Emerging Voices
Michelle Abate, editor

Don't Drink the Water: Colonialism and Pete Hautman's Godless

Matthew Prickett

Matthew Prickett received his M.A. in English Education and Writing from Longwood University, where he is an adjunct instructor in the Department of English and Modern Languages. He is currently a graduate student at Hollins University in the Children's Literature Program. His research interests include colonizing childhood, GLBTQ literature for children and young adults, and teenage masculinity.

Childhood is a colonized state, and every aspect is controlled and mandated by adults.  Perry Nodelman discusses the issue of colonization of children in “The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children's Literature.”  Through Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, Nodelman purposes that children and teenagers can be controlled through a variety of pressures.  Nodelman’s ideas of colonialism can be used to determine the controlling factor and examine how such colonization subverts childhood, or adolescents.  In Pete Hautman’s Young Adult novel Godless, religion is the controlling factor under examination.  While Hautman’s novel does not insult or belittle religion, it does showcase how an adult’s use of religion is one of the greatest powers he or she has over a teenager.  Godless presents two teenagers in different stages of their development.  Jason, the protagonist of the novel, has the capacity to think outside of what adults, such as his father, have prescribed to him.  When he decides to rebel against his colonization by worshiping the town’s water tower and creating a religion he terms Chutengodianism, Jason is able to understand that his new religion is not much more than a game, a form of play that allows him to question the religious and authoritative beliefs instilled by his father and other adults.  In contrast, Jason’s best friend, Shin, cannot understand how religion can be anything other than the concrete.  Shin is still in a state where religion is not to be questioned; he is reliant on what he receives from his colonizers.  As the novel progresses, Shin’s inability to distinguish between the reality of his colonized religion and the play of Justin’s made-up religion lead to a mental breakdown that nearly costs him his life.  Jason, held responsible for Shin’s mental breakdown, is forced back into his former colonized state.

During World War II, the word teenager became a part of American culture.  From the very beginning, everything about the modern American teenager has been created by adults.  Adult marketers determine what products to advertise, Adult-run movie studios create the teenager for screen; giving him clothes and language that would set him apart from adults and children.  Historian Thomas Hines writes about the American Teenager:

Teenagers occupy a special place in the society.  They are envied, sold to, studied and deplored.  They are expected to break some rules, but there are other restrictions that apply only to them.  They are at a golden moment in their life—and not to be trusted. (Hines 10)

These ideas about teenagers are found throughout society, but mainly from adults.  If the teenager is not to be trusted, then he must be controlled until society is ready for him or her to act alone.  Religion can be used as a way to control the teenager, beginning at childhood.  By establishing authority, scaring through the treat of damnation, and providing moral role models, religion is powerful, and its use by adults is meant to subvert a teenager’s independence.  As a child grows into a teenager, he is not expected to question the religious beliefs he has been raised with.  Since it is not until adulthood that a child can break fully away from his colonization, then it is not until adulthood that a child, or teenager, can question his religion. 

Hautman’s novel explores both the power of religion over teenagers and the ramification a teenager is faced with if he attempts to break away from the state of “teenagerhood” he has been given.  In order to begin to understand the colonized state and its ramification as it is evident in the novel, both Jason and Shin will have to be explored.

Within the first several chapters, the stark difference between Jason and Shin become clear: “One is large-bodied, hulking, and neckless.  That would be me,” Jason narrates.  “The other is thin, loose-jointed, with hair sticking out in every direction.  That’s Shin” (Hautman 6).  By making Jason, the protagonist, as well as the narrator, of the novel, Hautman alerts the reader that Jason has a sense of independence and intelligence.  He can see himself as an adult, capable of adult thinking and actions.  The reader is supposed to trust him.  While not completely an animal, with intelligence and brute force associated with an adult male, Jason is certainly farther along in the process of growing into an adult than Shin who is always seen clutching a notebook, a symbol of school, another adult-run colonizing tool.  Shin (who’s name, it is important to note, is an ancient Korean family name sometimes spelled S-I-N) again appears juvenile during his encounter with bully Henry Stagg; he can only swing his arms wildly, hoping to strike a blow, much like a child during a fight.  Shin does not take time to understand consequences to his actions.  About Shin, Jason remarks, “Shin does nothing halfway . . . Have I mentioned that Shin is obsessive? . . . He says that to really understand something you have to become whatever it is you are studying” (24).  Even before Chutengodianism is formed, Shin is seen taking something as minor and as potentially boring as snails seriously.  He even writes down the rules to hunting gastropods.

As mentioned, Shin’s name implies that his family is Korean-American.  Looking beyond the stereotypical notion that Shin is good at math and science, it becomes apparent that Godless presents a deeper, and to a degree more disturbing, portrayal of colonization.  Nowhere in the novel is Shin’s race or religion mentioned.  A reader may naturally assume that Shin is Christian, which further adds to the complexities of colonialism depicted in the novel.  In discussing definition and religion in terms of Orientalism, Edward Said wrote,

The more Europe encroached upon the Orient during the nineteenth century, the more Orientalism gained in the public confidence.  Yet if this gain coincided with a lose of originality, we should not be entirely surprised, since its mode, from the very beginning, was reconstruction and repetition. (Said 122)

Said’s idea can be seen through the relationship between Jason and Shin in Godless.  Shin is already the product of Said’s Orientalism.  His family has been westernized and he has been reconstructed to fit a mold.  The novel does not need to mention that Shin is of Korean decent, Said would say that his body size and interest in math and science are enough to define him to the Western reader.  In terms of the narrative, Shin is further colonized through Jason.  As the novel progresses to the end, Shin is again reconstructed into what Jason feels a teenager should be. 

The most striking difference between the friends that aptly displays their stages in development would be in the way they see the world around them.  Shin uses science to solve all his problems.  He believes that questions and answers exist only in the concrete.  When the Chutengodian religion is founded, Shin stays where he is safe, within books, within the literal.  Since there is no language for him to refer to, he creates his own and writes the Chutengodian Genesis.  Jason, however, can see beyond the concrete and into the abstract.  His interest in comics and Science Fiction books shows an ability to think outside his surrounding world and into the theoretical.  He can analyze, deconstruct, and imagine.  For example, when Jason draws pictures of his crush, Magda Price, he does not draw her as she really is but makes her into a fantastic, almost mythological, creature.  In the first chapter, when talking about a comic book he worked on with Shin, Jason says, “My drawings were always full of drama and action; Shin was into the details” (7).  Each boy is different, and they each handle the concept of creating a religion in different ways.

Jason, who first questions religion, and later acts out against his colonized state, moves through the creation of a religion in an abstract, intellectual way.  First he rationalizes the religion.  The reader understands that before the novel begins Jason has already spent time questioning the Catholicism of his father.  But when Jason attempts to articulate these questions, he is always redirected back to the adult-approved religion without any serious discussion.  When talking about the Teen Power Outreach, sponsored by his father’s Catholic church, Jason says, “The purported idea of TPO is to give kids a chance to talk openly and honestly about God, religion, and Catholicism.  But there is also a secret agenda to turn us all into monks and nuns” (15).  Jason recognizes that the adults around him, in particular his father and Just Al, leader of the TPO, only care about leading him in a direction they feel is beneficial and safe.  Whenever Catholicism is brought into question at the TPO meetings, “Just Al always brings it back to how great the church is” (17). 

For Jason, the process of acting out against his father’s religion is a process.  He questions, collects his thoughts, and than analyzes.  This analysis acts as a form of play.  Jason sees the Chutengodian religion as at least partially a game.  Halfway through the novel Jason says, “Chutengodianism is important to me.  But that doesn’t mean I think that a big steel tank propped up on a few I-beams is omnipotent” (89-90).  Jason then goes on to compare his feelings toward his religion with someone getting obsessed with a football game.  How can someone get into a football game, Jason asks himself.  His answer shows an ability to compare himself and the Chutengodian religion to a game taken seriously.  “It’s not a real battle.  It’s just a game somebody made up,” he answers (90).

Shin, however, cannot see Chutengodianism as only a game.  For Shin the religion is serious because he has been told by Jason, who exhibits the maturity and rationale of an adult, it is his new religion.  When Shin and Jason discuss the religion at length for the first time, Jason understands the complexities of a religion.  Jason sees that the water can be a sacred mystery, while Shin responds, “Maybe they’re from another galaxy” (20).  He then goes on to explain that he thought the water tower was a spaceship and the aliens were stealing the town’s water supply.  This is the kind of basic logic expected of a child.  The colonized state is very important for Shin.  It is the system he has always lived within.  At the point in his life during which the novel is set, Shin is not prepared to move beyond his colonization.  Jason is far more capable of thinking and acting as a potential adult, but Shin must still be told what to believe; given a new religion, he takes it to an extreme.  When Magda asks to join the Chutengodians, Shin responds strangely.  He talks in a voice much deeper and more authoritative than his own.  Later, Shin tells Jason that the water tower was talking through him.  Naturally, Jason assumes this is a joke, thinking Shin is playing the game.  But afterward, Jason realizes that Shin seriously believes the water tower was talking through him.  

In discussing inherent danger as it pertains to colonization, Nodelman writes:

If adults have a secret desire to act childishly, and if that dangerous desire is engendered by childish actions of children, then we must protect ourselves and our world by making children less childish.  Our domination of children is for our own good as well as theirs. (Nodelman 31)

Religion in Godless is the adults’ domain.  Colonization through religion is not new.  Religion and power have always been used together.  Throughout history, religion has been used by the powerful to control the less powerful.  A prime example is that of the Feudal System.  Because of the hierarchical system, there was no change of mobility from one class to another.  The Noble remained rich and serfs and peasants remained tied to the land and under the control of nobility.  In “Cathedrals and Cults: The Evolving Forms of the Religious Life,” Sociologists Steve Bruce writes, “’Serf’ and ‘peasant’ were not job descriptions; they were enveloping social, legal, and political statuses” (Bruce 24).  Serfs were a social class defined by the nobility.  Bruce uses this idea to show a group of people for whom religion was not a choice.  A serf’s social status did not allow him or her to worship freely.  Because they were the labor force of the Feudal System, they were not able to learn new ideas and beliefs.  In terms of religion, they were forced to worship the religion provided them by the nobility. 

While the Feudal system no longer exists in the western world, society still defines people and gives them a role.  To this end, all people are controlled by another.  Seeing as how religion is still ever present, it is reasonable to conclude that religion is still one of the most powerful colonizing tools society has to mandate people.  Children, and teenagers, are among these social groups under control.  Much like serfs, teenagers are a group that is defined by the more powerful.  They are controlled through social, legal, and political means.  In Hauntman’s novel, adults hold the power over teenagers, and in turn establish teenagers’ religious beliefs.       

This power is evident in the fact the central adult characters have an obsession with the teenagers’ salvation.  Jason’s father is worried about his son’s soul.  At the end of the novel, he hands Jason a stack of religious books and asks him to read them and write a book report on each book.  Even the adults only casually mentioned in the novel have a strong message about what kind of religion the young characters should be practicing and how they should be practicing it.  Jason’s father and Just Al have no direct connection with their religion.  They are simply believers.  Both of these adults exhibit some longing to be a child.  Jason’s father remembers when he questioned his religious beliefs.  This memory surfaces every time Jason and his father discuss religion.  Just Al tries too hard to connect with the teenagers.  His prayers are hip, his slang is youthful: he is an adult attempting to regain his youth in the guise of guiding teenagers.

Each of these two adult characters colonize the teenagers of the novel in order to protect the teenagers as well as protect their own adulthood.  “Our domination of children is for our own good as well as theirs,” Nodelman writes (31).  Just Al colonizes for such selfish reasons.  Because he so desperately wants to be young and hip, he must ensure that the teenagers he is guiding do not begin to think beyond him.  Jason’s dad, on the other hand, appears to have had no problems growing up.  As a father his sole purpose for fretting over his son’s soul is to protect Jason.  If Jason begins questioning his given religion, then he will naturally want to question other methods of adult colonization.  Jason cannot yet begin this process of questioning because he is not yet an adult in the eyes of his father.  “When I was your age, I had some pretty strange ideas . . . When I was in college I questioned my faith,” Jason’s father says (102).  But Jason’s father was not Jason’s age.  He was a few years older and in college.  Jason’s father’s message is subtle: questioning is a natural step in life, but one must be older and away from home.  Presumably, while in college, Jason will have begun to have to take care of himself and his father will no longer need to worry.  In a few years, Jason will be old enough to worry about his own soul and safety, but right now he is still under his father’s protection.

The ways in which these two adults colonize is key in understanding the ending of the novel.  At the end of Godless, both Jason and Shin are punished for acting out against their colonized state.  Jason is punished within the narrative.  He is laden with guilt over the mental breakdown of Shin.  Despite being mature enough to realize his own colonization, he is still a child in the eyes of adults.  In the end, he returned to having to act within the colonized world of the adults, but he still, however, retains the ability to think and question.  He cannot act on his own, colonize himself until he is released by the adults who colonize him.  Shin, however, is mentally and permanently punished.  Because his mind is so entrenched in the colonized state when Jason creates the Chutengodian Religion, Shin could not handle the responsibilities of an imaginary religion.  Shin’s breakdown could show how colonizing an individual will only lead to the deterioration of the colonized, but Hautman’s novel again contradicts itself.    

Shin’s mental breakdown illustrates the idea that Nodelman writes about when he explains that Children’s literature itself is another form of colonization.  Godless, as a novel, colonizes its teenage readers.  At first the novel appears to be a story about a 15-year-old who violates his parents’ rules and learns to grow up and begin to explore his own ideas.  The colonization of the reader by the novel comes into play at the end.  A reader can deduce that, by having both Jason and Shin punished for their actions, no matter how intelligent and mature a teenager may be he or she will always be forced back into the colonized state in order to protect other teenagers, not to mention adulthood. 

Shin, again, is a type of case-in-point for colonization.  He is not adult enough to act on his own and, when he does, the only end possible is a poor and permanent one: he loses a part of his sanity.  After Shin ventures to the top of the water tower during a lightening storm and survives, he is institutionalized, not for climbing the water tower but for believing that the Chutengodian religion is real and that the water tower is actually a god.  Shin is damaged from this experience.  He doesn’t know whether of not he is crazy or if he really does believe that the water tower is a deity.  At the end of the novel, Jason visits Shin, just out of the hospital, and asks if he really believes that water tower is god. 

[Shin says], “Don’t You?”
“As a joke, sure.  But. . .no, I don’t.”
“You said you did,” [Shin] says.
“Yeah, but I was . . .”  (Hautman 191-192)

Jason stumbles through this conversation because he now truly realizes that Shin never got the joke.  Jason also comes to believe that he is partially to blame for Shin’s breakdown.  Without Jason, Shin never would have believed that the water is god, nor would he have climbed the tower to pray and potentially die in the process.  Jason comprehends that while he was playing a game in hopes of understanding his own religious questions, Shin was looking for something to protect himself on par with tradition, religion, adulthood.  Shin’s breakdown shows the consequences that can occur when a teenager attempts to break away from his colonized state but is not yet mentally aware enough to take care of himself. 

Jason’s situation shows the consequences that occur not only from breaking away from colonization but also the increased dangers of bringing others along.  There are responsibilities that come with being an adult.  Jason is unaware of these responsibilities.  For the novel to work as a form of colonization on its own, the reader must witness Jason’s punishment in order to understand that, while he is mature enough to think like an adult, he is not yet ready to act like an adult and be responsible for others.

Almost no scholarly attention has been given to Hautman’s novel since its publication in 2004.  This seems surprising given the novels critical and commercial success.  The same year as its publication, Godless was awarded the National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction.  Such an honor begs the questions as to why the book was awarded the prize.  Did the National Book Foundation award Godless for its portrayal of teen independence, or did it understand the underlying colonization of the novel?  Regardless of the answer, the National Book Award medal on the front cover only serves to further encourage teenagers to read Godless.  By selected one novel a year, The National Book Foundation, serves to direct teenagers to Godless in hopes they gain something from the novel.  Charles Sarland writes, “One view of fiction is that it constructs readers in specific ideological formations” (Sarland 52).  What is the ideology of Godless?  To label a book as “important” or “the best” for teenagers it makes one wonder what exactly is a teenager suppose to get from the book.  What do a group of adults see as the most “important” element of the novel?  The answer is not as important as what the award itself represents to teenage readers.  The National Book Award is another layer of colonization.  Adults picked Godless to showcase a gold medal.  Inevitably, these adults feel Godless provides something to teenage readers.  They want teenagers to read the novel and learn something.  

Essentially, Pete Hautman’s Godless reinforces the idea that children, and by extension teenagers, should be colonized.  They are safest that way.  Since not all teenagers are ready for the dangers of adulthood, their colonization exists in order to protect them from endangering themselves.  While the novel begins by celebrating the independence of this teen character, it ends ironically by demonstrating the necessity of teen dependence to its teen readers.

Works Cited

Bruce, Steve.  “Cathedrals and Cults: The Evolving Forms of the Religious Life.”  Religion, Modernity, and Postmodernity.  Ed. Paul Heelas.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.  19-35.

Hautman, Pete.  Godless.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Hines, Tomas.  The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager.  New York: Avon, 1999. 

Nodelman, Perry. "The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children's Literature." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 17.1(1992): 27-32.

Said, Edward W.  Orientalism.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

Sarland, Charles.  “The Impossibility of Innocence: Ideology, Politics, and Children’s Literature.”  Understanding Children’s Literature.  Ed. Peter Hunt.  London: Routledge, 1999.  39-55.   


Matthew Prickett

Volume 12, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January/February, 2008

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