An Exemplars Special for April

Thoughts on The Language of Paradise.


The story in The Language of Paradise takes place in 1830s New England, where Sophy Hedge, daughter of a Calvinist minister, falls in love with her father’s student, Gideon Birdsall. Gideon is a man obsessed with finding the origins of pure language — the quest to find the primary/first language spoken in the Garden of Eden. Their child must hear no human sounds and, as a result, will utter pure speech.

Schoolmaster Leander Solloway comes to town and forms a bond with Gideon. Leander — a mystical and powerful figure — controls the couple’s marriage and household, further invigorating Gideon’s quest for original speech. Sophy cannot share her husband’s desire to sacrifice her baby for the origin of language; she tries to communicate psychically with her boy, and finally must escape to rescue the child from his jailers. She reluctantly leaves love behind in a desperate flight. And then there is more…

This is what happens in the book, but, equally interesting, is how such an idea possessed author Barbara Klein Moss, 10 years ago, to begin research into religion, theology, and biblical history. She found evidence to uncover the origin of language by other cultures, even ancient ones predating the Old Testament.

Moss is absorbed in exploring language as strongly connected to spirit. Some say words come from the breath of God, and there have been seekers through history to prove this. Moss brings us new information about forcing silence on babies, distorting a child’s reality to find the “ultimate” language.

Moss is devoted to the idea of Paradise; we saw this in her earlier book of short stories, Little Edens. Now, Moss creates an imagined world from years of collected thought. The book is a tale of love and, at the same time, a practice in domination and submission, obedience and mastery. Women’s subservience in the 19th century is well known; Moss uses this to harness Sophy within an alien environment and then release her to the good of the story. The author offers a reality we couldn’t have known and changes our way of thinking with Sophy’s triumphs.

Moss is known for her intricately detailed writing style. She’s a lyrical writer, grooming her lines into poetic prose. We have characters, situations, and plot, but to become “literature” is always a practical matter — the caliber of each sentence must be held in relation to the next. Excellent literary rules of engagement are found in the writing, giving the comfort of a well turned phrase, and melody, stepping back into the past.

The characters in The Language of Paradise have a dream. A dream is a powerful thing to escort through 400 pages, and Moss moves us along, unfolding with manners and ideas that stay in motion till the very end. At the heart is a wish for idealism, and the power in the novel comes from delving into that system to see where and how sweetness is taken away. Barbara Klein Moss’ writing is a labor of obedience to “the word.” Her novel is about language: a Calling, Obsession, Devotion.

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio, celebrating 38 years on air. Her latest books are The Man Who Got Away and The Mandate of Heaven.

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