American Gods by Neil Gaiman
It’s hard to be a god in America. People are busy making new things, and they forget their obligation to worship. Or they find it more interesting to worship new gods as tastes change and technology advances. So what’s an old god, brought to America by immigrants, to do?
Well, most just want to accept their fate, but Odin can see the bleakness of the future. He wants to rally all of the old gods—and they are myriad, coming from all over the world—to do battle. Because new gods are rising. There is Internet and there is Media, powerful players in the changing world—and so easy to worship.
Since the old gods have lost power, and are often nothing more than con men and petty thieves, they need to engage people in their battle for supremacy. And so begins our story.
Shadow Moon has found out that he is soon to be released from prison. He’s there for beating a fellow thief who cheated him out of his part of the thieves’ take. But with the help of his much-loved wife and his good behavior, he’s up for early release. Unfortunately, that release comes a few days earlier than expected because his wife has been killed in a car accident, and he needs to go home to attend her funeral.
On his trip home, Shadow’s journey is disrupted when he finds himself in the wrong airport and then on a wrong plane. He talks to Mr. Wednesday, who knows all about Shadow and offers him a job. Although Shadow is reluctant, he eventually accepts as he has no other options. He has, without knowing it, become a sort of bodyguard and accomplice to a god. As he works to secure the legacy of the traditional gods, Shadow becomes very loyal, despite the strange, magical and haunting thing his life has become. He must confront death, try to outwit various gods, and deal with his dead wife who keeps reappearing and hoping that Shadow will figure out how to bring her to life.
There is so much going on in this long novel. The idea is very creative, and the characters are deeply engaging. And yet when one of the characters was quoting the poet William Butler Yeats—“The center cannot hold”—I thought that was true of the novel—or that maybe it has no actual center. It just tries to incorporate too much, and Shadow moves from episode to episode without the connections always being made. I think it would have made better sense if it were pared down in scope.
Despite its flaws, I want to recommend American Gods to students interested in stories of gods and goddesses. I know many who loved the Percy Jackson books when they were younger and are seeking similar works for a more mature audience. There are many, many gods in the novel, from all over the world. You’ll be able to guess who some of them are as they parade in human form; however, most will be surprises, and you’ll learn new things about various mythologies.
Even more interesting than the gods are Shadow and his dead wife. They illuminate the complexities of flawed relationships, the inscrutability of love, and the strangeness of loyalty. Shadow is very smart, thoroughly likeable, and a deep thinker to boot. You’ll also like his wife more than you want to, considering her behavior—her presence is both a haunting and a protection. The trials that Shadow goes through in his journey to belief (or in his journey to decide what to believe) are interesting for the reader to contemplate. So despite the wandering narrative, you’ll find yourself thinking important thoughts about belief, life and death.
High school housekeeping: If you read my review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, you’ll know that I think Gaiman is a brilliant writer. And even though brilliant people can’t be brilliant all the time, if you are a fan of myths, I think you’ll like this. It does have mature themes—for example, an ancient goddess of fertility might pop up in the modern world as a prostitute. So—forewarned. You might try the tenth anniversary edition of this book. I believe it was released with changes requested by Gaiman. Perhaps it has a narrative arc that wasn’t clear (or that I wasn’t smart enough to follow) in the first edition.