The Emperor of North America lets readers tag along on the fictitious adventures of Catholic writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton in his youth. Cover image courtesy of John McNichol

Growing in faith, one page at a time

By  Jed de los Reyes, Youth Speak News
  • March 7, 2012

In the early 20th century, Gilbert Keith Chesterton was writing books and articles on subjects as diverse as literary criticism and morality. Today, the Catholic community continues to hold his works in high regard, with his books Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, among others, credited with the successful conversion of many new Catholics.

In The Young Chesterton Chronicles, author John McNichol provides a fictional account of Chesterton’s teenage life. Written for young readers, the series re-imagines Chesterton’s teenage years and personal struggles as he developed in the Catholic faith. While the first book, When Tripods Attack! dealt with Chesterton’s discovery and subsequent conversion into Catholicism, its sequel, The Emperor of North America, deals with an issue that affects all Catholic youth: the faith crisis. Along the way, McNichol takes readers on an action-packed ride that includes flying assassins, priests who know martial arts and an arena battle with a steam-powered robot crab.

As The Emperor of North America begins, Gilbert’s life is going smoothly; he’s cementing his newfound faith, enjoying his purpose as a journalist and meeting Frances, the girl of his dreams. However, his life is crashed by a mysterious girl and several assassins who set off a chain of events forcing Gilbert to flee from England to America. In between the New York gangsters and the hired cowboys pursuing him, Gilbert confronts a horrible truth about his journalistic career: while some love his work, others wish to silence him. 

Soon, he is forced onto a floating city owned by the self-proclaimed Emperor of North America, who offers a seemingly quick, easy and reasonable solution: power beyond his wildest dreams at the cost of his humanity. Meanwhile, Gilbert’s best friend Herb, also newly converted, faces similar problems in the form of Margaret, a member of a mysterious organization aiming to remake the world as it sees fit. By threatening Herb’s family, promising rewards and manipulating his hidden resentments at God and the world, Margaret convinces Herb to turn against Gilbert and hunt him down.

Although both main characters keep their wits about them, their moral character noticeably falters as they resort to increasingly questionable acts for survival. Herb begins his service to Margaret’s organization with a seemingly harmless act — ripping a picture of Christ into pieces — but later becomes involved with the explosion of a zeppelin (an airship) with innocent families onboard. Meanwhile, Gilbert cancels an important journalism assignment early on, and although it is forgotten while making split-second escapes and surviving a chaotic revolution, it is recalled near the end, where it is implied that the story could have had a happier ending had he done what he was supposed to.

Though the real Chesterton never hung off the arm of a giant robot as it stomped across New York City, his wit and wisdom are captured spectacularly through consistently clever dialogue such as this: 

“You asked the universe for something? It’s a cold black thing that goes on forever!  It doesn’t care about you!” 

“Gilbert... how could anyone, if they had an intellectual development as advanced as my own, possibly ask a Santa Claus-like, non-existent God for anything?” 

“Maybe because God answers prayers more often than a cold cloud of rocks and hydrogen.”

The Emperor of North America is directed towards Catholic youth, who can easily identify with Gilbert’s faith journey and giggle at the witty, yet remarkably deep moral arguments. Readers will sympathize with the trials and tribulations of the characters as they discover things about themselves; things more sinister and incredible than any of the story’s technological wonders.

(De Los Reyes, 18, is a French Studies student at York University.)

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