When studying Greek and Roman mythology in school, I always wondered if these gods ever actually existed, and if they did, what happened to them when Christianity became the dominant religion in Greece and Rome. While Neil Gaiman’s American Gods focuses more on deities from other parts of the world, it explores the questions I had in school about what becomes of gods and mythological beings that people no longer worship, and whether they can even be considered gods at all.

The novel begins with a man named Shadow preparing to leave prison after three years, only to find out that his beloved wife has just been killed in a car accident. His journey home is disrupted by a violent storm and meeting a mysterious and seemingly omniscient con man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. Shadow is soon working as Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard, traveling with him as they meet with Wednesday’s equally mysterious and other worldly acquaintances.

Shadow eventually learns that these mysterious beings are all incarnations of ancient gods from around the world. Mr. Wednesday (whose true identity will become clear quickly even if you, like me, have minimal knowledge of Norse mythology) is attempting to rally them for one last battle to take back power from the modern gods—media, technology, and the like—that have pushed the ancient ones aside over the centuries. Throughout the novel, Shadow continues to encounter the gods of Native Americans, ancient Egyptians, and others all over America, as he hides from the vicious incarnations of the modern gods and learns some shocking truths about himself and those closest to him. All the while, a storm unlike any other—the battle between old gods and new—is quickly approaching.

The novel moved slower than I thought it would, and the plot often felt a bit convoluted, so it required more patience than the other Gaiman books I have read. However, it was more than worth it. Gaiman’s always amazing use of language and imagery is heightened in American Gods by the unusual characters and the themes of religious belief, loyalty, and the making of modern America. The ways in which he has the ancient gods and mythical characters live and interact in the modern world are fascinating and clever. I can only begin to imagine how much research must have been required to get it all right.

Some readers have complained that Gaiman excluded the well-known ancient Greek gods I mentioned earlier. However, the exclusion of these Greek deities and their Roman counterparts makes perfect sense to me. Throughout the novel, Gaiman makes the point that these gods all exist because people believe in them, and there is also a strong implication that immigration to America changed many worshippers’ beliefs and priorities. Therefore, it is appropriate to include gods who still had power when their worshippers began to arrive in America. By the time Greeks began coming to America in large numbers, they had long ago converted to Christianity. Following that, some have also commented on the exclusion of Jesus and the Judeo-Christian God from the novel. However, the Egyptian gods who run a funeral home in Cairo, Illinois, do allude to the popularity of Jesus in Middle America, and the Germanic goddess Eostre is now known to most only as the inspiration for the name of the Christian festival of Easter. De-emphasizing Judeo-Christianity in the novel makes sense to me as well, because I believe Gaiman wanted to show that today’s most prominent “gods” are not necessarily ones that people would worship in the more conventional religious sense, and that certain “gods” like money and fame can easily gain more of a hold over people than the gods praised in churches or temples.

The modern gods against whom Mr. Wednesday so desperately wants to fight are portrayed as an obnoxious, ever-haunting presence employing a villainous, Secret Service-like organization. They are not quite as dominant in the novel as I expected; the focus of the novel is much more on Shadow and his relationships with the ancient gods he encounters, especially Mr. Wednesday. However, the modern gods are a constant threat that neither Shadow nor the reader is ever allowed to forget, especially when they start talking to Shadow through reruns of I Love Lucy and Cheers, resulting in two very creepy but very funny scenes.

Without telling too much more of the plot of American Gods, I have to say that I came away from this book with different reflections than I thought I would. I figured the novel would be mostly about how the world has changed, how people have exchanged loyal worship of their culture’s gods for a struggle to achieve fame in the media, wealth, or some other, more material accomplishment. However, as I finished the novel, I found myself thinking more about how the world hasn’t changed in the centuries since the gods discussed in the novel were at the height of their power. We criticize others today for their aggression in pursuing the “gods” of fame and fortune, but the more I read of American Gods, the more I realized that people were just as aggressive in pursuing the favor of whatever gods they worshipped, and this often involved violence and making huge, devastating sacrifices in order to please those gods. The ancient gods in this novel are just as demanding—and often demeaning—as the modern gods they aim to defeat, and Shadow ends up, at least for a while, leading his life according to their will, much as someone desperate for money and fame would put other things in their life aside in order to pursue those goals.

There are countless twists and surprises in American Gods that I won’t go into here; as with any Gaiman novel, it’s much more fun to discover the intricacies of his work yourself than to read about them elsewhere. I am already planning to read American Gods again someday, as the novel was too much to take in completely in just one reading. It wasn’t the easiest of Gaiman’s books to get through, but it was definitely the most powerful and interesting. This is a book that is both thrilling and thought provoking, and one that can easily spark some good discussions. I think that every time someone reads it, they will get something different out of it, which I consider one of the marks of a truly great book.

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