It's the story of Bobby Lorman, a high school freshman in 1995 who is harassed by bullies nearly every day of his life. His chief bully, Anthony Benton, has pressured him into abetting the theft of camera equipment from their high school. Bobby is a devout Christian and his crime, committed out of fear, is compounded with the guilt of having violated the tenets of his faith. He knows he should confess, but intimidation and fear of consequences keeps him suffering in silence.
When his freshman year ends, Bobby's mother and stepfather send him to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle who run a bed-and-breakfast in a victorian mansion outside of Natchez, Mississippi.
At first Bobby is just glad to be away from his troubles, but he soon discovers another set of them in Natchez. Though stimulated by the different surroundings, he finds country-life physically hard. He can't keep up with the other teenagers working in the gardens, can't ride a horse, and can't swim. He is targeted by the local bullies and the local church only aggravates his guilt. His uncle offers to teach him kung fu, but he rejects the offer out of fear that he would be learning pagan ways.
It takes a powerful event during an outing in Natchez to get Bobby to reconsider accepting his uncle's help. He struggles with the desire to learn to fight his bullies and his fear that learning kung fu will be as good as abandoning his faith.
The story's title, A Single Step, is taken from that famous verse in the Dao-De-Ching:
...a long journey begins with a single step.
And there are a lot of "single steps" in this story. The characters keep taking them, knowingly or not. We all do this. I've had a lot of new starts in my life, some more deliberate than others. It's just a part of life's journey. What we see with Bobby is his realization of being on that journey, and how he comes to be deliberate about making his way.
This realization and subsequent change in life-mode is Bobby's salvation, as it is ours. It can be found and expressed through most any religion or philosophy because it is at the heart of all of them. It's humanity's collective wisdom-from-experience and is what I call Ming lu in the story.
Certainly, many people won't agree with this view. It clashes with religious ideas wherever they tend towards clannishness and intolerance. That clash provides one of the major conflicts in A Single Step. It is something that everyone who dares to step outside their comfortable group has to deal with. They face the censure of their formerly unquestioned companions, along with the guilt and doubt that is a result of leaving the familiar.
A Single Step deals with a number of issues in telling its story. The most obvious is that of bullying, which is a problem not uncommon in our society. Most people have likely dealt with it on one side or other of the bully-victim equation. I was always on the victim side. It is one of those state-of-affairs that I consider a "soul crusher." That is, it's a predatory situation that kills the self-worth of the victim, especially if the victim is a thinking, introspective person.
Attempts to deal with bullying based on the popular culture tend to make it worse. In America, these can be exhortations for the victim to become a bigger bully than the bully ("Don't start a fight, but finish it."), or policies to punish the victims (zero-tolerance policies that punish everybody and don't blame an aggressive, sociopathic personality), or reliance on authority-figures to solve the problem ("Tell the teacher; tell the principal."). All are ineffective because the problem always come down to the bully and his victim, alone on the playground.
Greatly diminished self-worth is the tragic consequence of a child who has been subjected to bullying for long years with no relief. It can make the child a fearful and ineffective adult. It can be even worse if the child lives under another potential soul-crusher--organized religion. Unfortunately, the puritanical, fundamentalist religions prevalent in America, especially in the South, promote self-mortification. They teach their members that they are born evil and are unworthy of salvation but for the grace of God. When this idea is drilled into a bullied child, the result can be deadly and take a lifetime to overcome, if ever.
In A Single Step, I bring out this "bad side" of religion mostly in the form of the character, Jim Bruiner. He is representative of an extreme, however, and I tried to show him in contrast with more tolerant characters. As I said, the Wise Path can be found and followed within most any religion. I'm not talking about doctrines here but about a spiritual communion that transcends doctrines, and A Single Step is very much about spirituality and faith.
Religion is so much a part of the traditional American Southern culture that it's practically impossible to set a story there without dealing with it. That religion is overwhelmingly Protestant and Puritanical, and it is clannish. Southern hospitality is only extended to those of like mind and appearance. Otherwise, it is often served up with heaps of disdain and hypocrisy.
The characters in A Single Step are based on people and attitudes I grew up with. I was very much into the Southern Baptist church and I knew many preachers and youth/music ministers like Wayne Finch and Jim Bruiner. They were very prideful in their place in the church and tolerated no disagreement. Their fear of demons and meditation was real. When the movie, The Exorcist came out, I overheard a youth minister offering to pay a teenager not to see it because he believed it invited demon possession.
The obsession with church attendance is also very real. When meeting a white, "middle-class" southerner, you have to avow some church attendance, else you are subjected to evangelical efforts that, if they don't result in your conversion, will result in your shunning.
Beyond bullying, martial arts, and religious intolerance, A Single Step touches on many other issues that I hope will prompt discussions among readers. There's the idea of the soul's liberation in nature. There's pacificism vs belligerence, crimes and forgiveness (especially self-forgiveness), and the natural world's closeness to the spiritual realms.
Probably the most intriguing idea in the story is of how much a human being can develop. Just how far can a person grow physically, emotionally, and spiritually? There are ancient traditions of advanced human beings that are the roots of the idea of the "superman" of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While these ideas have been twisted by some groups, still the question is valid. How far can we go in this life? The answer, I suspect, is "very far."
A Single Step follows the basic format of The Karate Kid movie and other bully-victim-learns-to-fight stories. While I love these stories and was inspired by them, I wanted my version to be slanted a bit differently. The Karate Kid is about learning to fight with a little philosophy thrown in. In such stories, I always thought the wise teachings were the most interesting parts, so A Single Step is about learning philosophy with a little fighting thrown in.
I wanted to write a bully-victim type of story to express my experience of the repression I suffered from being bullied and how cultural and religious mores didn't help. I wanted to contrast that state with the possibility of a better way through a faith based on spirituality as you find it (or as it finds you). A Single Step is the result.
So maybe you were a small kid pushed around by bigger kids. Maybe you're still pushed around by bosses or others above you in the hierarchy who build themselves up by tearing others down. The message of A Single Step is to "take heart" because your bullies are asleep and only spreading their nightmare. You can wake up and find that place of objectivity where bullies fear to tread. Your perspective will be changed, and you'll never see things the same.
You'll no longer be a victim.