is not like being swished back in time is everyday occurrence or like Moses is some ordinary dude. Or like you are trying to tell a story of some everyday occurrences.

Play it up and make the separation from the reality and world the reader is in clear. Realistically if you want the main characters to be somewhat realistic you can have them outright discuss this. I would if I was transported to the Biblical times. Or any times, really. Time travel is kind of... rare to my personal experience.

Could it happen to one of the handful of people I actually care about?

Same as above really. Only real issue that makes this worth noting separately is that that most authors nowadays want to make the reader relate to the protagonists and care about what happens to them.

Other answers have already touched on the canonical solution to this. Horrible things happen to only monsters and villains you are happy to see get what they deserve. Even if the heroes forgot to wear their invulnerable plot armor (do something obviously dumb that marks them as acceptable target) what happens to them is invariably heroic not horrible. Even Boromir dies like a hero.

In fact Boromir is fairly obvious how to kill your characters example. He makes a clearly bad error that has been properly foreshadowed and that directly leads to his death scene. He understands his error and genuinely repents. He dies a heroic death complete with Sean Bean. Can't die better than that.

In your case since you suggest the characters are sent back in time for a reason by God (?) you can just play up the "go there, do your task, go back home" aspect of it. The characters really might have literal plot armor. The omnipotent God, in this case unusually not just the author, has use for these characters and they cannot be harmed.

Although Gods plans might include some or even all of the characters getting killed in the past. But, well, that is why I mentioned Boromir. And I think other answers had an example you can use to do this. Which is why I was thinking of LoTR when looking for an example...

Am I supposed to act like I care?

Your target audience is old enough that some of them will care about "being bad". And even with the less morally developed ones you need to worry about parents and other adults who definitely worry to excess about bad examples to their children.

So you need to somehow assure the readers that what happens is actually okay. If you targeted the story exclusively to religious audiences this would be trivial but since you make no mention of this I'll assume you need some actual justifications.

You can play up the "inside a story that is already written" angle. The protagonists try to change it. Try to avoid the bad things but they cannot. And it turns out that this is fine.

Sometimes bad things will happen and we cannot avoid them. We just need to deal with it, move on, and learn from the experience. This is valuable life lesson and if you play it up upfront you can totally fool most adults into thinking that teaching valuable life lessons to their kids is fine. Nobody ever notices that you can actually teach stuff without mass murder.

You must, and this relates to your overall plot, which I have no idea about, make this all somehow relevant and meaningful. Educational to parental audiences. Doing this while keeping the story readable by the actual target audience can be a challenge. But if you pull it off you can get away with using "examples" that objectively are pretty horrible.

Especially when somebody else who died millennia ago is actually responsible for you using them. You want to make that clear too. The kids will probably know who Moses is and discuss this.

You might want to do lots of that discussion thing anyway. Having the kids discuss things, learn from it, and grow up because of what happens is a good supplement to actual plot in making it all seem educational to parents. And the actual target audience will get to know the characters better if you avoid being too preachy about it.

EXTRA

This answer is actually fairly generic. You can apply parts of it to many "my story has things that upset the audience" issues. Basically you just detach it from direct contact to the readers and their normal reality and then fool them into thinking you had a legitimate reason for including the upsetting thing in the story and it was somehow useful and good thing to have. Variations due to target audience and genre.

5

That is a pickle.

The sons of Levi are obeying the words of their prophet, which they believe to be the words of god. They have no choice.

I suggest the kids see sudden activity, men and youths grabbing swords and knives, leaving. Your kids hear the angry words of Moses and stay in the tent with the others, but the quiet bustle of activity makes some just have to watch.

One or two might peek out and see the head of the household strike down someone but it isn’t clear who. Everything would be over quickly, but there would be screams and pleading and then silence. The silence is what is worse, for the reader - especially the older ones - will understand why the screams stopped.

Have the kids frightened by the commotion, not believing it is happening. Perhaps they distance themselves from the tragedy by reminding themselves that these people have been dead for millennia. The silence that follows will be eloquent and no one who took part will want to think about it, certainly not talk about it.

He returned to his family, the silence that had been so roughly disturbed had healed itself. Wiping his blade clean, he looked at his wife, the sorrow in her eyes a match to his own. Such was the price of sacrilege. “It was the will of God. We shall not speak of it.”

Of course, what do I know? I was raised presbyterian and given a bible for children.

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    This is a good approach. I almost think you can use how it's written in Exodus, and not explain the event at all. Depict them hearing the command being given, hide them away, and say "outside the tent where the children hid, three thousand of the people died." Then use what Rasdashan suggests for after the event. By this time in the story, the children have already gone through some pretty crazy stuff. The mind is good at adapting - accepting hard information, and moving forward. If the children in your story can do that, it makes it easier for the minds of your readers too. – Gwendolyn Mar 19 at 19:33
2

Have you seen the scene in the cartoon adaptation of the Exodus Story, The Prince of Egypt showing the 10th Plague? I think it did a good job of showing the wide extent of the death while not making it disturbing for kids. God or the Angel of Death (I forget which character it is in the Bible) descends in the form of a white mist and enters the unmarked houses. We hear a gasp of the dying victim(s) and then the light leaves. There is one moment where a man enters his house, followed by the light, gasps and we hear his body fall and his arm slumps out as his bowl shatters and the contents fall out. I can't recall off the top of my head, but I think there are two Egyptian guards who die on screen and it's done by the light seemingly entering and leaving their bodies followed by the same gasp (could be some other cartoon I saw though).

After the light leaves, the next scene is the morning after where Pharaoh (Moses' Brother) has summoned Moses and is seen grieving over the body of his child, who is the only on screen child to be seen dead... all other deaths were adults if on screen...

This, to my mind, is not the most disturbing act of mass murder in the movie... that honor goes to the depiction of the the death of the Jewish children of Moses' age (infants when it happens). The opening scene depicts Moses' mother sending him off, but a later scene has an Adult Moses dream of a depiction of these events, done in an animated Egyptian painting style, culminating with soldiers throwing the stolen babies into Crocodile infested waters and the blue paint slowly turning red. Moses wakes and goes to find this painting exists in a hall of the palace... and that's when Pharaoh (Moses' Father) tells Moses that he did order the mass murder, but it's okay because they were only slaves. What makes this scene more frightening is that Pharaoh's voice actor is Patrick Stewart and he's not doing anything to mask his voice... It's delivered as if John Luc Picard was saying the same line.

  • I have deliberately not watched that movie. At first I didn't see it because my kid wasn't interested. But now that I'm writing my book, I don't want to see it (or any other Exodus adaptation) so it won't influence me. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 20 at 15:57
  • Well, considering it stops just after crossing the Red Sea (where as yours goes on for some time afterwards) there isn't much. I highly recommend it as they do a good job of portraying Moses' family dynamics. – hszmv Mar 20 at 16:05
  • That's reassuring, thanks. I keep making decisions for my book and then hearing that this movie made the same ones. The bit with soldiers throwing baby boys into the Nile is in my book, even though it's not the usual interpretation. Your post is the first time I'd heard the movie did the same. I will watch it when I'm done...but there are plenty of things I have't written out yet and I don't want any chance of learning new ideas from a related work. BTW, my version is told briefly to my time traveling kids by Moses' mom (also a midwife then), now an old woman. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 20 at 16:09
  • To be fair, you are writing a story set in a time and place where the Pyramids modern architecture. I'm sure there's going to be crossover of plot elements. – hszmv Mar 20 at 16:29
  • Yeah, for sure. With the movie The Ten Commandments too. You can't help it when you're #100 (1000?) in a list of retellings of a popular story. Hopefully my version will be unique in some ways... – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 20 at 17:13
0

Personally, in your case, I'd change the moment the kids leave. You're already planning on having the children return to their own time shortly after Mozes came down the mountain, and I think it might be better if their return happens BEFORE Mozes erupts in rage. It seems like your main characters already know what's going to happen, so you could just have them get sent back to their own time and then have someone quote from the Bible to justify as to why they've been recalled so early, in a "I couldn't have lived with myself if I forced you to watch that" sort of thing.

  • Thanks for your answer. If the focus of my story was "kids have an adventure" then your advice would work. It is in large part why I don't have them arrive until after the 9th plague, so we can skip all that suffering. They need to have a taste of slavery & be part of the preparations for leaving, but not more. My story is about the process of becoming Jewish, in a full spiritual sense, not just as ones heritage. Both the kids & the Hebrews are dealing with that. For that to work, we must have the giving of the Torah and need to wait until Moses comes down from that mountain the second time. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 21 at 15:36
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Use the actual text that you gave in the question in your story.

You can either use it whole and then let the kids react to the event after the fact or you can break it up and show the kids' reactions as things are happening.

This approach kind of lets you off the hook. You aren't doing this to the kids, they are just there during this event.

It also lets you contrast their "modern sensibilities" with what happened. So, if your story is about them learning what it means to be Jewish, that lets you make this another learning moment in your story.

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