Thursday, June 26, 2008

Linda's Celebrate Reading Pick: BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN by Glendon Swarthout

Today, we welcome Linda as Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: By day, Linda's an uptight and proper Ivory Tower type, churning out numbers about folks suffering from physical and psychiatric disorders. At night, she morphs into lovable mom and wife, plays with her two children, hangs with the hubby. Until darkness falls and the house stills. Then, she writes. Newly addicted to writing, she just really finished her first novel and is currently noodling with #2 and #3. Her micro-fiction was recently published in Six Sentences: Volume 1 and she blogs at LEFTBRAINWRITE on the intersection of the mind and writing.

In that place the wind prevailed. There was always sound. The throat of the canyon was hoarse with wind. It heaved through pines…

Even now, these spare opening sentences sear my memory. The paperback is tattered, sun-faded, bound with a thick rubber band, the top right corners sepia-stained and rounded from flipping. Short cross-hatches march across the inside front cover, one line for each of the 84 times I've read this book, most of those readings more than 30 years ago.

It was 1973, the beginning of forced desegregation. I was eleven and miserable. It didn't help I was awkward, shy, and, with my nose always in some book, too smart for my own good. And fat. No one likes fat now, and then was no different. Glasses clinched the deal. There was plenty of reading time traveling in the rattle-trap school bus that carted me to the sixth grade center on the lesser side of Raleigh. Mrs. Soul, my first black teacher, had a small but diverse in-room library. There, I stumbled on this small masterpiece, what became a compass for navigating that tumultuous year.

The story is simplistic, though the telling is not: affluent families ship their adolescent boys to toughen up at an Arizona dude ranch ('Send us a boy – we'll send you a cowboy!'). Our six heroes arrive, packing their neuroses: John Cotton, the savior-like leader; Lawrence Teft III, skinny, tall, with a criminal penchant for locks; Gerald Goodenow, sensitive bead artist; Stephen Lally, older borderline psychotic brother to Billy, thumb sucker and pillow-hugger; and Sammy Shecker, who eats away his problems.

At Box Canyon Camp for Boys, Darwinian practices sort each camper into his rightful tribe. Ill-equipped to succeed, the six boys settle at the totem's bottom, the tribe known as the Bedwetters. Days, they endure the scornful jeers of their campmates; at night, they burrow deep in sleeping bags, transistor radios pulsing through the dark. Then, one day they witness the brutal thinning of free-ranging buffalo. Traumatized, the Bedwetters rally. Toting rifle and taxidermied bison head, they steal from camp in a hot-wired truck on a quest to save the majestic beasts.

The story remains timeless. Beautifully-written, told in flashback using quirky prose, the story has taught me much about structure and character, description and word choice, inspiring me to be more audacious in my own work:

O twayne me a twim,
where the ffubalo gym,
where the rede and the telopen zoom;
where nebber is nat,
a conframitous rat-tat-tat…

Beyond the gorgeous writing, I resonated with these misfits – how could I not? It is a 'yes' book of the highest order, the quintessential anti anti-hero story. Because my peers deemed me 'weird' and marked me for hell because I didn't go to church – a dangerous proposition in the Bible Belt – I definitely related to rebellion. Thanks to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and The New Testament, though, I was also an avowed pacifist and the boundaries seemed blurred between taking a stand and taking a fall. So, philosophy in place, the bus bullies on the bus continued to steal my lunch money, break my glasses, taunt me to tears – and I let them.

Until the last day of school. Maybe it was the heat; I believe it was the vision of John Cotton driving the truck over the cliff, fist raised in triumph as the freed buffalo charged across the plain. The bus approached my stop, and something snapped. As Todd B, my fiercest tormentor, rose to give me a parting 'happy summer' smack in the face, I turned to him and calmly drove my knee into the space between his legs.

I was free.

Just like the buffalo. And the Bedwetters.

(Thank you, Moonrat, for your geniosity in running this Celebrate Reading book-a-thon and allowing me to pontificate on one of my beloved books. And thanks to all the wonderful writers who've shared their favorites; each post's a perfect, delicious, sin-free treat).


Charles Gramlich said...

Another one I haven't read but which is on my to do list. A very nice review of it.

John said...

ANOTHER great review, Linda, of yet another underappreciated book... but, I suspect, one more influential than usually thought.

Loved the way your review wound the book through your personal story.


Bernita said...

The power of story.
Thank you.

cindy said...

wow, you're "new" to writing? what a terrific post! and thank you for leading me to a book i had never heard of. sounds fantastic!

Kim said...

Excellent review of Bless the Beasts and Children.
I, too, loved how you wove the story themes into your own experience of discovering the literary gem and how it inspired you to ram some sense into those bus bullies!
I enjoyed how you described your tattered, beloved book. Thanks for sharing!

twizzle said...

Splendiforious review, my dear Linda. It's one of my favorites as well.

Mags said...

I didn't read BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN in my first childhood. I'm not looking forward to it in the childhood I'm experiencing now.

Fantastic post!

Guadalupe Garcia McCall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda said...

Hey all, thanks for reading about what I've been reading. Bernita, yes, this is a book where both story and character rule, perhaps the first contemporary YA/cross-over lit fic I read as a kid.

Cindy, thank you for the extreme compliment - means a lot coming from you.

My holy trinity friends, thanks.

Guadalupe,...yes, this book taught me a touch of assertion, hah-ha. BTW, Todd B and I became very good friends later in high school, possibly because I laid him to the ground that day.

Peace, Linda

ChrisEldin said...

Yes, you *are* a writer. A very good one.
I know we're not supposed to pick favorites, but your review and the topic of this book resonates with me deeply.
I'm so glad you stood up to that bully. It seems like that moment is frozen in time for you. I hope it gives you strength in other areas as well (it sounds like it does)

"Bless the Beasts and the Children" sounds like a much better version of "Holes."

Thanks for sharing your story.

Chrys said...

WOW! I also loved how you weaved the book and your personal life. I think that's the thing with writing, music, movies, the good ones, the really good ones, are always somehow intertwined with life, and they have real affects. GO YOU! I totally want to read this book now!

Linda said...

Chris, I'm glad I moved you. And yes, standing up to my tormentor was a watershed in my life - it was the moment I stopped being a doormat. I haven't been quiet since :^)

Chrys, I can send you a copy. I'll do it next week - 'kay?

Peace, Linda

Sven said...

"I was also an avowed pacifist and the boundaries seemed blurred between taking a stand and taking a fall."

Wow. Beautifully put.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Bless The Beasts and Children, but certainly will after your most excellent review. Linda, never doubt that you are a top notch writer!!

Twinkie Breath said...

I still strongly prefer books with elves in them, Linda. ;) Great review.

Linda said...

Sven, I feel I know you somehow - thank you for the compliment.

Ethel, thank you. You are always so supportive - of me, of the TTT.

Twinkie Breath, well... elves are good, vair good, especially those GREEN ones. (thanks). Peace, Linda