Bless the Beasts and Children
Bless the Beasts and Children
Glendon Swarthout's novel Bless the Beasts and Children became a bestseller when it was published in 1970. The novel was so popular that a film was made the following year, and it, too, proved a big success. Swarthout wrote many novels and screenplays, both before and after the publication of Bless the Beasts and Children, many of which were very successful, but this 1970 book for adolescents, perhaps above all, has remained very popular. It has never been out of print. Swarthout based the idea for the novel on his own son's experience at a summer camp.
Bless the Beasts and Children is a coming-of-age story in which a small group of adolescent boys discover that they are not the misfits they have thought themselves to be all their lives. Swarthout creates a story of sacrifice and honor among this group of boys, who are called the Bedwetters. Each boy's emotional and psychological needs are explored as the plot unfolds. The story is one of personal strength and of individual and group triumphs that change all their lives.
Swarthout's novel happened to publicize the inhumane slaughter of buffalo by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and as a result, these state-sanctioned slaughters ceased. The buffalo herds still need to be thinned, but the process has been made more humane, and the suffering of the animals is minimized.
Glendon Fred Swarthout was born on April 8, 1918, in Pinckney, Michigan. His father, Fred, was a banker, and his mother, Lila, was a homemaker. Swarthout attended Lowell High School, graduating in 1935, and then moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1939. After graduation, he married Kathryn Vaughn, whom he had known since he was thirteen years old. After a brief stint writing ad copy for Cadillac and Dow Chemical and then writing a newspaper column, Swarthout saw his writing career interrupted by the start of World War I, when he and his wife began working at a bomber plant. Swarthout began writing his first novel at night while working at the plant during the day. Willow Run was published in 1943, just as the author was shipped overseas in the infantry. Swarthout was able to serve as a writer in the army and saw little combat. After his return to Michigan, he again enrolled at the University of Michigan, completing an M.A. in 1946. Swarthout began teaching English at the university, and his only child, a son, was born that same year. After he received the Hopwood Award in Fiction in 1948, Swarthout began teaching at the University of Maryland. In 1951, he returned to Michigan and began teaching at Michigan State University while studying for his doctorate, which he received in 1955. Swarthout continued to write while a graduate student and teacher and sold a number of short stories, but his first successful novel was They Came to Cordura (1958), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and became both a best-selling novel and a successful film.
The year 1960 proved especially successful for Swarthout. Where the Boys Are was published and became a successful novel and film, and he was nominated for the O. Henry Prize for one of his short stories, "A Glass of Blessings." After he and his family moved to Arizona, Swarthout began teaching English at Arizona State University, and another novel, Welcome to Thebes, was published in 1962. In 1963, Swarthout left teaching and began to write fulltime. A succession of novels followed, including The Cadillac Cowboys (1964) and The Eagle and the Iron Cross (1966). Bless the Beasts and Children (1970) became Swarthout's second novel to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Several novels followed, with one of them, The Shootist (1975) being named Best Western Novel of that year and becoming a very successful film for the movie star John Wayne. Swarthout won the Spur Award for Best Western Novel in 1988 for The Homesman, which also won the Wrangler Award. In 1991, Swarthout received the Western Writers of America's Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He died the following year at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, of emphysema, due to a lifelong smoking habit. His last novel, a romantic comedy, Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming (1994), was published posthumously. During his lifetime, Swarthout published twenty-two novels, including several children's novels co-written with his wife, as well as several short stories.
Bless the Beasts and Children opens with a dream. The dreamer is John Cotton, a fifteen-year-old counselor at the Box Canyon Boys Camp in Arizona, where the sons of wealthy families are sent for the summer. In Cotton's dream, he and the other five members of his group, known as the "Bedwetters," are herded into a corral, where they are slaughtered. In Cotton's dream, he and his friends are buffalos, as the reader soon learns; Cotton is the last of the six buffalo boys to be murdered. He awakes from his dream just after the gun that shoots him is fired by his mother. Once he is awake, Cotton automatically checks on the campers in his charge—Goodenow, Teft, Shecker, and the two Lally brothers. In Cotton's descriptions of the campers, he paints a picture of misfits who share a cabin because no other group will have them. The boys are called by their last names, with the two Lally brothers known as Lally 1 and Lally 2. Each camper has a transistor radio to listen to while going to sleep. The music from the radio helps each boy relax and provides a soothing escape from the activities of the camp, at which none of the boys has excelled. The camp does not assign the boys to their cabins. Instead, the boys self-choose, or the other boys choose for them. The teams are naturally formed, according to Cotton's explanation, by the boys themselves, as they gravitate toward those they judge most like themselves. Those who do not fit in or who are outsiders are excluded by all groups and eventually band together to form their own group.
In this first chapter, Cotton provides a quick characterization of the boys in his group that establishes their vulnerabilities. He explains that the boys dread going to sleep at night and fear their dreams, but they also hate waking up in the morning and leaving the security of their beds. On this night, the night when Cotton awakes from his nightmare, the boys have witnessed something so terrible that they cannot discuss it. What they witnessed was so awful that Goodenow vomited after dinner. The boys were so traumatized by the events witnessed earlier in the day that they quickly climbed into their sleeping bags without any discussion. After Cotton awakes about an hour later, however, he realizes that one of the boys is missing. Lally 2 has run away. Cotton quickly wakes the other four boys, and in spite of protestations from Lally 1 that he does not care if his brother is found, all of the boys leave their cabin to search for Lally 2.
In the second chapter, all five boys begin the search for Lally 2, who is headed for the highway, where he plans to hitch a ride. After the boys find Lally 2, Cotton tries to persuade all of them to return to the camp, but after it becomes clear that no one is willing to return, Cotton and the boys discuss how they can all work together to complete the job that Lally 2 set out to do. Thus far, no one has mentioned their goal, but all of the boys spend a few minutes recalling their failures at camp and wondering if they can succeed at the quest they are about to undertake. At this moment in the narration, the author inserts some background information about the Box Canyon Boys Camp, whose slogan is "Send Us a Boy—We'll Send You a Cowboy." For a large fee, the camp promises to turn any boy into a man-in-the-making. The camp counselors use a series of physical competitions to transform the boys into young men. The six boys whom Cotton leads have no physical talent for sports, a mode of competition that the boys must face. After this brief background information is provided, Cotton tells the boys that they must vote to decide if they will join Lally in his quest. All the boys agree to go, and the chapter ends with the six boys beginning the preparations for their journey.
- Bless the Beasts and Children was filmed in 1971, with Stanley Kramer directing and producing. The screenplay was written by Mac Benoff, and the distributor was Columbia Pictures.
- An audio version of Bless the Beasts and Children, narrated by Scott Brock, was released in January 2006 by the Listening Library. This four-hour tape is available from Books on Tape.
In chapter 3, the boys quickly return to their cabin to gather coats and supplies for their journey. They attempt to steal a camp truck, but it is necessary to push the truck away from camp so as not to awaken other campers. Even though the key is in the ignition, the slope away from camp is uphill, and soon the boys discover that they cannot push the truck far enough to start it without notice. They thus decide that they will ride their horses into town, where they can steal a car. The reader learns that the competitions at the camp determine the name of each cabin. The strongest cabin of boys is called the Apaches, followed by, in descending order, the Sioux, the Comanche, the Cheyenne, and the Navajo. The last team is called the Bedwetters.
The boys saddle their horses, lead them away from the camp, and then mount them for the ride into town. Cotton reveals that he is concerned that their choice to leave on their journey will bring the summer camp to a ruinous end. As they depart, the boys pause to celebrate their bravery in leaving the camp. All the boys are inspired by Western movies, in which a heroic cowboy rescues someone, usually a woman, who is in danger. It is especially important to the boys that a movie hero is someone who is going to do something dangerous. The boys see themselves as molded in the same image. Their quest is dangerous, but they are bravely determined to succeed. After they are clear of the camp, the boys begin to gallop into town, just as their film heroes would do and as fast as their horses can manage.
The boys' heroic ride into town is halted at the beginning of chapter 5, when Lally 2 drops his pillow and insists that he will not proceed without it. After the pillow is recovered, the boys continue their ride into town, now at a much slower pace. Once the boys arrive in town, they discover that finding a car to steal is not as easy or as quickly done as they had assumed. After rejecting a number of available cars, the boys begin to panic, and their team camaraderie begins to fall apart. Cotton helps them to refocus by calling for "bump time," a moment of closeness, with all the boys touching in a huddle. When they break apart, they finally see the ideal car to steal, a pickup, which Teft does with ease. It turns out that Teft is both an experienced car thief and a good driver, in spite of his young age. The group is careful to duck out of sight in the stolen pickup, but once out of town, they all cheer and are once again a united team.
As the boys continue their drive, Cotton worries about the amount of time that has already passed and whether they can get back into camp before dawn brings the discovery that they are missing. He also worries about the rifle that Teft brought along and wishes that they were back in their sleeping bags and that the trauma of the previous day had not occurred. Cotton has Teft stop the pickup after an hour so that the some of the boys can ride up front in the cab, where it is warmer. When he steps out of the cab and goes to the back of the pickup, he sees that Shecker, Goodenow, and Lally 1 are asleep, all three carefully nested together for warmth. The sight of this unity moves Cotton almost to tears. Shecker is the only boy who refuses to take a turn in the cab of the truck. A flashback tells the story of the boys' ultimate humiliation after they tried to steal the buffalo head that is the symbol of the Apache cabin. The morning after this very painful episode, Cotton stepped up to be their leader and to unite the boys. The strength of Cotton's personality gave the boys the strength they needed after their loss and allowed them to leave their cabin and face the further humiliation that they would have to endure. Chapter 6 ends with the boys on their journey and with Cotton firmly in charge of his unified group.
Chapter 7 opens with a short mutiny. After they arrive in Flagstaff, Shecker and Lally 1 rebel, as Shecker wants food, and Lally 1 is tired of taking orders from Cotton. Although he initially does not want to stop, Cotton agrees to do so and finds a bowling alley and bar, where the boys order food. After they are accosted by a pair of local drunks, the boys leave without their food, but the two locals follow them and eventually force the boys to pull over. After the locals threaten to call the law and turn in the boys for stealing a truck, Teft takes the gun out of the truck and shoots one of the tires on their car. Teft then tells the locals to begin walking toward town and threatens to shoot them if they do not comply quickly. Once the locals begin walking away, the six boys pile back into the pickup and resume their trip.
In chapter 8 the boys are nearly at their destination, but then they run out of gas, and Teft admits that he never looked at the gas gauge. By the time the truck stops, they are off the highway and in a very isolated spot. The reader learns about one of the boys' previous expeditions, when they decided that they wanted to go into town and to the movies one evening. Only the top cabin is given movie privileges as a reward for winning competitions, and the Bedwetters know that they will never be top cabin and so will never be permitted to go the movies. Instead, they sneak out at night, ride their horses to town, and are able to sit through almost all of the movie before the camp director catches them.
Initially after they run out of gas, the boys' unity dissolves, and they become panicked individuals again. Cotton, though, is able to once again turn them into a team. He knows that without gas, there is no way they can complete their mission and get back into camp before dawn. He presents the boys with two choices to consider. They can abandon their mission, get to the road, and perhaps hitch a ride that will allow them to once again steal a car and then arrive back at camp before their absence is detected. Or they can complete their mission, probably be arrested for stealing the truck and for shooting out one of the tires back in Flagstaff, and probably be sent to some sort of juvenile facility. Cotton unites the boys by letting them vote on these two options. When Cotton himself votes to return to camp, the team initially cannot decide what to do. Since he is their leader, they want to follow Cotton, but finishing their job is also deemed important. Cotton's efforts to unite the boys are rewarded when Lally 2 is the first of the boys to challenge Cotton and vote to continue. After Lally 2 begins walking away, Goodenow, Lally 1, Shecker, and Teft begin to follow, leaving only Cotton standing by himself, next to the now useless truck. For only a brief moment, Cotton feels defeated, but then he feels great joy because the boys no longer need him. They are capable of leading their own way. As chapter 9 ends, Cotton follows the boys as they continue their march.
In chapter 10, the boys arrive at their destination, which is some sort of camp, with many buildings, equipment, and cars. The boys climb over the gate that encloses the camp and begin to walk across a corral. Immediately Goodenow falls down and begins to retch. The boys turn back to help him, and they, too, fall down. When the clouds part to allow moonlight to filter in, the boys see that they have fallen down onto a field of blood, which now covers them.
In chapter 11, the reader is finally told the story of what the boys saw the previous day that upset them so much. Following a campout elsewhere, the boys are in a camp truck being driven back to the Box Canyon Boys Camp when they see a sign along the highway pointing toward the turn off to a buffalo preserve. Wheaties, the boys' ineffective cabin counselor, is driving, and the boys easily persuade him to leave the highway and drive to where they can see the buffalo. When the boys arrive, they encounter a sanctioned civilian slaughter of buffalo. Three well-fed, domesticated buffalo, who are not afraid of humans, are led into a corral, where a woman, a man, and a teenager are each given a turn at killing a buffalo. None of these people are good shots with a rifle, and many of those in attendance are drunk, which makes them worse shots. What ensues is an inhumane slaughter in which the animals are tortured and forced to endure great pain before they finally die in a barrage of rifle shots. The boys from Box Canyon Boys Camp have mistakenly wandered into a "hunt" that is sanctioned by the Arizona Game and Fish Department as a way to thin the herd of buffalo. Thirty buffalo are to be slaughtered in this manner each day for three days. The chapter ends with the narrator's tribute to the majesty of the buffalo and a commentary on the inhumanity of mankind.
After the boys see the first buffalo killed, they beg Wheaties to leave, but he maliciously refuses. He keeps them all there for the six hours that it takes to murder thirty buffalo in as inhumane a manner as can be imagined. There are thirty buffalo remaining in the pens for the third and last day of the hunt, which is the following day. After their return to their camp, the boys do not talk, and Goodenow throws up his meal. This chapter ends where the first chapter began, with the boys sleeping in their cabin after witnessing the brutal slaughter of buffalo earlier in the day.
After telling the story of the buffalo slaughter in the previous two chapters, the narration now returns to the boys' arrival at the site of the buffalo slaughter. After they are all able to crawl out of the blood and onto dry land, they find a small pond, where they are able to wash off some of the blood covering them. They next begin searching for a way to free the buffalo. The corrals are much stronger and better built than any of them had anticipated. They begin to walk around the corrals, searching for a way into the pens and a way to release the buffalo. Cotton's first attempt to open a pen fails, but by the end of the chapter, he is even more determined to find a way to free the animals.
In chapter 14, the boys make one final attempt to free the animals. Each boy is given an assignment, and under Cotton's leadership, the plan begins to work. Using their flashlights and radios, they manage to spook the buffalo sufficiently to cause them to move as a herd toward the open pens and eventually to freedom. Working as a team, the boys succeed in freeing the buffalo, who when they are free begin running from the pens and camp. The narrator makes clear that the boys have used their previous adventures as a way to develop as a team. Besides the midnight trip to the movies, they had also staged a diversion late one night at their camp, when they opened the horse corral and set all the horses free. Then they went into all of the empty cabins and kidnapped the cabin trophies and claimed them as their own. This trip to free the buffalos is the group's third adventure together and clearly their biggest.
The boys are almost stunned by their success in freeing the buffalo. Cotton has brought along a way for them to all celebrate. On the airplane ride to Arizona several weeks earlier, Cotton had taken advantage of two of the distracted flight attendants and stashed away several small bottles of liquor. He brought three of the bottles with him when they left the camp earlier that night and now shares them with the five other boys. Although the boys quickly begin celebrating their triumph, Cotton once again takes control of the group to call their attention to a problem they have not anticipated. The buffalo are free from the pens, but they have not run away. Instead, they are all standing just outside the corrals grazing on the grass, where they can be easily recaptured. Cotton suggests that the boys can use a truck of hay as a way to lead the buffalo away from the camp and toward the open range.
All of the boys quickly take on their assignments one more time. Teft will steal and drive a truck, and Lally 2 will look for any radios or flashlights that still work, while the other boys help load the hay. Once they are ready, the group piles into the truck and begins the drive out to the range where the buffalo are grazing. Once the truck is next to the buffalo, Lally 2 begins speaking to the buffalo in a soothing tone, and the boys begin to drop hay over the side of the pickup bed. As the truck pulls ahead, the buffalo follow. Cotton worries about the time and about whether they can get to the outermost fence before the sun is up and daylight exposes what they have done. The truck continues its very slow march, through chapters 16 and 17, with the herd following slowly behind.
Teft begins chapter 18 by telling a story about his cousin's piranha and the importance of doing a job completely and finishing what is begun. Teft explains the importance of the story and how the analogy and the story apply to what the boys have done this night. As Teft finishes the story, the boys suddenly realize that more buffalo have joined their caravan. They now have more than the thirty buffalo who were in the pens. Soon it is dawn, and Cotton is even more worried that they are running out of time. He knows that the boys will all be punished, and so he wants their punishment to mean something. They must succeed, or their sacrifice will be for nothing.
When they arrive at the fence, the boys are shocked to see that it is not the simple wire fence they have anticipated. Instead, the fence is chain-link iron and will not be easily broken. The boys try pushing the fence, but it does not budge. At that moment, the boys see trucks and a jeep heading their way. Each vehicle is loaded with people. Cotton orders Teft to load the rifle and to begin firing at the trucks. Cotton tells Teft to aim for the radiators and not at people. Although initially reluctant to shoot, Teft eventually begins to shoot, while Cotton disappears. At this point in the story, the narrator intrudes again to tell the story of the Bedwetters' last competition with the group from the Apache cabin, when the boys surmounted great difficulties to win a wager and prove their strength and teamwork. The symbolism is clear—the boys' teamwork will lead them to stand together against the people who are driving toward them, intent on capturing the boys and the buffalo.
While Teft and the rest of the boys try to stop the people in the trucks and jeep, Cotton drives the pickup through the fencing, tearing a large hole in it. Once the hole in the fence is there, Cotton uses the truck and its horn to create a stampede of buffalo in the direction of the torn fence and freedom. Once clear of the fence, the herd splits into two directions and away from the rim of the canyon. The truck, though, with Cotton still driving, keeps to its course and heads right for the rim. The last vision that Teft, Shecker, Goodenow, Lally 1, and Lally 2 have of Cotton is a glimpse of him sitting in the driver's seat as the truck drives straight over the rim. The boys hear the sounds of the crash and do not know if Cotton was unable to stop or chose not to do so. When the men from the camp arrive, they are stopped in their tracks at the sight of the five boys at the rim; they are crying for Cotton but also rejoicing at their accomplishments, as they honor their leader.
The bowlers are two local young men that the boys meet in Flagstaff. They try to hassle the six boys, and when they discover that the boys have stolen a truck they threaten to turn them in to the authorities. Their role in the book is to create tension and cause a small detour. After Teft shoots one of the tires of their car, they are left to walk back into Flagstaff.
The camp director is often referred to but not often seen. His efforts to intimidate the Bedwetters and force their compliance amount to his most notable achievement. He is responsible for the competitive environment that humiliates any boy who lacks the physical abilities that the camp director values. His primary threat is that he is the boys' parental surrogate, and as such, running away from him is the same as running away from their parents. Such an action makes them juvenile delinquents. He uses threats and select rewards to maintain control at Box Canyon Boys Camp.
Cotton is fifteen years old, a teenager. He begins the book as one of the camp counselors but soon becomes the unofficial leader of the group of boys collectively known as the Bedwetters, a title bestowed on them when they fail to win any cabin challenges and end up in last place. Cotton's mother has been married and divorced three times. She is narcissistic—completely selfish and focused only on her own needs. Cotton's only experience with positive parenting was with his mother's second husband, the only one of his stepfathers to spend time with him; after their divorce, this stepfather disappeared from his life. Cotton grew up watching the Vietnam War broadcast on television. He was fixated on the war and planned to become a soldier fighting in Vietnam after joining the Marine Corps at the age of seventeen. As the oldest of the group of six boys, he is also the strongest and the most stoic. Cotton is proud and tenacious in pursuing what he thinks is the right choice. He is also compassionate and accepting of the outsiders in the camp, which is demonstrated early in the book, when he offers several of the boys a place in the cabin that he shares. Cotton is a natural leader who knows that the boys will only succeed and survive by using their group strength and uniting, which he encourages. As a team, the boys are stronger. At the conclusion of the book, Cotton sacrifices his life to complete the group's quest.
Goodenow is fourteen years old. His father died when he was only four years old. Goodenow is insecure, suffers from panic attacks, and has a poor sense of his own value. He slept in a bed with his mother until he was twelve years old, which was when she remarried. Goodenow does not get along with his stepfather, who displaced him from his position in his mother's bed. When Goodenow's serious emotional problems resulted in his being unable to function at school, the counselor recommended counseling and a special school for disturbed children. Goodenow was pulled from this school as soon as he began to show improvement, but once away from the school, he quickly regressed. After the stepfather discovered that his stepson was wetting the bed, Goodenow was severely punished. At camp, he is teased for being too weak and sissified and because he wets the bed. He cries easily, is homesick, and has attempted suicide. When he tried to drown himself, other campers and counselors laughed at him. Cotton intervened and invited Goodenow to move into his cabin. The special school in which he was enrolled used a technique called "bumping," which was used when a child was in danger of an emotional collapse. Bumping entails a huddle in which all participants bond closely together, touching one another for strength. Goodenow introduces the Bedwetters to bumping after his second suicide attempt, in which he tried to hang himself. This suicide attempt was interrupted by Cotton, who convinced Goodenow that he deserves to live. Goodenow gains confidence and strength of character with the help of the other boys in the Bedwetters' group.
See Stephen Lally, Jr.
See Billy Lally
At twelve years old, Billy is the youngest boy at camp, and he is usually referred to as Lally 2. His parents are wealthy, which is true for the parents of all six boys. Lally's parents have many marital problems, which account for yearly separations and reconciliations and long vacations together, without their sons. Lally 1 and Lally 2 are left home alone with the servants. Both boys are lonely and neglected. Lally 2 hides in his parents' long-neglected sauna, where he turns up the temperature and sleeps until one of the servants finds him there. He copes with his parents' neglect by withdrawing into fantasies and into an infantile world of bed-wetting and thumb sucking. Lally 2 suffers from night terrors. His parents' erratic parenting and lack of common sense have interrupted his schooling and several attempts at counseling. It is Lally 2 who encourages the rest of the boys in his cabin to run away with him. Lally 2 demonstrates bravery and strength during their quest, especially once the boys arrive at the buffalo camp. He takes the lead several times, and his ability to talk to the buffalo seems to calm them. By the end of the book, Lally 2 is willing to give up his security pillow and stand on his own.
Stephen Lally, Jr.
Stephen is fourteen years old and is called Lally 1. He is jealous of his parents' affection for his younger brother, Lally 2. In actuality his parents are too busy to be bothered with either of their sons, who have been raised by the family servants. The boys are always given two of everything whenever they receive gifts. Because they are treated identically, they have become competitors for their parents' affection. Lally 1 is mean-spirited and vicious and torments Lally 2. In one example of the older brother's cruelty, after Cotton destroyed a letter that Lally 1 wrote home to his parents, in retaliation Lally 1 tormented and murdered all of the animals that the boys had brought to their cabin. In an uncontrolled fit of anger, he stomped on or beat to death all of the pets he could find. Although he has spent most of his life competing with his younger brother for his parents' love and attention, Lally 1 recognizes his brother's strength by the conclusion of the book, and the two become friends.
Sammy is fourteen years old and, like the other boys in his group, has many emotional problems. Shecker's problems are caused by his comedian father, who uses his son as the object of jokes to impress his friends. Shecker is fat, a glutton who eats to fill the emotional void in his life. Shecker's father once bet a thousand dollars that his son could eat a dozen pieces of pie in four minutes. His father did not care that his son was humiliated. When Shecker's father dropped him off at the camp seven weeks earlier, he spread around bribe money to make sure that his son had extra food. He also gave money to one of the camp counselors and asked him to be his son's friend, and he attempted to bribe the camp director to give Shecker the best horse. Shecker was thrown out of four cabins in his first two days at camp. Cotton offered him a home but quickly began to regret doing so. Shecker is loud and nervous, and he is a braggart who mimics his father's comedy routines. He is a compulsive overeater who also chews on his fingernails, and he generally irritates everyone who is around him. When asked by the other members of the Bedwetters cabin to calm down, Shecker accuses them of targeting him because he is Jewish. He tells Cotton that the boys are all Nazis. By the time the boys arrive at the buffalo camp, Shecker has discovered that he no longer needs to live in his famous father's shadow to succeed.
Lawrence Teft III
Lawrence is fourteen years old. He has a criminal past that proves helpful for his cabin group's needs. Like other adolescents who are bored, Teft easily finds ways to get into trouble. He has stolen his mother's purse, although he does not need money. He also stole his father's car and then a neighbor's car. When his father tried to get his son admitted to the same exclusive school that he had attended, Teft managed to sabotage the application interview. The headmaster recommended the Box Canyon Boys Camp as a way to force discipline on Teft. He was flown from New York to Arizona like a prisoner; he was so disruptive on the plane that he had to be physically confined to a seat. Teft is brave and foolhardy, and he is also determined and tenacious. His boldness is demonstrated several times in the novel, such as when he steals a pickup and also when he shoots out the tire of a car to prevent the group's capture.
Wheaties is supposed to be the Bedwetters cabin counselor. He is abusive and controlling of the boys, labels them as useless, and attempts to punish them. After Teft exposes Wheaties's secret stash of alcohol, cigarettes, and dirty magazines, the counselor abdicates any possible authority over the boys, and Cotton becomes their unofficial counselor. Wheaties takes the boys to the buffalo slaughter and then refuses to take them away until it is completed and all the animals have been killed. Wheaties thrives on the blood and gore of the slaughter and uses the boys' misery as a way to retaliate against them.
The purpose of the Box Canyon Boys Camp is to turn boys into cowboys. The camp's motto is "Send Us a Boy—We'll Send You a Cowboy." The image of the cowboy was one carefully crafted by Western films in the last half of the twentieth century. The promise inherent in the camp's motto is that the camp can create the same strong heroic figure that has been defined by the Western cowboy. The cowboy is an iconic figure of heroism who faces risks and rescues those in need of saving. The six boys who compose the group called the Bedwetters do not begin their journey to the buffalo camp as any sort of heroes; the camp has failed to turn them into heroic cowboys. They are ordinary boys who have to prove that they can be ordinary heroes, and it takes them the entire journey to do so. In confronting their fears, the six boys find that they are stronger and braver than they thought. Cotton's sacrifice at the end of the novel is not the kind of heroic choice expected from cowboys. In Western films, the cowboy always triumphs and always survives. Swarthout makes clear that these boys, and Cotton in particular, find their heroism within themselves and not through the artifice of the cowboy motif.
Humanity versus Nature
The slaughter of the buffalo in Bless the Beasts and Children serves as an example of mankind's inhumane treatment of animals. Swarthout describes the slaughter of these animals in great detail in chapter 11. The author feels so strongly about the subject that he includes a short lecture about the destruction of the buffalo at the conclusion of that chapter. Swarthout says that the living buffalo, those who remain on the prairies in the twentieth century, are only a remnant of the many that used to live there. That small remnant serves as a reminder of the slaughters that occurred during the nineteenth century. According to Swarthout, this reminder "stirs in us the most profound lust, the most undying hatred, the most inexpiable guilt." Rather than learn from the inhumanity of the past, mankind continues to treat animals as less significant than humans and thus less deserving to live.
All six boys in the Bedwetters cabin are outcasts; they do not fit into the Box Canyon Boys Camp social structure. Most of the boys lack the physical acuity and emotional resources that the camp requires of them. Even before they arrive at camp, though, the boys are outcasts within their own families. The parents of Lally 1 and Lally 2 have no interest in parenting. They are so involved in their own lives and their marriage that their sons are excluded from their family. The other four boys come from families that are not much different. Shecker's father identifies himself so completely as a comedian that he cannot be a father, since it is not part of his act. When Goodenow's mother remarries, her new husband forces her to choose between her son and her husband. Goodenow is rejected and displaced and becomes an outsider in his own family. Teft's father is unable to deal with his rebellious son and so his solution is to cast him out of the family. When he fails to have his son admitted to a boarding school, he sends him away to camp. Teft's exclusion by his family is very much like what happens to Cotton. Cotton's mother is a wealthy divorcée who does not want her teenage son to serve as a reminder of how old she is. All of the six boys have been outcasts within their own families, and when they arrive at Box Canyon Boys Camp, the counselors, campers, and even the camp director make clear that they do not fit into the camp hierarchy either.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Camps that are designed to teach discipline to teenagers are quite common. There have been problems with a number of these camps, however, and some children have even died. Research such teenage "boot camps" and prepare an oral presentation in which you discuss what you learned about the way these camps operate and whether they are considered effective at instilling discipline in teenagers.
- Bless the Beasts and Children was made into a film the year after the book was published. Rent or borrow a copy of the film and then write an essay in which you compare the film and book. Be sure to include some analysis of the changes that the director made in filming the book and what those changes contribute to the viewer's understanding of the story.
- The broadcasting of the Vietnam War on television was an important influence on Cotton's ideas about manhood. Research the role of television in broadcasting war. Write an essay in which you discuss whether televising a war creates unrealistic or distorted expectations for viewers or if it perhaps makes viewers feel more patriotic.
- The buffalo is an iconic image of the American West. Find at least four different images featuring buffalo that are representative of the role of the buffalo during the nineteenth century. Look for images of the buffalo as they are depicted in Native American life, as they appeared during buffalo hunts, as part of staged Western shows, and as they lived while on the range. Prepare a poster presentation in which you explain to your classmates what each image suggests about the life of the buffalo and what the images teach people about the American West.
- The kind of buffalo "hunt" that Swarthout describes in Bless the Beasts and Children was quite common at one time. Research the role of the government in staging public hunts to thin herds of animals. Prepare an oral presentation in which you explain how these hunts were staged, the kinds of animals involved, and how the hunts have changed since Swarthout's novel was published.
- Summer camps for boys date from at least the 1880s. There are a number of photos from early camps as well as other illustrations that depict summer camps. Look through art and photography books in a library and try to select a picture or illustration that you feel best depicts Swarthout's portrayal of Box Canyon Boys Camp. Then write an essay in which you discuss the image that you have selected and explain how your image captures at least one of the themes of this story.
The six camp rejects who work together to save the buffalo from slaughter are only able to succeed because they work together. Goodenow introduces the boys to a counseling technique that he learned called bumping, in which the boys huddle together, with eyes closed, touching their faces together in a moment of complete trust and bonding. Working together as a team is not easy for the boys. They are accustomed to being rejected and therefore isolated, and it takes practice to learn how to work together. The boys demonstrated that they could work together when they created a diversion at camp that allowed them to steal each of the separate cabin trophies. On the journey to rescue the buffalo, the boys' teamwork falters at times. For instance, in chapter 9, after they run out of gas, the boys' unity dissolves, and they become individuals again. When they arrive at the camp and must work together to release the buffalo, each boy becomes part of the team, with each one performing the job assigned. Only through this teamwork do they achieve their goal.
Authorial intrusion occurs when the author of a novel or story stops the narration to step into the story and insert his or her own comments. Swarthout does this a number of times throughout Bless the Beasts and Children. In chapter 11 the author interrupts the narration to provide a history of the kind of state-sponsored slaughter of buffalo that he describes happening in the book. He does more than provide a history lesson, however. Swarthout sermonizes, telling readers that mankind is "born with buffalo blood upon our hands." What follows is a digression from the boys' story that links humankind's obligation to nature with the violence of humans, whose thirst for blood can govern their actions.
A young-adult novel usually focuses on an adolescent character or a character with whom an adolescent can identify. Literature directed toward an adolescent audience also tends to contain themes that appeal to teenagers and that address issues in which they are interested. In addition, the vocabulary and sentence structure are likely to be easily accessible for adolescents.
Bless the Beasts and Children addresses several concerns of adolescent readers, including bullying, lack of self-esteem, and being an outsider. Swarthout's novel offers six boys whose age makes them ideal for youthful readers who are looking for character types that they recognize and with whom they might identify. Many teenagers have experienced the trauma of not fitting in with other teenagers. In addition, the author is careful to include several exciting episodes in which the boys rebel against authority, a subject of particular interest for many teenagers.
Bless the Beasts and Children can be described as a coming-of-age story. Typically in a coming-of-age novel, a character or characters endure great trials and difficulty, at the end of which the protagonists have grown stronger and matured. It is typical for the characters to suffer and undergo hardships that test their strength and will to succeed. The six boys in Bless the Beasts and Children undergo many difficulties and endure many hardships in attempting to succeed. They grow from misfits whose insecurities and fears hamper their efforts into more confident young men who have learned that they are strong and brave. Other coming-of-age novels include Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.
In a quest narrative, a hero undertakes a journey in search of something, and after the mission is accomplished, the hero returns home. The quest typically requires traveling a long distance and overcoming many obstacles along the journey. Oftentimes, the quest story includes a great deal of description of the land and of objects encountered by the hero during the journey. Bless the Beasts and Children contains many of the descriptive elements of a quest story. Instead of one heroic figure, Swarthout provides six heroic figures who must overcome many obstacles during their journey. The object that the heroes seek is the freedom of the buffalo being held at the buffalo camp. In literature a quest is often a mythic adventure, and indeed, there is a sense of myth in the story that Swarthout tells. The boys, several of whom lack determination and stamina, are able to complete a journey that involves sneaking out of the Box Canyon Boys Camp, stealing a pickup, surviving a confrontation with two local men who accost them, and continuing on foot after their truck runs out of gas. They also survive frequent bouts of fear that threaten to incapacitate them. When they arrive at their destination, they must devise a way to free the buffalo, which requires physical and emotional strength that most of the boys lacked when the journey began. The quest story is a very old literary format, used in epics such as Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid.
Symbolism is the use of a concrete object to represent an abstract concept. In Bless the Beastsand Children, each cabin of boys was given the head of an animal to symbolize the strength of the boys in that cabin. The Apaches received a buffalo head, while the Sioux received the head of a lion. The remaining cabins also received animal heads, with the positioning and status of the animals dependent upon the cabins' placement in the camp hierarchy after a series of competitions. The cabin in last place became the Bedwetters, who received a metal chamber pot instead of an animal head, symbolizing their low position in camp. The chamber pot was designed to humiliate the boys in last place, and it represents the protagonists' status as losers.
The Development of Summer Camps for Boys
When Swarthout set his novel Bless the Beasts and Children in a summer camp for boys, he used a setting that would be familiar to many readers. Summer camps for boys date from at least the 1880s. The goal of early camps was to help middle- and upper-class boys learn skills and develop emotional resources that would help them grow into morally strong young men. Like the Box Canyon Boys Camp in Swarthout's novel, many of the early camps were designed to make a profit and catered to the needs of wealthy families. While many public camps used tents to house the campers, the for-profit private camps were more likely to use wooden cabins, in which several boys would live together. In addition to the sleeping quarters, which were often arranged in group dormitories, camps would also contain a dining hall and kitchen building, as well as a chapel. There would also be a headquarters building, which housed the camp director and featured areas in which the campers could socialize and write letters home to their parents.
The creation of summer camps at the end of the nineteenth century coincided with an increased emphasis on naturalism and a realization of the importance of nature in forming strong young men. At a time when more people were moving to cities, summer camps provided a way to take city boys to the country, where they could develop both physically and mentally in naturalistic ways. Rural boys could gain such experience simply working alongside their fathers, but such was not the case for boys raised in the cities. Consequently, there was a fear that city boys, who were being raised primarily by their mothers while their fathers worked, would either become sissies or be corrupted by the influences of city life. As a result, the first camps were designed primarily to get boys out into the country and away from their mothers. A secondary reason for sending boys to summer camp was to give their lives purpose and structure during the summer months when they were not in school. Mandatory education laws that required children to attend school for much of the year, combined with restrictions on child labor, meant that when school ended at the start of summer, there was little for children to do in the cities. Summer camps provided diversion from city streets, where boredom could lead to discipline problems.
Although the first summer camps provided little structure, they quickly developed very ordered programs to teach boys moral lessons such as the importance of work. Boys were divided by age and assigned duties that were based upon teamwork. In many camps the structure was modeled upon a military system of organization. In some camps, boys wore uniforms, and each group of boys had a leader who assigned work chores for each boy. Boys took turns cooking, cleaning, and maintaining order. When not performing their chores, they took long hikes, exercised, and engaged in competitive sports and games. Boys also learned survival skills, such as how to build a fire and how to fish for food. They also learned how to swim and how to survive if a boat capsized. Although the goal was for the boys to work together as teams, cliques also formed, just as they would in any other environment. As the boys in the Bedwetters' cabin learn, if a boy was an outsider in his ordinary life, he would be an outsider at summer camp as well. Camps run by the Young Men's Christian Association, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and the Camp Fire Girls evolved in the wake of the popularity of the first private boys' camps. The first girls' camps opened late in the nineteenth century, while coed camps for adolescents did not become common until after World War II.
Staged Buffalo Hunts
American bison or buffalo, as they are more commonly known, were nearly eradicated in the nineteenth century, when the systematic slaughter of buffalo herds reduced numbers from an estimated sixty million to only a few hundred. By the late 1800s, the American bison had been placed on a government endangered species list, and slaughters were halted. Since that time, herds of buffalo have continued to grow, and in most cases the animals remain protected from indiscriminate hunting. It is estimated that populations have grown to more than 150,000, and as a result, buffalo are no longer on the endangered species list. In an effort to manage herd size, buffalo hunts, such as the staged hunt in Bless the Beasts and Children, have been used for many years as a way to limit the sizes of buffalo herds. In fact, many states, including Montana, Arizona, Oregon, Iowa, and numerous others, now sell buffalo-hunting permits as a way to reduce the sizes of herds. In many cases, the permits allow hunters to participate in staged hunts similar to that described by Swarthout in Bless the Beasts and Children, though with less barbarity since that book's publication. However, there is always opposition to staged hunts when they are held. In January 2008, a newspaper in Waterloo, Iowa, the WCF Courier, reported a great deal of opposition to an announcement that a staged hunt was to be held.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1970s: In 1973, eighty nations, including the United States, sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Each country agrees to control the import and export of animals appearing on an endangered species list. The agreement is designed to protect animals like the African elephant, which is hunted for its ivory. In 1970, there are an estimated two million elephants in Africa.
Today: In spite of CITES and other similar accords, and in spite of a ban on international trade in ivory in place since 1989, the illegal trade of ivory continues, and in fact, this trade has increased in recent years. By 2000, it was estimated that the number of African elephants had decreased to about five hundred thousand.
- 1970s: Corral buffalo hunts, such as the hunt depicted in Swarthout's novel, have been common in Arizona since the 1940s as a way to control herd size. By the early 1970s, after the publication of Bless the Beasts and Children, the widespread negative publicity generated by the novel results in a change in the way these hunts are managed. The Arizona Game and Fish Department ceases to stage corral hunts, and hunters are forced to kill buffalo out in the fields instead of in the corrals.
Today: So-called "canned hunts" on private ranches have increased in popularity. One ranch in Michigan charges three thousand dollars for a hunter to shoot a buffalo, while a Texas ranch advertises prices of twenty-five hundred dollars and up. A number of animal rights organizations, such as the Humane Society of the United States, are working to stop canned hunts. It is estimated that more than one thousand private hunting operations exist in the twenty-eight states that allow this practice.
- 1970s: The Vietnam War, which Cotton watched on his television with such fervor, officially ends in March 1973, after fifteen years of military involvement and the loss of nearly fifty-eight thousand U.S. soldiers. This highly controversial war has divided the American people and resulted in many public protests.
Today: The United States is involved in a war abroad that, like Vietnam, is being covered on the television news. Like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War is also highly controversial and has resulted in many protests that have divided families and friends.
Yet since staged hunts are legal in many states, opposition has had little effect on the practice. Arizona's staged hunts, the subject of Swarthout's novel, have changed since the novel was published. Staged hunts still occur, but the Arizona Game and Fish Department has modified the hunts so that hunters are forced to take the animals into the field before they can shoot them. Shooting buffalo confined to corrals has not been permitted since the early 1970s.
Although Swarthout wrote many novels, Bless the Beasts and Children was his bestseller. Following its release in 1970, Bless the Beasts and Children was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The book became a selection of the Literary Guild and of the Doubleday Book Club as well as a Reader's Digest Condensed Book. Reviews upon the book's release in 1970 were generally positive. In an April 1970 review for Harper's magazine, Richard Schickel enthusiastically praises Swarthout's thoughtful, lively writing. One of the elements of the novel that Schickel likes best is "the juxtaposition of the primal innocence of the great animals with that of the boys." He also praises the book's message, noting that Swarthout "is a stylist who also entertains and instructs." Schickel believes that the brevity of the novel creates a tension in the story that, combined with the engaging characters, makes the book the kind of novel that will continue to hold the attention of young readers.
In his 1972 review of Bless the Beasts and Children for the English Journal, John W. Conner calls Swarthout's novel "tautly written" and duly notes the excitement of the night journey to the buffalo killing camp. Conner states that Swarthout "understands the anxiety accompanying illegal flight and carefully selects incidents and language to enhance this anxiety." Although he expresses skepticism about whether or not the book is intended for adolescents, he finds it to be an "excellent example of literature about adolescents." Regardless of Conner's uncertainty about the most appropriate audience for Swarthout's novel, it has remained popular with readers of all ages. A twenty-fifth anniversary edition was published in 1995, and the book has now been published in many foreign language editions.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses Bless the Beasts and Children as a book that inspires imagination, sympathy, and social responsibility in young readers.
Swarthout's novel Bless the Beasts and Children offers important lessons about the nature of individual strength, the ability to face challenges, and the importance of friendship. One of the novel's greatest assets is the way it challenges young readers to consider the world in which they live and what they might do to make the world a better place for all living things. For this reason, books like Bless the Beasts and Children fill an important need for young readers. Such books allow their readers to imagine a world in which they can create change.
In his essay "A Plea for Radical Children's Literature," Herbert Kohl suggests that books can help young readers see beyond their own world and limited experiences and thus help them to see that they can be more than their own personal experiences might suggest. Books can feed the imagination and manifest "the possibility of personal, social, and political change." It is the imagination, according to Kohl, that leads the young to consider "the idea of possibility" and "the contrast between what is and what might be." It is easy to see how Bless the Beasts and Children accords with Kohl's ideas about the importance of imagination in literature as an agent of change. When Lally 2 runs away at night and imagines that he can find his way back to the buffalo encampment and somehow save the buffalo, he is using his imagination to seek to change what might be to what is. When all six boys decide that they will join Lally 2 and that they are capable of journeying halfway across the state to set free a corral's worth of buffalo, they are using their imaginations to fight injustice. And although the sheer size of the buffalo initially intimidates them, all of the boys know that they can succeed in setting the animals free. Their imaginations tell them that what they envision is possible. They imagine a better world and set out to create it. Radical stories such as Swarthout's inspire young imaginations and permit young student readers the opportunity to understand that they have the power to change the world. Imagination can erase the fear of failure with the possibility of action.
Kohl defines a radical story as one that involves a community or group's efforts to address an injustice, that also involves an enemy who has abused power and who is real, and that "illustrates comradeship as well as friendship and love." When the other five boys in his cabin join Lally 2 on his quest, they are fulfilling Kohl's suggestion that radical literature for young readers allow them to go beyond their own experiences and build bridges to others, to understand the creation of a community with others in a common struggle. This is exactly what Swarthout's six protagonists do when they unite to save the buffalo. They become strong enough as a community to accomplish their goal; in Kohl's words, they become "a group working toward unity and focusing on solving a problem of inequity." The boys' unity permits them to challenge the cruel system of slaughter that they have witnessed. There is no guarantee that they will succeed, but the experience of uniting against a common enemy makes each boy a stronger member of the community.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The 1966 novel Whichaway, by Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout, is the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who struggles to survive after being injured and left to die.
- Easterns and Westerns (2001) is Swarthout's only collection of short fiction. There are thirteen stories, including "A Glass of Blessing," which was nominated for the O. Henry Prize for short fiction, and one novella. The collection was edited and published by his son, Miles Swarthout.
- William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies (1954) tells the story of a group of boys stranded on an island after a plane wreck. Unlike the boys in Swarthout's novel, these boys become less civilized and more barbaric as time passes.
- The Catcher in the Rye (1951), by J. D. Salinger, is the story of a teenage outsider that captures adolescent cynicism and rebellion so well that it has appeared on banned book lists since its release.
- John Knowles's novel A Separate Peace (1959) is about adolescent boys at a New England prep school. A mystery surrounding two of the boys is left up to readers to solve.
- Father Sky (1979), a novel by Devery Freeman, tells a story about what happens when students resist a decision to close a military school. The book asks serious questions about what happens when teenagers are subjected to a form of brainwashing instituted by adults in charge. The book was made into a successful film, Taps, in 1981.
In his depiction of the buffalo slaughter, Swarthout shows what really happened during such unsportsmanlike amateur hunts. His depiction of these hunts helped to publicize and eventually change the ways in which the herds were thinned. The novel inspires an empathy in readers that extends to both nature and humanity. Although the six boys in Bless the Beasts and Children are not in physical danger of being killed, as the buffalo are, they have been tormented and cast aside as if they have no value. Cotton, Teft, Goodenow, Shecker, Lally 1, and Lally 2 are outsiders who seem to have no place at camp. They do not excel at sports or at camper competitions. They are weaker, either physically or emotionally, than the other thirty boys at camp. Many students are often bullied at school because they do not fit in well with their classmates. Swarthout's novel allows all readers to fully see and understand how it feels to be an outsider. Bless the Beasts and Children provides a hopeful resolution for readers who are outsiders, since it presents the six boys as finding the inner strength to finish their quest and help the buffalo survive.
Swarthout also inspires readers to question unjust and unfit systems of authority. He reveals the repressive and demeaning structure of the Box Canyon Boys Camp in such a way that readers sympathize with the boys and condemn the camp leadership, from the camp director down to the camp counselors, who thrive on torturing the boys whom the counselors have defined as social misfits. At Box Canyon Boys Camp, whose slogan is "Send Us a Boy—We'll Send You a Cowboy," camp counselors use a series of physical competitions as a mechanism to transform each boy camper into the kind of strong heroic figure that the cowboy image of their slogan promises is possible. By their very nature, competitions have both winners and losers—and at Box Canyon Boys Camp, losers become the subject of ridicule. As can be expected, boys who lack physical prowess are at a disadvantage in the kind of environment created at this camp. The six boys who serve as protagonists in Swarthout's book become the object of harassment and bullying. The ridiculing includes the title given to the boys—the Bedwetters—as well as their cabin trophy—a chamber pot. Humiliation, rather than growth, is the inevitable outcome of this kind of competition. From the history Swarthout provides for each boy, readers know that the parents of all six are neglectful, unloving, and self-centered. From their parents, the boys have learned what it means to feel undeserving of love. They have learned that in failing to please their parents, they are failures. The quest they undertake in Bless the Beasts and Children replaces their histories of personal failure with the experience of success. Once the boys break free of the oppressive environments that have devalued them, they learn that they are not misfits, that they are not incapable of success, and that they are not without friends. The lesson that Swarthout's six boys teach young readers is that by working together as a community, people can transform their own lives and find inner strength they did not know existed.
According to Kohl, a radical book should not be preachy or dogmatic and should be "honest about pain and defeat." Because Swarthout integrates flashbacks into the story, readers see how damaged the boys have been by their parents' neglect. Readers know that Lally 1 is so jealous of his younger brother that he tortures and kills his brother's pets and that Lally 2 hides from the world in his parents' sauna and that he wets the bed and sucks his thumb. Readers also understand that Goodenow is suicidal and that Shecker's compulsive behaviors are an effort to compensate for his father's abuse. Teft's father and Cotton's mother, in turn, have banished their sons to Box Canyon Boys Camp rather than parenting them. By the time readers finish Swarthout's novel, they know the emotional pain these boys have endured and are thus very cognizant of how bravely they have faced the challenges that they have surmounted in their journey to save the buffalo. Readers learn the lessons that Swarthout presents, not because the author delivers a sermon about the perils of poor parenting but because he tells a story in which six young boys learn through their own hard work that they can achieve something important in their lives.
Reading can open doorways into new experiences for readers, as books are able to present worlds never before experienced; books have the ability to show young readers that there are many ways in which they might experience the world. Well-constructed narratives with engaging characters and compelling plots tempt readers of all ages to return again and again to reading, which is what makes novels for children and young adults the perfect venue for inspiring youth toward change. Kohl is correct about the importance of providing radical literature to children and adolescents. Bless the Beasts and Children proves that literature for young adults can provide important lessons. The value of such literature far exceeds the obvious strengths that reading always offers, such as the chance to improve upon language and vocabulary skills. Swarthout's novel presents young adult readers with the opportunity to think critically about the choices they make and the implications of those choices. If young readers are not exposed to the uncomfortable realities of the world, how will they learn to understand and sympathize with the tragedies that other people and animals suffer? The chance to engage in critical thinking about a relevant dramatic story is exactly why students should be encouraged to read Bless the Beasts and Children.
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on Bless the Beasts and Children, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Sanders notes that Bless the Beasts and the Children serves to introduce adolescent readers to William Golding's classic novel Lord of the Flies.
A novel of contemporary culture which serves to introduce adolescent readers to Golding's Lord of the Flies is Glendon Swarthout's Bless the Beasts and Children. Set in the turbulent 1970s, it is both a social-problem novel about neglected youth and social criticism with an environmentalist bent. Additionally, it has an accessible set of symbols, including a savior figure, which prepare students for the Christian allegorical proposition of Golding's novel. Specifically, the religious and allegorical aspect of Bless the Beasts and Children is set up in a simple and uncomplicated way which delights young readers because it fits together neatly and prepares them for the more subtle and complex symbolism of Golding.
The symbols of Bless the Beasts and Children are as obvious as a hymn refrain. The hero's name is John Cotton, whose ultimate fate is at the wheel of a Judas truck. His six disciples wear the initials "B. C." (for Box Canyon) on their backs. The modern American West is called the "Land of Canaan." And the sacrifice of the buffalo, the Beasts, about which the novel centers, is called "the Blood of the Lamb." The novel's theme is more ambiguous than Golding's and not as controlled. Swarthout's theme is egalitarian. Those extraordinary leaders like Cotton carry salvation for the ordinary; the spirit of brotherhood is triumphant. Students find this reassuring; it reaffirms what they want to believe. Although they support the idea of competition, cooperation is the method which they turn to most naturally.
Source: Patricia Sanders, "Using Adolescent Novels as Transitions to Literary Classics," in English Journal, Vol. 78, No. 3, March 1989, pp. 82-84.
In the following excerpt, Lenz examines the alienation displayed by characters in several works of young-adult fiction, including the characters of John Cotton and his friends in Bless the Beasts and the Children.
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy observed, "All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Similarly one could say with some justification that though the socially accepted characters in children's literature resemble one another greatly, the loners are highly individualized, both in the reasons for their loneliness and in the ways they cope with it. We are all familiar with the loner in modern adult fiction, but it still surprises some of us to find children's literature, the proper domain of the Happy Ending and Joy, becoming rapidly overpopulated with loners. All the lonely children, where do they all come from? Particularly in today's fiction for early teenagers, one finds an unremitting epidemic of alienation.
Every loner is by definition unique. Nonetheless, it is possible to show certain relationships, grouping loners together on the basis of a principle of classification and relating them to a literary ancestor. I have chosen to classify loners according to the factors that precipitate their alienation and to point out any identifiable patterns in their plights. I shall also note key images expressive of alienation, images that body forth the loners' own perceptions of their situations. Finally, I shall identify both the positive and negative results of alienation in each case. By "positive" aspects of alienation I mean the ways that alienation serves as a stage through which the character passes on the way to further growth and reintegration, so that this experience as a loner finally enriches him as a human being. By "negative" aspects, I refer to the ways that alienation may diminish or destroy the loner's humanity, ending with his disintegration or destruction. For it is evident that the experience of alienation, like any human experience of suffering, may lead either to final affirmation or to final negation of human values. Through my survey, I hope to discover whether alienation as it is presented in contemporary young people's fiction can be said to be shown in a predominantly positive or a predominantly negative light. Does the loner usually succeed in salvaging something of value from his loneliness, or is he more often defeated and destroyed by it? The contrast here is between the "tragic" loner, who passes beyond tragedy into affirmation, and the "pathetic" loner, who is stranded upon the treacherous rocks of Carlyle's Everlasting Nay.
The first type of loner, for convenience called Type A, is best seen in fantasy. This loner is actually different in kind from the rest of humanity, having some characteristic that could be called "trans-human" or "extra-human." Helpful paradigms can be drawn from myth, for example, the selkie—half seal, half human—or the ondine—half fish, half human. Will Stanton in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising exemplifies this type of loner, for he has extra-human powers, being one of the Old Ones, distinguished from humankind in general, as Merriman tells him, in being "bound by nature to devote yourself to the long conflict between the Light and the Dark." Merriman also points out to Will the advantages and the drawbacks of his special gift:
It is a burden…. Any great gift or power or talent is a burden, and this more than any, and you will often long to be free of it. But there is nothing to be done. If you were born with the gift, then you must serve it, and nothing in this world or out of it may stand in the way of that service….
Will's situation is metaphorically expressed through the image of "The Great Doors," "… The tall carved doors that led out of Time," through which Merriman disappears at the close of the book. Will also moves in and out of time, to and from the timeless realm of the immortal Old Ones. Enchanted music heralds the opening of the Great Doors "… or any great change that might alter the lives of the Old Ones…." The "sweet beckoning sound" expresses "the space between waking and dreaming, yesterday and tomorrow, memory and imagining." The central symbols of Will's quest are the Six Signs of Fire, Water, Iron, Bronze, Wood and Stone—elemental signs that must be joined together on a chain of gold to reaffirm the power of the Light over the Dark. His success in joining the Six Signs represents not only a victory over the Dark but also an ordering of reality and the achievement of a wholeness of vision. In an illuminated moment, Will, who has earlier suffered from loneliness because of his isolation from the human community, realizes that the Old Ones "are my people. This is my family, in the same way as my real family." He thus transcends loneliness and expands his humanity to embrace his extra-human experiences.
Not all loners of Type A achieve this happy amalgam of their humanity and trans-humanity. For instance, consider the Tuck family of Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. The entire Tuck family has unwittingly drunk the immortalizing water of a mysterious spring, thereby forfeiting their human claim to mortality. Their story is told through the eyes of a young girl, Winnie Foster, who resists the temptation to drink of the water herself. The Tucks' pathetic plight is expressed through their inability to "climb back on the wheel" of human experience in time. As Mr. Tucks says to Winnie:
"Everything's a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping…. Being part of the whole, that's the blessing…. You can't have living without dying. So you can't call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road."
Also symbolic of the "otherness" of the Tucks is the "elf music" of their music box, which leads the ill-willed man in the yellow suit to discover their whereabouts, resulting in calamity for both him and them. Their breach with humanness is not healed; no happy denouement is possible for them. In contrast to Will Stanton, they must live forever outside the magic circle of humanity.
The loner of Type B is alienated by physical isolation resulting from an accident or a natural catastrophe. At the outset of the story, the Type B loner comes close to the norm, but he endures a traumatic experience that leaves him stranded, outcast from society. Robinson Crusoe provides a paradigm for this type. A current example is Albie, the protagonist of Chester Aaron's An American Ghost, who finds himself, as the result of a massive flood, afloat on the Mississippi in a house that he shares with a mountain lion. Through their mutual struggles to survive, Albie and the mountain lion (which he names Alice after his sister) develop a close emotional tie. Albie needs the lion because he identifies with her will to live: "As long as this lion breathed and lived, he could draw from its strength and will a strength and will of his own."
The major symbol in the book is the house, paradoxically both a lifeboat and a prison. At one point in the book, after Albie has encountered and escaped from the ruffians of the Delta Belle, whose intent has been to kidnap him and hold him for ransom, he ponders the meaning of houses and the word home. He thinks of "the shell of what had once been a home" that now carries him down the river, and his imagination conjures up the theme of the human will to endure as he pictures the new house his father will now build. "Would a new house promise new life? This old house in which he now sat … had been nourished on myths of human endurance." He remembers how his mother likened their house to a pitcher, from which her children "would take out to the world what this house had poured into them" and also to a church, because it was a refuge of spiritual, aesthetic values in the midst of wilderness. The meanings that cluster around the symbol of the house are primarily positive, life-affirming ones, but the book as a whole stresses the naturalistic pessimism engendered by Albie's isolation as well as by the degradation he suffers at the hands of the Delta Belle crew. In a scene evocative of keen nausea, Albie hides from his persecutors by crawling among the tethered livestock, knowing that if he succumbs to despair and sickness, he will die like the untended cattle. This knowledge spurs his will to fight against death: "In the midst of this heavy presence of death, Albie chose to fight to live." From his experience in extremis Albie gains an ironic insight into both the inestimable value of all life—human and non-human—and the need nonetheless to sacrifice some lives (like those of the shivering goats he feeds to Alice) to sustain others. The vision of life that proceeds from the book can scarcely be called affirmative; it is rather keenly ironic; the line usually separating human and animal life is curiously blurred in Aaron's naturalistic vision. It finds its final symbol in the cougar skin Albie sees nailed to the side of the barn at the end of the book. With the keen perception that he owes to his survival of a descent into a psychic hell, Albie senses what those around him do not—the carnivorous, predatory basis of even so-called civilized society. Small wonder that he sobs uncontrollably. He owes his life to a cougar, yet his family considers a slain cougar a triumph. The gap between him and them seems unbridgeable, and a reader must suppose that Albie will remain alone with his terrible knowledge.
Another Type B loner, Karana of Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins, is isolated as the result of two events. First, she is accidentally stranded on the island with her small brother, Ramo, who then meets death at the fangs of the wild dogs. Karana adjusts to her aloneness, finding comfort in relationships with the animals; ironically, the leader of the wild dogs becomes her closest companion. Dolphins play a symbolic part as figures of hope. They appear around Karana's canoe as she struggles to return to the island in a storm, seeming like "friends." At the end of the book they swim ahead of the ship that carries her to the mainland. The symbol most expressive of her isolation may well be the ritual she goes through when she realizes she has been found: she makes the mark of her tribe on her face, and below it "the sign which meant I was still unmarried." Her sensitivity to animals develops gradually. She must kill some in order to survive, yet later she determines never to kill cormorants, seals, wild dogs, or sea elephants, feeling they are all potential if not actual friends. "… Animals and birds are like people, too, though they do not talk the same or do the same things. Without them the earth would be an unhappy place." With a little help from her friends, Karana copes with loneliness successfully. Her alienation becomes transformed into an experience of worth, somewhat in the manner of that of a mystic. Her journey back to society at the close is tinged with sadness because one suspects society has little to offer her; she seems to have achieved a spiritual peace that one hopes she can maintain in her new setting.
The loner of Type C, closely related to Type B, becomes alienated through the absence or failure of primary human relationships. He suffers from homelessness or from the death or absence of parents; sometimes his alienation is compounded by poverty or the accident of being born into an oppressed minority.
This type abounds in current fiction; for convenience in discussion I shall organize my characters into two sub-groups. Type C1 describes the loner who in the absence of primary human relationships turns to animals to fill an emotional need, whereas C2 seeks attachment to another human being.
Miyax-Julie of Julie of the Wolves by Jean George qualifies as a C1 loner. She becomes isolated in the Arctic wastelands when she attempts to flee from an unbearable child-marriage but misses her intended destination, San Francisco. Her experience parallels that of Karana in several ways: like Karana, Julie becomes emotionally linked to animals, in this case the wolf-pack that adopts her. But Julie's alienation has deeper roots. She despises "gussak" society, symbolized in the plane that carries the hunters that kill Amaroq, leader of the pack, Julie's surrogate father. All the ugliness of the white man's civilization—its materialism, its voracity, its deadliness and insensitivity to nature—come to her through the vision of the plane's black exhaust. Julie faces severe self-conflict when she must choose between the pure wolf society, where good and evil are clearly defined, and human society, where good and evil are inextricably and fearsomely entangled.
The conflict between cultures is reflected in Julie's dual name: she is "Julie" to the English-speaking people, "Miyax" to the Eskimoes. A symbol of her treasured Eskimo heritage is her i 'no Go tied—a house of the spirits made for her by the bent old woman, discarded by Julie in a frenzy when her Americanized friends poke fun at her for thinking a charm bracelet serves the same purpose. The plover, named "Tornait" or "bird spirit" by Julie, seems to embody the fragile Eskimo way of life. When he succumbs to death and Julie buries him, she sings her song to the spirit of Amaroq in "her best English." This is her moment of decision. She acknowledges the sad truth: "‘ … The hour of the wolf and the Eskimo is over’," and she points "her boots toward Kapugen," her Americanized father. Julie's alienation has positive value, for through it she clarifies her own values, yet her choice is in part a capitulation. She accepts reintegration into a sullied, far from satisfactory human society. This is the price she must pay to retain her humanness.
John Cotton and his group of "Bedwetters" in Swarthout's Bless the Beasts and Children share the status of outcasts; none of the others at the Box Canyon Boys' Camp will associate with them. It is their reaction to a buffalo kill that gives them a common motive and spurs them into action. They are filled with nausea at the spectacle of slaughter and determine to turn the remaining buffalo loose. The buffalo are the prime symbols in the book, reminders of the white man's guilt—of the violence he has done to "the land of Canaan into which we were led…." Again, the pattern is the familiar one: the outcast boys are sensitized to the plight of the persecuted animals. When they return to the camp after seeing the kill, they collectively avoid the others, and instead seek the company of their horses, "currying them and feeding them and talking to them and dallying until the supper gong clanged. It was as though they could not abide the company of humans." (One is reminded of Gulliver at the close of Gulliver's Travels, seeking out the company of horses in preference to that of humans.) The boys' experience of alienation is complex, intermingled with their experience of communion with one another in dedication to their anti-social act that is paradoxically superior in its motivation to the motives of the society they flout. The effects of their communal alienation are positive, for they experience a momentary vision of prelapsarian life, life as it must have been before the fall, when man lived in harmony with all creatures. Their freeing the buffalo costs John Cotton's life, and whether he is a willing martyr to the cause or not, the ending suggests his transfiguration, with a glimpse of his "red hair flaming like a torch as the truck seemed to soar and dive and disappear." The sight of Cotton soaring to his death "cracked their hearts even as it freed them, too, forever." Whether they successfully make peace with society or not seems unimportant; what matters is that they have achieved some measure of personal integration.
The main character of Donovan's Wild in the World lives alone in the New England mountains after the members of his family die one after the other. A stray dog (or wolf, he is never sure) becomes his only companion. John calls him "Son" and grows greatly attached to him. The picture of this man-dog relationship conveys the degree of John's isolation; so also does his habit of going to his dead brothers' graves and "talking" with them. He says on one occasion, "‘It's easier to talk to you now you're dead than it was when you were alive. Son taught me a lot. Human critters hold back’." A key theme in the book is the failure of human communication; for instance, the men who discover John's body, when he dies from pneumonia, think he has been killed by the dog, which they take for a wolf and try to destroy. There is nothing positive resulting from alienation here; the emphasis is on the tragedy of human isolation. An image expressing the futility of life arises out of John's strange recurring dream. He dreams that he is a boy, taken to a graveyard by his father, and walking upon the dead leaves. When he tries to read the names on the tombstones, he finds them covered with moss, indecipherable. So small is the mark of humanity on the world. The picture of human futility seems unrelieved; this is naturalism at its purest and most depressing.
A book similar in its naturalistic despair is A Wild Thing by Jean Renvoize. Morag flees from the "home" where she has been placed after being orphaned. She takes with her in her flight a newspaper clipping, a treasured photograph of a herd of deer seen against the background of a mountain and valley. To her, the picture symbolizes a land of promise, but it contains death as well, for in the corner is "the whitened skull of an old stag…." The scene arouses both joy and fear, and she searches for terrain that resembles that in the photograph. Ironically, in search of freedom, she finds a new kind of bondage, for though she had wanted independence, "to stop being in debt, to give no one the right to own her because they had fed her …," she finds she must steal in order to exist. A primary image of her loneliness is the "Mossman," a skeleton she finds in the woods, about whom she invents an elaborate fantasy, imagining he is a prince with whom she falls in love, then progressively comes to worship as an idol. Throughout the book, the author compares her frequently to an animal, and like many loners she becomes sensitive to animals and draws close to the goats she adopts when she finds them running in the wild. Morag seems "very like an animal" to the young man she rescues after an accident on the mountain. He, in exchange for her kindness, rapes her, then wins her passionate devotion, and finally abandons her, leaving her pregnant. Before he leaves, she senses his intent to withdraw and tries to share her treasures with him—a pink pearl found in a mussel, and the Mossman; he, however, is revolted by the latter and abruptly departs. She seeks human help to save her unborn child, but the village people scream at her and pursue her with guns. Horrified, she is forced to flee, and her child, arriving prematurely, is stillborn in the open air. Shortly after, Morag herself dies. The one comforting element in the ending is her dying vision: she sees the scene represented in the treasured photograph before her eyes and dies satisfied: "With total love and familiarity she unclenched her hands and entered her own land." Because of her faithfulness to her dream, the ending cannot be called hopeless; however, it is difficult to find much that is positive or hopeful in it, for Morag finds her place and her peace only through death.
A book presenting a more positive experience of alienation is Julia Cunningham's Dorp Dead. The protagonist, a ten-year-old orphan named Gilley Ground, is isolated not only by his lack of family but also by his intelligence and sensitivity. He hides his high intelligence because "it is a weapon for defense as comforting as a very sharp knife worn between the skin and the shirt." His isolation has the advantage of affording him privacy, which he sorely wants. Realistic on the surface, this novel is full of symbolic meaning. A major symbolic character is the Hunter, who appears early in the book at Gilley's tower (itself symbolic of his dreaming, aspiring nature). The mysterious Hunter carries a gun without bullets; he asks Gilley what plans he has for the future. To Gilley, the Hunter is "like an eagle whose wingspread shadows the eyes for a moment and then vanishes forever. He does not fly the same way twice." It is hard to say what the Hunter represents, but he is obviously an influence for good in Gilley's life.
When Gilley is taken to live at the house of the laddermaker, Kobalt, he is struck by its security; he also senses that Kobalt "has not created this shiny, absolute precision out of love but because it creates safety for him." Kobalt represents a stultifying, fear-based approach to life; his one book, from which he reads a set number of lines each evening, is entitled Time Patterns and How to Control Them. Kobalt's spiritless, drab-colored dog, Mash, arouses sympathy in Gilley, and he resolves "to treat him with honor. This works sometimes with orphans. I've seen it happen. They get to believe they are somebody better than just themselves." When Kobalt reveals that he has beaten Mash because "‘He is getting old. I will soon need another dog and Mash must learn to die’," and Gilley discovers Kobalt has made a cage just the size for a boy, Gilley realizes the man's murderous nature and manages to escape by using one of Kobalt's own ladders. During his climb up the ladder, Gilley focusses his eyes constantly on a star that becomes a substitute for the picture of his Grandmother he has had to leave behind. When the mad Kobalt pursues him, it is Gilley's own resolve to fight for his life, plus the sudden appearance of Mash, that saves him. Gilley's last message to Kobalt before going to live with the Hunter is the defiant "Dorp Dead" that [he] scrawls on Kobalt's door. The misspelling is symbolic of Gilley's refusal to be "the same as everyone else."
The book's symbolic texture is much richer than this short survey can indicate; however, it should be evident that Gilley succeeds in growing through his experience of alienation, that he even finds positive value in his aloneness, and that he moves beyond it into personal relatedness, first by involving himself in Mash's fate, then by responding to the Hunter's invitation to make something of his life, to shape it actively instead of trading his freedom for the deadening security offered by Kobalt.
A pattern emerges for the Type C1 loner: cut off from human relationship, he compensates by forming an emotional link with animal life, sometimes developing a hyper-sensitivity to all forms of life. This tendency to seek non-human friendship receives a lightly satirical treatment in Donovan's picture story-book, Good Old James, where the protagonist, alienated by age and homelessness, becomes attached to a fly, which he names Gwen. The point is perhaps too obvious: in a pinch, even a fly will do as a love-object, if nothing better is available.
Loners of Type C2 are very much like those of Type C1, except that they turn more directly toward humans for companionship. The boy of Ester Wier's The Loner, nameless until adopted by Boss, a woman sheepherder, is a good example. He finally wins self-integration and is granted the name David (after the Biblical David) plus acceptance into a family. This happy ending is foreshadowed early in the book when the man Tex tells him that living as a loner is "selfish," and also a needless kind of suffering: "‘There's always people who need you as much as you need them. Don't you forget that. All you got to do is find 'em’." The image most expressive of the boy's alienation is the one coined by Tex, who calls him "‘A bum lamb’." His lack of a name is also significant; early in the book, Raidy, a young girl who is the first to show him kindness (who dies tragically when her hair is caught in a digging machine), tells him "‘Even dogs have names’." David wins acceptance by Boss when he proves his proficiency as a sheepherder. It is Boss who relates to the sheep emotionally, in compensation for the death of her son Ben, a peerless shepherd who has been killed by a grizzly bear. She blames humanity for breeding "‘all the wild animals' independence and cunning out of them for his own gain, to have their meat and their wool with the least possible bother from them’." It is Ben's widow, Angie, who makes David realize he must be himself, not try to take Ben's place, to "‘be a copy of someone you never knew’."
Alienation here is viewed as an unnecessary burden, because of the possibility of finding people with a mutual need for relatedness. Since David achieves self-integration and acceptance into society, the overall impact of the book is a positive, affirmative one.
Buddy and Angela of June Jordan's His Own Where are alienated from their parents and in effect homeless. They are also socially and economically nearly powerless. Although they are black, their blackness does not seem a prime factor in their alienation; the reasons are deeper, more nearly existential. Buddy's father is "dying lonely" in a hospital, and Angela endures life with a suspicious, domineering mother and a father who beats her. There are several images that very effectively express Buddy's feelings of alienation. The first occurs where, thinking of the hospital where his father is, he imagines what the world would be like if it were one big hospital:
Buddy sure the whole city should be like a hospital and everybody taking turns to heal the people. People turning doctor, patient, nurse. Whole city asking everybody how you are, how you feel, what can I do for you, how can I help.
This dream is of course in ironic contrast to the actual situation that prevails in Buddy's world, which finds its appropriate image in the picture of an emergency room: "Buddy leaning on the wall be thinking that the whole city of his people like a all-night emergency room. People mostly suffering, uncomfortable, and waiting." The two loners, Buddy and Angela, find comfort and love together; in the final, symbolic scene, they make love in the cemetery where they have found what Buddy calls "his own where"—his "own place for loving made for making love, the cemetery where nobody guards the dead." The last line of the book, after Buddy and Angela have expressed the hope that she may be pregnant, reads thus: "And so begins a new day of the new life in the cemetery."
Alienation in this novel is painful, yet productive, because the two loners identify in their plight and are able to communicate meaningfully to shape a new life together. But in order to do so they must turn their backs upon parents and established society; their hut at the side of the cemetery becomes their new and brave little homestead in an uncaring world.
Fifteen-year-old Tink of James Fritzhand's Life is a Lonely Place is alienated from his parents and older brother, chiefly because his achievements have been constantly measured against the older brother's athletic accomplishments and found wanting. In his loneliness, Tink turns for friendship to David Hastings, a writer-in-residence at a nearby college, who has recently taken residence in a beach house. It is only to David that Tink can talk meaningfully. He tells David, "‘It's hard trying to live up to other people's expectations, especially parents!’" A jealous, bullying classmate, Rick Camero, calls Tink a "‘fairy’," an accusation that hurts less than Amy Bailey's term for him, "‘kid.’" In his loneliness, Tink draws close to Margie Blanchard, a girl about whom a rumor has been spawned, to the effect that she has had an abortion. Tink comes to appreciate her worth, despite his eventual knowledge of the truth of the rumor. The image used to express the nature of intolerance and ignorance is that of sheep.
Camero's accusations and taunts against David and Tink lead to a heated confrontation with Tink's father, Willard (Tink calls both his parents by their first names), who is finally convinced that Camero is lying, and if any doubt remains it is dissipated when David's wife, hitherto unmentioned, is belatedly brought into the story to squelch any lingering doubts of his heterosexuality.
The book is flawed, yet it expresses with considerable power the loneliness of a boy whose own family has unwittingly forced him to turn elsewhere for meaningful relationships. Tink's alienation, though painful, is an occasion for his growth, mainly because he is fortunate enough to find two people of depth—David and Margie—in his otherwise shallow world.
The heroine of Marilyn Harris' Hatter Fox is alienated in almost every way possible. She is a Navajo orphan, the victim of child-abuse, an experienced prostitute at a tender age, when she is arrested and taken to the State Reformatory for Girls outside Albuquerque. Her story is told from the viewpoint of Dr. Teague Summer, who becomes involved in her destiny and attempts to help her, going so far as to live in at the Reformatory during the period of her incarceration. Several images stand out as expressive of her situation. The first is the "dog pen" into which rebellious girls are placed until their will is broken. The dog pen fails to work on Hatter Fox, as do all the other types of treatment and therapy, with the exception of the love of Summer and Rhinehart, the obese, good-natured nurse who aids Summer's attempts to help the girl. An image symbolic of Hatter Fox's dreams of a free and beautiful life grows from her words on the mountainside, where she tells Summer she wishes they (the white people) would go away and leave nature alone, "‘let the field and sky and mountains fill the empty space until it isn't empty any longer …’." But the most striking image in the book has to do with the narrator's recognition. He insisted that Hatter Fox, now out of prison and employed, return to her place of work to retrieve her paycheck, her first; after all, he reasons, she must learn responsibility. She does not see a Greyhound bus approaching, and is run down as she rushes toward him, clutching a check for $41.28 in her hand. He reflects on his mistake, which he recognizes as springing from some deep wrong in the fabric of his world. Her alienation was of value only because Summer could help her grow beyond it, but he could not overcome the wrong in himself and the world that led to her destruction. The ending is highly ambiguous; even the one person who has loved Hatter Fox and gained her love has finally been an unwitting instrument in her death….
From such a variety of experiences, it is possible to draw few general conclusions. Of the twenty loners examined, twelve achieve some measure of reintegration, either within themselves, or into society, or both. Eight do not achieve either a new personal wholeness or acceptance into their societies: instead they die (John of Wild in the World, Morag of A Wild Thing, Dummy of Hey, Dummy, the Motorcycle Boy of Rumble Fish, and Hatter Fox) or they face very uncertain futures (Albie of An American Ghost, Chau Li of Man in the Box). The Tucks are a special case—condemned as they are to an immortality that is worse than death.
Of the characters winning a measure of reintegration, two would seem to be fully successful—Will Stanton of The Dark Is Rising and David of The Loner. Karana's case, in Island of the Blue Dolphins, is marginal: can she possibly be as happy among people of a strange culture as she was on her island among her feathered, finny, and four-footed friends? All of the others have unquestionably grown from their experiences of alienation. Yet their peace with society and in some cases with themselves seems tentative: Julie will surely miss her wolves and continue to find much of gussak society repugnant; Gilley Ground of Dorp Dead will never fit easily into any society, given his need for uniqueness; Buddy and Angela are bound to find His Own Where, their cemetery Eden, full of briars; Tink's family and Margie will never fully fill the emptiness that makes his life a lonely place; Patty Ann may or may not prove herself as a long-distance swimmer, though she has certainly grown during her summer of the German soldier; Jean of Diving for Roses may or may not find happiness with Andrew Curtin, though she seems secure within herself. The prognosis for Junior Brown is hopeful, but the survival of his planet is by no means certain, and surely Ann Burden's chances of finding what she desires on a depopulated and radioactive planet are minimal; her inner belief in her search, however, makes her quest worthwhile. John Cotton is a very special case, for although he undergoes a spectacular self-immolation, he does so happily, having experienced a moment of beatitude among the beasts and children.
Two other generalizations seem permissible. One, it appears that the human needs to love and be loved, and to venerate something above oneself, are so universal and pressing that they will find expression even in the most extreme isolation—witness Morag and her Mossman. Secondly, all of the loners considered come out of the fiery furnace of their experiences clutching the gold of some special insight, some new truth or vision, that is theirs alone. All of these books urge a reader to reconsider the old question, does suffering ennoble? A case might be made for the view that it does, if it is not so severe that it shatters the human spirit utterly. Man in the Box depicts such a shattering, making reintegration, a new wholeness, impossible, unless it be by means of a miracle.
On the basis of this study, it seems safe to conclude that alienation, as presented in contemporary young people's fiction, more often than not shows the loner as salvaging something of value from his experience. The number of those stranded on the rocks of negation is small, but still large enough to keep us from any unwarranted complacency. We have seen how an ending can be affirmative even though it is unhappy, and paradoxically, a character may win an inner victory in an apparent defeat. The important thing is, surely, that the mystery and wonder of human suffering and human endurance be preserved.
The risk of failure, of despair or madness or death, must be acknowledged; to eliminate these possible "loser's" fates for every loner would be to falsify the human condition. The failures, paradoxically, give the victories their grandeur….
Source: Millicent Lenz, "Varieties of Loneliness: Alienation in Contemporary Young People's Fiction," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 13, No. 4, Spring 1980, pp. 672-88.
John W. Conner
In the following review, Conner summarizes Bless the Beasts and the Children and categorizes it as an exciting book that may be better directed at adults than adolescents.
The misfits of Box Canyon Boys Camp become a single force in pursuit of ecological justice in this tautly written brief novel. Horrified by the slaughter of buffalo at a government-sponsored extermination site, six boys steal away from their summer camp, confiscate an old truck, and set out to free the remaining buffalo.
Each boy is a peculiar bundle of psychoses which are carefully explained in interesting if occasionally tedious flashbacks. But the boys are unified in their pursuit of justice for the buffalo. They are directed by fifteen-year-old John Cotton who needs to command as desperately as his followers need someone to command them.
The night journey from the camp to the government extermination site is an exciting one. Glendon Swarthout understands the anxiety accompanying illegal flight and carefully selects incidents and language to enhance this anxiety. Perhaps the author's most perceptive comment on man and his relationship to nature occurs when the boys finally arrive at the pens containing the buffalo. Still wanting to free the buffalo, the boys are temporarily stymied by their own fears of the mammoth bison.
I'm not at all certain that Bless the Beasts and Children is a book for adolescents. It is about adolescents, their concerns, their values. But each boy is so filled with personal doubts that he scarcely has an opportunity to react genuinely to his peers. The author gathers six diverse personalities and concentrates their activities on one major event. Theoretically, it ought to work, but it doesn't. Each boy is a psychiatric case study, interesting to observe but impossible to be concerned about.
John Cotton's death near the end of the novel releases the tension created by the government authorities' discovery of the boys in the act of releasing the buffalo. The author needed an event of this magnitude to culminate the escapade. I can appreciate the author's technical prowess, but I regret the lack of an empathic response.
Bless the Beasts and Children is an exciting adventure yarn using adolescents as major characters. It is an excellent example of literature about adolescents rather than literature for adolescents.
Source: John W. Conner, "Book Marks," in English Journal, Vol. 61, No. 1, January 1972, p. 139.
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Eisner, Michael D., Camp, Warner Books, 2005.
Former Walt Disney Company chief executive officer Eisner writes about the lessons that he learned as a young boy when he attended summer camp in Vermont, including what he learned about working as part of a team.
Falke, Terry, Observations in an Occupied Wilderness:Photographs, Chronicle Books, 2006.
Falke's volume is a collection of photographs of the American Southwest. There are brief essays by William L. Fox to accompany the photographs.
Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Childrenfrom Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, 2005.
The author, a child advocacy expert, argues in this book that children are spending too little time at play outdoors and that more time spent outdoors learning about nature would create healthier children. This book offers a number of suggestions for teaching children about nature.
McCullough, David, Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
This biography tells the story of one of America's first conservationists. As president, Roosevelt worked to pass legislation that would protect America's natural resources.
Punke, Michael, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West, Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2007.
Grinnell was an early conservationist who founded the Audubon Society. This biographical study focuses on how Grinnell became a naturalist and on his efforts to preserve the American wilderness.
Van Slyck, Abigail A., A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth,1890-1960, University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Van Slyck's book is the only thorough study of summer camps and their role in shaping American youth. The author describes camp design, including the housing and feeding of children, and also discusses how many of these camps appropriated Native American culture as part of their programs.