— February 22nd, 2012 —

Book Review: “Banner in the Sky,” by James Ramsey Ullman

“It stands unconquered, the last great summit of the alps. Only one man has ever dared to approach the top, and that man died in his pursuit. He was Josef Matt, Rudi Matt’s father.
At sixteen, Rudi is determined to pay tribute to the man he never knew, and complete the quest that claimed his father’s life. And so, taking his father’s red shirt as a flag, he heads off to face the earth’s most challenging peak. But before Rudi can reach the top, he must pass through the forbidden Fortress, the gaping chasm in the high reaches of the Citadel [the mountain] where his father met his end. Rudi has followed Josef’s footsteps as far as they will take him. Now he must search deep within himself to find the strength for the final ascent to the summit—to plant his banner in the sky.” — from the back cover

I have mixed feelings about this book, so I’ll deal with the positive first, and then the negative.
The book is about a young man, Rudi Matt, who lives in the village of Kurtal, a small village at the foot of the Alps. Mountaineering is in the blood of every man in the village, and every nearby peak has been conquered…except for the last and greatest peak, the Citadel. No man has succeeded in climbing this one perilous peak that dwarfs all others around it. Josef Matt led an expedition fifteen years ago, but of the three men, two died in the attempt (including Josef) and the third was badly injured. Despite popular beliefs and fears about the mountain being cursed, Rudi dreams of conquering the mountain and fulfilling his father’s quest.
In the past fifteen years, no one has tried to climb the mountain—and anyone who gives any serious thought about doing so is considered crazy and foolish—and no one besides Rudi gives it serious thought. However, things change when renowned climber Captain John Winter arrives at Kurtal: he is determined to climb the Citadel, and Rudi is equally determined to go with him. Thus the catalyst for the adventure.
It’s a great read, and the literal cliff-hangers held my rapt attention, even though I’m nineteen. The trials and obstacles of mountain climbing are presented well, and the reader walks away (or should I say “climbs down”) from the book with a good sense of what it’s like to be a mountaineer. That is, as close as one can get to actually clinging to the near-vertical edge of a rock with a few fingers and the toe of one boot—with a yawning mile-deep empty space below.
The above praise aside, the book is nevertheless tainted to some extent. Rudi is obsessed with climbing the mountain, to the point where his attitude ultimately becomes, as I see it, mountain-worship—resulting, unsurprisingly, in lying to his mother (who specifically does not want Rudi to become a mountaineer because of what happened to her husband, Josef) on multiple occasions. And not just Rudi, either: other characters also lie to cover up the Citadel endeavor. Mrs. Matt’s wishes are not taken seriously, and are in fact blatantly disregarded in favor of Rudi’s desire to be a mountaineer.
Unfortunately, these issues are not resolved. I was holding out hope that somehow the author would deal with them, but as I drew nearer and nearer to the end I realized that even if there were going to be a reconciliation, it would be a rather shallow resolution (forced so because of the ever-shrinking remainder of the book), with a sort of “Oh, by-the-way, I’m sorry” afterthought effect—almost tacked on to the end.
Catholicism pops up two or three times, and at one point, Rudi prays to both the Lord and Mary. (The Catholicism really isn’t very prominent though; it’s scarcely present in the book at all.)
It’s unfortunate that all these elements taint the book. Were it not for them, I could wholeheartedly recommend the story as a great tale of manly mountaineering and adventures in exercising dominion over Creation. However, I won’t specifically not recommend it; I think there is a place for books like these in a library (though I won’t expound that idea here).
With all the preceding in mind, I recommend this book as a solid, manly, adventure story—with some negative elements worthy of discussion.
LANGUAGE: Three or four occurrences of d—n, and three or four instances of the Lord’s name being used carelessly.
DISCUSSION POINTS: As a parent (or an older sibling), you can talk with the reader about the lying that goes on in the book.—What does the Bible say about it?—Are there situations where lying is acceptable? You could also discuss the Catholicism which crops up a couple of times.
AGE RANGE: I’m nineteen, and I enjoyed it. That said, because of the language I’d let my children read this book somewhere around twelve years, at the youngest. (Ultimately, though, it boils down to the potential reader’s maturity.)

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