How is it that we don't hear about this book anymore? Do teachers still teach it? I hope so because it is a wealth, I tell you. And I was fortunate enough to read an e-edition with a wonderful postscript written by the author's son Mitch Swarthout.
Bless the Beasts & Children is real treasure of social conscience and coming-of-age. I read it for the first time in the sixth grade, along with that cultural phenomenon Born Free...I was so moved by the plight of wild animals and how oddly barbaric and violent our species can be toward them. Just give a human a few flimsy justifications and they will be off in the wild with plans to kill an unsuspecting animal. Not fair and not the coming-of-age story that they deserve.
I have come to a realization that I have never liked the coming-of-age story. I thought A Separate Peace was like a long, slow thumb screw; the cover of Swarthout's book seems to compare this book to that book. But no. Nor is it a bit like Lord of the Flies.
Maybe I related to this book a bit tonight because I know that I was a total dink when I was young. Dink. The term used by the kids in this book for a total loser. The plot of this book might read something like this: Six misfit teens come together at a summer camp and form a bond as the emotionally-messed-up outcast cabin. Together they embark on an adventure to ...should I say? Anyway, they go an adventure to right a wrong and each of them, in their own way, come to terms with their own identities and their own choices in life. If only we can come to terms with the choices that others make for us...with the decisions that people make for us that we, then, must live with.
Let me begin by saying that this is an unexpectedly beautiful read.
Glendon Swarthout is a poet.
The book was the 70s to me. Socially aware and awkward, all mixed into the lovely hearts of dinks with courage in spite of it all. Not just in Box Canyon Boys Camp just outside of Prescott AZ where the motto is Send us a Boy, We'll Send you a Cowboy.
Seems like in the 70s bullies were everywhere. Did schools even have any idea what to do about that back then? Is it still the same? How many of us were placed into the misfit cabin of school because of the limitations placed on us by the alphas? Swarthout's depiction of the struggle of the misfits was moving and realistic to my experience in the 70s. The breaking hearts and unspoken piercing pain of each character, all six main characters: Cotton, Teft, Goodenow, Shecker, Lally1, and Lally2.
But who is really the misfit? The child responding to his abandonment or the parent who does the abandoning? The young person sobbing in his sleeping bag from the abuse or the cabin full of young men who get off on beating and badgering the weaker more sensitive boy or the adult leaders who encourage such violent competition to be superior? The pillow-toting travelers on a social mission passing through town or the cruel and vicious hangers about found in every small town in the country, projecting insecurities and self-loathing on unprotected, random vulnerable. The adults paying to gun down magnificent beasts in a faux and unfair nature or a group of misfits seeking to free them?
Allow me to share one of my favorite quotes from the book to give you an idea of the quality of writing we are talking about; it is a quote where the musing was about a western film:
You did not watch it. You sucked on it. For this is the marrowbone of every American adventure story: some men with guns, going somewhere, to do something dangerous. Whether it be to scout a continent in a covered wagon, to weld the Union in a screaming Wilderness, to save the world for democracy, to vault seas and rip up jungles by the roots and sow our seeds and flag and spirit: some men with guns, going somewhere, to do something dangerous.
As I read Bless the Beasts & Children I often thought to myself, let me be Cotton. Let me have the courage and integrity of this boy willing to stand up for what is right, stand right in the face of louder people determined to put their heels down on the heads of seemingly lower people. Let me lose my cool only to discover that I am equipped with resilience. Let me have the confidence to lead the pack when all direction and plan is lost. Let me speak to myself and speak to my friends with the utmost belief that our lives fricking matter. Let me know when to hold on and when to let go...
Each aside out of time in this book moved me almost to tears and pulled me further into the journey of these brave and deserving and fearful teens. I know I will revisit this book and recommend it to friends. I must give this book a very emotional seven stars.