I have a confession to make: when it comes to good literature, especially good children’s literature, I’m a bit of a snob. I’m working on it, but despite my best efforts, my snobbish tendencies tend to come out from time to time. To be fair, I have read a great deal of good literature, I have read about good literature, and I have had countless discussions with my friends about good literature. I feel like I have a good grasp of it as a whole (at least of the European and American variety). So, several years ago now, when I was looking over the list of books I was expected to teach to a middle school Language Arts class, my eyebrows raised in a slightly snobbish way when among the expected regulars on the reading list such as Stevenson, Verne, and Twain, I came across the name James Ramsey Ullman. This name was not familiar to me nor was the title of the book I was soon to be reading with my class: Banner in the Sky. But, despite the initial inklings of my snobbish self, I was in for a very pleasant surprise—which is, frankly, one of the more pleasant things about being a snob.
In 1865, an Englishman by the name of Edward Whymper became the first man to climb the mountain in the Swiss Alps known as the Matterhorn. Until then, the Matterhorn was thought to be unconquerable and indeed it took the lives of four of Whymper’s companions during the difficult and treacherous descent. Ullman took inspiration from this real-life account when he penned his fictional work, Banner in the Sky. The book tells the story of the first climbing of an intimidating mountain in the Swiss Alps named the Citadel; a mountain that has also claimed the lives of those who have tried to reach its tantalizing summits. Among those who perished in the attempt was a man named Josef Matt (with an obvious nod of the head to the real mountain). Banner in the Sky tells the story of his son, Rudi and his dream of one day climbing the mountain on which his father perished.
The conflict of the novel is between Rudi Matt and the Citadel, which almost plays the classic role of antagonist. But it is also about climbers and climbing and it is, for a children’s book, uncharacteristically technical, but in a delightfully unobtrusive way. Ullman, a serious climber himself, subtly draws his readers into the exciting world that he describes as “the sport, the craft, the adventure of mountaineering.” By the time I finished the book, I felt that I was just about ready to give it a try. I had learned what to do and what not to do alongside of Rudi. I had learned why a good climber often holds his body well out from the rockface and how one can, and sometimes must, climb with the knees and the elbows. I discovered that conquering a perilous mountain takes not only physical fitness and skill, but also art.
Banner in the Sky fulfills most of the criteria for a good book. It tells a good and, at times, gripping story. It is full of interesting characters. It is a moral book, addressing such topics as virtue and vice, prejudice, and what it really means for a boy to grow into a man. This last theme is especially well done. Rudi wishes to be a man like his father and thinks he will accomplish this goal by climbing the mountain his father never did. Throughout the book, however, Rudi slowly comes to understand that imitating his virtuous father means much more than that. Rudi discovers that becoming a man like his father is in fact much more difficult and requires much more sacrifice than the climbing of the Citadel.
It is the ravishing ending of the book, however, in which Ullman really reveals his excellence as an author, and which raises this work from the ranks of the good into the select company of the great. (I have no intention of giving anything away, so you can continue reading with confidence.) The ending of this book came as a delightful surprise to me as it is not at all typical. Ullman eschewed the normal, somewhat worn-out ending books of this sort almost always have, instead giving us something much deeper and more meaningful. After reading the end of the book I was completely convinced that this was truly a great work of children’s literature.
There is one more—perhaps minor—point I wish to make. Banner in the Sky is an unmistakably Catholic book. In an English literature landscape dominated by Protestant writers, this is no insignificant aspect, especially considering that this book was written for children. I do not mean to suggest that we should not read Protestant literature, far from it. John Senior says in The Restoration of Christian Culture: “And so Catholics have to live with a difficulty. The thousand good books which are the indispensable soil of the understanding of the Catholic Faith and indirectly requisite to the Kingdom of Heaven, are not Catholic but Protestant.” English literature has been done—and excellently done—argues Dr. Senior. We must know and love it despite its Protestant heritage. We must have our children read the best of English literature and we must ourselves supply what is lacking in them as far as the Faith is concerned. This is simply the situation we find ourselves in. Thankfully, this is not the case with Banner in the Sky. It is, as I said before, unmistakably Catholic, but not at all obnoxiously so. The Faith is ever present just under the surface, coming to the forefront when appropriate. It is simply an assumed and natural fact with the characters, as it should be an assumed and natural fact of our own lives.
I hope I have inspired you to read Banner in the Sky or to give it to the young reader in your household. I know all too well that supplying a voracious reader with excellent and age-appropriate material can be challenging at times. This book, as one of the best-kept secrets in literature, is worth purchasing and I would specifically recommend it for children around the age of 12. It is also, like all excellent children’s literature, a very enjoyable read even if your age is many times that number—and especially if you are one of those well-read readers who could use a wake-up call from an obscure work to shake off some snobbishness.
Editor’s note: Feature image above is actor James MacArthur in a scene from Third Man on the Mountain, a 1959 Walt Disney production based on the novel Banner in the Sky.