Part 2 of a two-part review of Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card (467 pages).
I’ve settled into a book review format that I like: the first review will be spoiler-free, followed by a more detailed analysis. If you missed the spoiler-free version of Ender’s Shadow, catch yourself up here. If you don’t want any spoilers, stop!
As I stated in the first part of this review, Bean makes this story. It was a brilliant move by Mr. Card to pull a minor character from Ender’s Game and give him room to grow. It’s also ironic that he picked the smallest and youngest character, because Bean has a depth and “meat” to him that makes Ender’s Shadow both enjoyable and insightful.
Of course, the story isn’t entirely about Bean, especially not with a title like Ender’s Shadow. Fans of the Ender’s universe will recognize some of the cast, though there are some important newcomers:
Poke –> the first to heed Bean’s counsel, at personal expense to herself. She also sacrificed her life to keep Bean safe from the vendetta of a gang boss. She had no idea the impact her sacrifice would have on Bean; like a Gordian knot, he grapples with the meaning of her death throughout the narrative. She is also responsible for his name: “you aren’t worth a bean”
Achilles –> the first to reveal Bean’s weakness; though Bean foresaw Achilles’ nature, he underestimated Achilles’ abilities and ruthlessness. Despite his best efforts, Bean could not prevent Poke’s death at Achilles’ hands
Sister Carlotta –> his teacher, his benefactor, and also his advocate before the military instructors of the Battle School; she relentlessly pursued Bean, both to satisfy her own curiosity, and to give him a new identity
And of course there is Ender. Though Bean is Ender’s superior in intellect and acumen, Bean arrived at Battle School late and so he is constantly compared to, and rated beneath, Ender Wiggin (infuriating news for a boy used to being the smartest and the best).
There are three shadows that Bean lives beneath; three overarching ideas that influence him as a character, and that reveal the thematic threads of this novel.
“Someday they’ll see me as I see myself.”
His MO is survival. As an orphan thrown into the poverty-ridden streets of Rotterdam, Bean learned at a young age that the world is a cruel, harsh place, and only the fastest, the fittest, those most able to manipulate the world around them survive.
If you want to play a game of thematic Where’s Waldo, pay attention to the MANY references that Mr. Card has to keys and unlocking doors. Bean’s primary motivation is to turn every situation, every encounter, and every opportunity to his advantage. He does this by observing people closely, not for their benefit, but for his.
But there is one door he cannot open—love: “But Wiggin’s willingness to give up hours every day to training kids who could do nothing for him–the more Bean thought about it, the less sense it made.” Bean longs for the approval of others, especially Ender, but he does so only for his own gain.
“I want to be the kind of boy you are, but I don’t want to go through what you’ve done to get there.”
Bean is not looking for shortcuts here. He compares himself to Ender and realizes that Ender has had to make sacrifices for others in order to become the boy that everyone loves. This is something Bean cannot accept for himself.
He has spent every moment of his short life in survival mode. Every calculation, every decision, every choice is for his own advantage.
Even Bean’s friendship with Nikolai, his first friend, began when Nikolai pointed out something that Bean had never thought of (pg 160). Nikolai was, in effect, useful for the insight Bean gleaned from him.
Later, Nikolai had another kind of information that could have been used to incriminate Bean, but he held back. This give and hold of information was the door to friendship for the Spock-like Bean, and it takes Bean a long time to even consider the “faulty” foundation of love underneath.
It isn’t until pg 252 that Bean finally realizes he is Nikolai’s friend. He does so in an internal dialogue that also displays his first act of true empathy. It takes half the book for him to break off the first noticeable chunk from the icy glacier of his survival instinct. Mr. Card uses the ironic phrase, “What a sensitive friend I am,” to display the global warming in Bean’s icy logic.
Love is illogical to Bean. His perceptive mind cannot fathom why Nikolai would cede his advantage, or why Ender would help those who cannot help him back. Love is staring him in the face, everywhere he looks, but in his formula of survival, love is a mathematical formula that equates to weakness.
“Why did Poke die for me?”
Bean lives because another died.
Poke took a risk when she listened to Bean’s advice. Bean had suggested that Poke, as leader of her street gang, stop giving away food to street bullies and instead hire one to fend off the others. She did what Bean said and chose Achilles, the smallest of the street bullies, but also the smartest. When Bean realized that Achilles was a smart cripple, he told Poke to kill him instantly. Bean realized that Achilles was too small to be useful against the larger bullies, and too smart to control.
Poke refused. She picked Achilles, and her choice paid off, but Achilles never forgot what Bean had done, or that Poke had led her gang against him. Achilles betrayed Poke with a kiss, cut her throat, and left her body in the river, all while Bean watched from the shadows of a nearby rooftop. Afraid by what he had seen, Bean fled.
Poke had met with Achilles, alone and against Bean’s advice, because she was trying to get Achilles to relent from killing Bean. Poke gave up her life to save Bean from Achilles’ vendetta.
Bean never forgot this. The question, “why did Poke die for me?” haunts Mr. Card’s story. Poke’s sacrifice is the antithesis of the survivalist creed that Bean lives by.
Mr. Card makes frequent and overt biblical references in Ender’s Shadow, and I would argue that there is one that he alludes to with Poke’s death:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8
Poke dared to die for a boy she thought was good. But this does not compute for Bean, just as Christ’s sacrifice should not compute for any of us.
At the heart of this novel is a question that tugs at the heart of every person who has ever seriously considered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: Why would Christ die for me?
The spiritual orphans of our world (and I would argue that we are all like Bean here), left to themselves and their own abilities may survive, especially if they are blessed with Bean’s intellectual acumen. But for them to love, to feel true empathy for others, a Poke must die; and there must be an Ender to emulate.
Bean learned true love through the sacrifice of Poke, and watching how Ender loved others. For the Christian, our Poke and our Ender are one and the same. Just as Bean lived beneath the shadows of Poke and Ender, we live beneath the grace of Christ:
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” 1 Peter 2:21
The hope that I see in a character like Bean, and what I think Mr. Card fundamentally believes, is that there is hope for change, though it does not come from ourselves. All of us live beneath the shadows of others’ grace.
It is enough to do so well.