Scene: Lazy afternoon in our family room around my freshman year of high school. I am sprawled all over the couch reading a book. My mom walks in.
Mom: Missy, I need you to…Missy? Missy! [I finally look up.] What are you reading?
Me: The Handmaid’s Tale
Mom: What’s it about?
Me: It’s really crazy – an accident happens, and some women can’t have children anymore, and so the government decides to force the women that can have children to have children for the women who can’t. The government thinks this is OK because of the part of the Bible where Rachel gives Jacob her handmaid so he can have kids. That’s just wrong.
Mom: That’s awful. I need you to gather up your dirty laundry if you want it washed.
Me [whines]: Now?
And that was that.* It was also my introduction to Margaret Atwood. I was in Biology one day and one of the seniors (who for whatever silly reason had not taken the science GER previously) had a copy of a book with a woman in a red robe and white headdress on the cover sitting on the lab desk. I asked what it was – The Handmaid’s Tale – and was then told that it “sucked” and was “really hard to read” and was for “English”. Bonus, guess that means I’ll like it, so I borrowed my first Margaret Atwood novel from the school library and snarfed it down.
I loved it. LOVED. IT. What utter crap, that some skeezy government officials can come along and kidnap you and force you to have sex with some guy that you don’t even like just so he can have a kid and YOU CAN’T EVEN READ!!!! THEY TOOK AWAY BOOKS!!! I think I’d have tried to escape to Canada, too. And, wait, all these guys can go to a brothel??? Arrrgghhh. I bet you can guess that I was already into women’s rights even if I didn’t formally know that it was called “feminism”.
The Handmaid’s Tale was on a the reading list for one of my English classes later on (I can’t remember if it was BritLit or APLit) and, even though I chose another book as my “official” assignment, I read Atwood’s dystopic novel again. By this time sexual harrassment, feminism, and abortion rights had come into play in my vocabulary and I understood how tenuous at times are the rights of a woman to her own body. How a boy is “cool” for sleeping around but a girl is a “slut” for even thinking about having sex, how a girl who gets pregnant is extremely visible at school but the guy who got her that way can just slip into the background. It all played into the fundamentalist atmosphere of the novel.
Although an extreme form, The Handmaid’s Tale says “This is what happens when you take away a woman’s right to govern her own body.” The book also comes down hard on totalitarianism/fundamental religion. It’s depressing as hell, too, because the reader is left wondering Offred’s fate when the book ends – did she escape with Mayday or did the Eyes get rid of her? Is she pregnant and is the baby OK? How did the tapes survive?
Even though The Handmaid’s Tale dropped from 37 to 88 on the ALA’s challenge lists by decade, it still pushes buttons. A recent challenge in Toronto objected to the language, sexual violence, and “anti-Christian” attitude. When I talk about banned or challenged books, I usually talk about “truth” because a book portrays the “truth” of a situation. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, this is a dystopian novel, not a realistic novel or memoir, and instead of a “truth” it presents a “what-if” – Atwood uses the metaphor of a frog in boiling water to illustrate her point about gradual change. One must be aware of gradual changes, how they can chip away at freedom. Women need to be vigilant or agency over one’s body can be compromised – be it from a government agency or otherwise.
*Not exactly what happened, but pretty darn close.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a hard book for me to read when I was a teenager. Not vocabulary-wise, but understanding-wise. I am about as opposite from Maya Angelou as you can get – white, middle-class, privileged, two loving parents, a happy and uneventful childhood in Iowa – and it took a huge mental adjustment just to visualize her childhood and the events she describes in her memoir. I have to confess I that I thought it was a novel at first; I was so unbelievably naive. How could people act like that? Hate someone just because of skin color or hurt a little girl? Then I started putting together all sorts of other information that I’d learned in school and read in books….yes, Maya Angelou’s story was real, as real as my own, and holy crap.
Slowly, I started to find bits that connected me with the little girl and teenager of Dr. Angelou’s memoir. She loved to read, so did I. We were both dancers and liked the stage. Even though horrible things happened to her as a child (and I later learned that she had a very hard time of it for quite a while, working through poverty to raise her son), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells one woman’s story of how she gained courage and tried to overcome her past. For those who have read Laure Halse Anderson’s Speak, the protagonist Melinda Scordino becomes as selective-mute after her assault; Dr. Angelou tells of her fear of speaking after her attacker is found beaten to death, that she felt her voice caused the man’s demise. Both the fictional Melinda and the real Maya learn to find their voices.
I no longer remember how I happened to be reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; I know it was my personal copy, not borrowed from the library, and I was just reading it for fun. My mother is a huge reader of biographies, we had shelves stuffed full of bios and memoirs, so reading a memoir “for fun” and not “for school” was pretty normal at my house. I also suspect my mother had already read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, although I’ve never asked her, so she knew what I was getting into. I really think that was her way of introducing me to a situation that we just didn’t experience ever in Iowa, so that I could begin to understand racism as a concept and understand how treating somone as less-than-a-person on the basis of skin color is absolutely ridiculous. African-American History Month was always celebrated in school but we never got into the gritty, dirty parts of history.
It’s the gritty bits that get people up in arms. The book covers all manner of “hot-button” subjects: racism, sexism, sexual violence, child abuse, heterosexual sex, homosexual sex/confusion over sexual orientation, teen pregnancy, and “vulgar” language, to name a few. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the third most challenged book of 1990-1999 and the sixth most challenged 2000-2009 according to the ALA so people are getting their knickers in a twist all over the place. It’s like failing to see the forest for the trees. Y’all want to stick your head in the sand and act like it’s going to traumatize teens (and I’m talking an average of twelve and up here, the actual structure of the writing is too complex for younger kids), then you go ahead, stick your head in the sand and pretend that nothing bad ever happened to anyone. But then you miss the truth – and the beauty of Dr. Angelou’s writing. She is a true storyteller – she sings loud and clear. Dr. Angelou is an inspiring woman. Young men and women need inspiration.
If there ever was, or will be, a writer forever beloved by tweens and teens everywhere…it will be Judy Blume.
Just look at her books! Who else writes about how to be loved for yourself, not just your looks? Or how to stand up for yourself, even if that means going against the crowd? Freckles? Dealing with pesky – and I mean pesky – little brothers (I have two)? Finding someone as goofily creative as myself? Trying to grow into your own body then learning how to be a grown up in that body? The books are funny, and Judy tells great stories, but there’s always a little bit of a lesson in there (even if the lesson is that your kid brother will always be a pest so you’d better love him for it because you can’t get rid of him).
I read the Fudge books in grade school (the first three – the last two came after I was in middle school) and had graduated to Blubber by around age nine. I read that book a lot. I had a secret wish to be one of the “cool kids” – even in fourth grade there are “cool kids”, then everyone else, then the losers – and Jill Brenner was friends with the Queen Bee, Wendy, the one who decided that Linda, the overweight girl, looked like the whale she was presenting about. The whole class gots in on it and bullied Linda in increasingly terrifying ways. I got teased a lot in grade school and middle school and I would have given almost anything to be cool. My copy of Blubber had a frumpy-looking girl on the cover who resembled me in a scary way; I was growing my hair out and I looked super-frumpy and old-fashioned in my barrettes while everyone else looked like permed Madonnas and Cyndi Laupers. However, everytime I read the book, I always cheered when Jill stands up to Wendy and protects Linda at the cost of her own “coolness” – I understood what Linda went through and always wished someone would stand up for me (I solved it by standing up for myself). I hoped that if I were in the same situation as Jill, I would stand up sooner rather than later.
Shortly after Blubber I received a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret as a gift from my parents. That’s right – my parents. It was a lovely edition, a blue hardcover with a yellow dust-jacket, and I read it and read it and read it. The “this is your body on hormones” talk all the girls got in fourth grade only covered anatomical changes and never prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster that comes when your pituitary gland flips all the switches. My copy of Margaret served as my touchbase whenever I started to doubt whether all this crazy stuff (odor, mean girls, rumors about slutty girls, having breasts/your period vs. not having breasts/your period, shopping for a bra with your mom, deciding what you think about God, etc) happened to other people and not just me. I was lucky in that I didn’t grow breasts until almost junior high, unlucky in that, when I did, they went from flat to eye-catching in a blink. I also talked to God in my head, which I never mentioned to anyone in case they thought I was nuts; people prayed in church but never mentioned having a one-on-one relationship with Him. The keel evened out after a few years but I always looked to Margaret when I needed a boost and wasn’t at the level of sobbing to my mom about the unfairness that is teenagehood.
Meanwhile, I had read a book, kind of a naughty book for a ten-year-old at least – Forever…. My parents didn’t buy this one for me; I borrowed it off a friend who “borrowed” it from an older sister. I think my eyes were as big as saucers when I read about Katherine and Michael and….what the heck are they doing together? I was pretty up on the anatomy of the human body but I wasn’t quite sure what all you did with it. With a boy…oh my. I think if my mother had caught me with it I would have probably gotten an “is-there-anything-we-need-to-discuss” and an “I-think-you-need-to-wait-to-read-this” set of lectures but that would have been it. As it was, a book that talked about blow-jobs and first-time sex, while fascinating, was actually kind of icky because boys my age were smelly, knuckle-dragging apes…no way did I want to be around any of them. For any length of time. With no clothes on…yuck. When I did come back to Forever…, this time a copy legitimately borrowed from the library, I had graduated from “boys are icky” to “boys are OK but they have commitment issues”. My reaction to Katherine and Michael this time around was one of “oh no, they’re not going to stay together??????” – because your first real boyfriend is the one that will last “forever”…and then it doesn’t. I thought my first boyfriend was “the one” and then he turned out to be a cheating turd (I didn’t date again until college); Forever… helped me finally understand why there is an ellipsis in the title.
I’ve read almost everything written by Judy Blume and owe her a great debt of gratitude for writing about tweens and teens and reality in a way that is truthful and accessible.
Unfortunately, there are many people who just don’t agree with me. They want to censor Judy’s books. They don’t think that middle school girls should understand what is happening to their bodies or that high school students will do silly things like have oral sex because they think they love their boyfriend (or, these days, have oral sex “just for fun”). Tweens and teens are far ahead of the curve anymore and a parent or educator who just sticks their head in the sand and worries more about what kids are reading than actual reality needs a wake-up call. Judy writes eloquently about her experiences with censorship and book-banning, as well as cases of educators and writers caught in similar situations, in the introduction to Places I Never Meant to Be.
Instead of banning and challenging Judy’s books – because they talk about God, or sex, or masturbation, or divorce – use those books to open up communication. READ THE BOOKS, don’t make a snap judgement. Kids need access to Judy’s books; keep them accessible.
I should have titled this post “A Love Letter to Judy Blume” – but the post really isn’t addressed to Judy (although, I hope she reads it because I love her books). It’s addressed to all those people who want to keep other children and teens from reading her books because those parents/educators/whoever object to their own child reading Judy Blume. You parent your own children, I’ll parent mine (whenever I acquire some, I’ll settle for my nieces for now).
This is the book that set me in the war-is-so-not-worth-it camp.
When my class entered ninth grade, the high school decided to create a course for Talented and Gifted (TAG) students that would combine the English and history curricula. “Humanities” combined ninth and tenth grade English and “American Cultures” (aka US History, post-Civil War, aka “9th grade history”) into a two class-period, one academic year long course. I was invited to take the class and, hellz yes, I would be MORE THAN HAPPY to combine three classes into one big one; I was thirteen and thought I was pretty hot stuff if I got to play in the smart kids’ sandbox. We read all sorts of books for that class – Sister Carrie, Maggie: Girl of the Streets, The Jungle, The Great Gatsby – as the time periods we studied moved from Reconstruction, to Industrialization, to the Gilded Age, then World War I and the aftermath.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo was assigned after The Great Gatsby – although Trumbo’s novel was published in 1939, we read Johnny in conjunction with the rise of the Jazz Age since it is set during/immediately after World War I. Johnny takes its title from a popular recruiting slogan used by the US military and incorporated into popular songs. The narrator is Joe Bonham, an injured World War I soldier, who wakes to find that he can no longer see, hear, taste, or feel anything but doesn’t know where he is or how he got wherever he is at currently. We are trapped in Joe’s head with him as he slowly recovers his memory and realizes that he has survived the blast from an artillery shell but is left completely disfigured, with no face, no arms, no legs, no senses. However, he is neurologically intact. As he struggles to try and communicate with his caregivers, Joe flashes back to life with his parents and girlfriend before the war. Ultimately, Joe wishes to become a symbol for the horrors of war, a reminder of the human cost and sacrifice made by the average man. Joe’s desire is never fulfilled.
It is safe to say that this book blew my little teenage, John-Wayne-movie-watching mind.
I was a freshman in 1992-1993. The US was ending the first Gulf War – Operation Desert Storm. In junior high, we were asked to write to US servicemen (and it was servicemen, no mention of servicewomen) to help support them – I have no idea anymore what that program was called, it just happened – and a few kids got letters back (I didn’t – what does a twelve year old female nerd and dancer have to say to an adult male about to get into a tank in the middle of a desert? Not much, I can tell you, that would make the adult male want to start a pen-pal relationship without feeling like a skeeze). We had Channel One (raise your hand if you remember Channel One) and it occasionally had news shots of Desert Storm. Nothing too scary. I watched a lot of John Wayne movies; war isn’t very scary there, either (I hadn’t yet seen Born on the Fourth of July, Patton, The Deer Hunter, or Full Metal Jacket). Also around this time, I developed a knee problem and I trawled through the medical section of the public library looking for information about knees; I found a book of surgical procedures that had pictures of traumatic wounds and not just any wounds, historical photographs from bombing victims in World War I undergoing cosmetic reconstruction. Oh my God.
Johnny Got His Gun captured my imagination. What would it be like to suddenly be trapped in your own body (this was before I’d ever heard of “locked-in syndrome”)? To be an object of revulsion, to be entirely at the mercy of the world for food, for care, for everything? To be horribly and painfully injured because you did your “patriotic duty” and no one told you this might happen? You would look like those pictures and worse. Would anyone truly tell your story as you would want it to be told? As my humanities class continued forward in history I thought “What about other wars?” World War II – I looked for pictures of victims of the atomic bombs, of soldiers who died in Pearl Harbor. Korea – I found information about the advances in mobile surgical hospitals (MASH units – oddly enough, I loved M*A*S*H as a TV show, but never thought of the reality before). Vietnam – I saw pictures of monks immolating themselves, legless US servicemen, I watched Born on the Fourth of July and The Deer Hunter. I didn’t become a fervent anti-war protester but I did start to realize that there are many, many other things to think about than just a date and the winner of the war. There ought to be an honest accounting.
Johnny Got His Gun was awarded the National Book Award in 1940. Although the novel itself was not initially divisive, Trumbo himself was. Trumbo was aligned with the Communist Party in the US throughout World War II and eventually formally joined the Party in the 1940s. When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Trumbo and his publishers suspended reprinting of Johnny Got His Gun because Trumbo feared the subject was inappropriate for the time period; inquiries sent to Trumbo (many concerned that his book was suppressed by “fill in the blank”) were turned over to the FBI. In a rather nasty turn of events, the FBI came to investigate Trumbo himself because of his Communist sympathies. In 1947 Trumbo was one of those called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as an unfriendly witness. Trumbo refused to testify, was convicted of contempt of court, and was blacklisted in Hollywood (Trumbo covers his decision to suspend printing of Johnny in his introduction to the book, last updated in 1970 with an statistical accounting of war injuries).
The challenge history for Johnny is not extensive – I can really only find one dated to 1977 in Michigan where it was challenged for being profane, graphic, un-patriotic, and un-American. I really don’t remember anything that graphic and, FYI, the truth is not un-American. These days, I find that I want to get Johnny Got His Gun in front of more people. It is such a relevant book because the US, once again, is at war and members of the US Armed Forces are coming home with severe injuries. Or not at all. Patriotism is not just about waving flags and sending care packages to the troops; it also includes a recognition that men and women are dying and horribly injured in a time of war and the severely injured can become marginalized. All the flag-waving in the world won’t cover that up.
Johnny Got His Gun lets the reader understand what it might be like to spend the rest of your life trapped inside your head, all because you “did your patriotic duty” and served in the military. It’s a sobering thought.
This week I will be celebrating Banned Books Week on Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books. Each day this week I will (or will attempt to, schedule willing) feature one banned or challenged book; these are books that I read and either love dearly or respect for the message the author provided within the pages.
Get ready to find out why I “THINK FOR MYSELF”!
Until Sofi Oksanen’s Purge was put forth as a Literature by Women selection, I had always assumed the novel was about eating disorders or something like that. The US edition has a woman in an apron and kerchief (the cover cuts her off just below the eyes) standing before a table and a lump of dough. So, food and not eating/purging oneself of food. Well, not so. Purge tells the story of the elderly Aliide Truu, an Estonian woman, and Zara, a Russian girl Aliide finds sleeping in her front garden. Both women have mysterious pasts, both have something to share and something to hide.
Purge is a critically-acclaimed novel in Finland and Scandinavia, winning major literary prizes and making Oksanen one of the youngest acclaimed writers in the region. Rather than tell the story from beginning to end as an omniscient narrator, Oksanen uses an alternating narrative to move the book forward, switching points-of-view between Aliide – distrustful of strangers after the horrors of World War II and the Soviet occupation – and Zara – distrustful of nearly everyone after a disastrous “new start” in Western Europe – to tell a story about human trafficking in “civilized” modern Europe. As the story unfolds, and each woman thinks of her past, only the reader is aware of Aliide and Zara’s shared history. However, the reader can never be sure how much each woman has realized she knows about the other. After a heart-stopping climax, the reader is left with more questions than answers.
*Sorry for the brief review – I’m trying to catch the back-log as quickly as I can.
Bruce Marchart’s The Wake of Forgiveness is the September First Look selection at Barnes and Noble Book Clubs. This is Marchart’s first novel; set among the Czech settlers who are determined to bend the tough Texas ground to their will, The Wake of Forgiveness evokes comparions with Ken Haruf and Cormac McCarthy. The story follows Karel, the youngest of four motherless brothers who all share the same acquired trait: their necks are deformed, kinked out to one side, from pulling their father’s plow as a team.
The reader sees Karel as an infant, a man, and a young boy as the narrative moves between time periods. His mother dies during his birth and he is nursed by a neighbor. Karel is a talented horse-rider but his father takes away that pleasure when he loses a race, tying his family’s future to that of the mysterious Villasenor. He is a successful farmer and dutiful father and husband but is far from ideal. He makes a very serious error in judgement that brings tensions between Karel and his brothers to a head. Karel is most definitely a flawed human being, as is every other character in the novel, and it makes him a more compelling central character as he changes over the course of the novel.
The ideas of forgiveness and family are at the heart of this novel. How should we act when we should forgive? How does one act when one refuses to forgive? Should we hold somene accountable for an event that was beyond his or her control? Where should one place blame? How do you define your family relative to the woman who gave birth to you or to the woman who nursed you?
The Wake of Forgiveness is a very atmospheric novel. The heat of a dance hall, the smell of a barn, the steam rising from a horse in the rain. The settings are very tangible but not over-described. I found it very hard to put this book down because I could never find a very good place to stop reading. Do I choose the chapter break when Villasenor and his daughters first appear? How about the chapter from the hawk’s perspective? The scene in the barn after the dance hall or the horse race? The morning after the twins’ rampage? No chapter ever had a “cliff-hanger” but the story flowed so well, even between sections from different time periods, that I really just wanted to see what happened next..and next…and next…and then the book was done.
The Wake of Forgiveness will be available in hardcover and ebook in late October.