In this third in a series of posts about the state of book-rooms in today’s high school English departments, I want to talk about some books that might be good to bring into grade eleven and twelve English classes. I’ll say in advance that I have nothing against Brave New World, 1984, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, or any of the novels that are moldering on the shelves right now. In fact, of the five I just mentioned, I strongly admire four. My point, as before, is that it’s time for the current generation of teachers to show the same courage, vision and original thinking as their predecessors did a couple of generations ago when those books were first bought.
All I want to do is open up a discussion about how we can do that, so I’m holding up a few of what I consider to be good books and seeing what others might suggest. In this post I’m operating on the principle that the upper grades should be devoted less to single-issue books and more to bigger, wider novels. With that in mind, here, in no order, are some ideas.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is a deeply sad and beautiful novel. It takes place over more than two decades of troubles in the author’s native Afghanistan, and while it certainly gave this ignorant westerner a sobering crash-course in that country’s travails, it should in no way be considered a simple polemic about the evils of the Taliban or the folly of trying to change the world by military force. While the novel illuminates such issues, its heart is a story of selfishness and betrayal, of the curse of guilt that can follow the betrayer anywhere in the world, and of the possibility of redemption. Hosseini is everything you’d want a writer to be: a great storyteller, a skilled observer of humanity, a chooser of just the right details, and a wise illuminator of the human condition. To put it another way: I LOVE this novel.
It is, however, worth noting that anyone wishing to bring this into a class may face opposition. There is a scene of rape and there are direct references to more rapes. There is swearing. My technique when I bring something this controversial into a senior class is to begin by asking the students who should decide what they read in a senior high school English class. Should it be their parents? Almost universally, they say no. I ask them if they should read only safe books, those with no swearing, no terrible events, none of the horrible stuff that happens in the real world. By the time I’m handing out the books, they’re always on-side.
Speaking of bleak and grim… Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is another book that made me cry. I went into it with some doubts. As a life-long avid reader of science fiction, I often look with a jaundiced eye when so-called “literary” writers decide to play with the themes and memes of genre fiction. It’s not that I’m saying that some areas of the playground should be off-limits to some writers; it’s just that sometimes writers unfamiliar with a certain genre enter it with the sense that they are being innovative when all they are doing is re-telling stories that others pioneered. (Yes, P.D. James, I’m looking at you.)
McCarthy does none of that in this bleak, stripped-down yet stylized story of an unnamed man and boy trying to get southward to safety in a post-apocalyptic America. He sidesteps genre conventions by never stating outright what factor or factors cause the end of the world; that’s some years past, and not worth worrying about anymore. Suffice it to say that the world is far enough gone that cannibalism is no longer that shocking. What makes this story work is the character of the man, who often finds his love and desire to protect his son in conflict with his desire to be a role model of good character and a representative of the almost-extinguished light of civilization. The story is simple, but through prose that is at once crystal clear and deeply complex, McCarthy makes it new and important. Speaking of that prose, this is a great one for interesting vocabulary. The novel alternates between simple, clear diction and words either Shakespeareanly coined or culled from very old sources. It’s always just the right word, however. Salitter, scrim, canebrake, parsible. These are crunchy words indeed.
My goal in this post is to stick to books published in the last twenty years, so I have had to leave out Alice Walker’s superb The Color Purple, but I can allow myself another one of her greats, Possessing the Secret of Joy. This is the story of Tashi, a peripheral character in the earlier novel, who now takes centre stage as she submits to and then suffers from the horror of genital mutilation. The novel isn’t a simple victim tale, however. Tashi tells her story with wit and wisdom, and as sad as much of the novel is, it’s also inspiring. Tashi movingly makes the argument that the secret of joy referenced in the title is resistance to oppression and injustice, so this book would fit in well with any unit about social justice issues. (Also: The Colour Purple is great, even though it’s eight years too old to make it into this post.)
Okay, full disclosure: Chris Barzak is a friend. It’s probably partly for that reason that I haven’t yet even tried bringing his One For Sorrow to a class — conflict of interests and all. The other reason is that the graphic nature of the sex (not really actually all that much…) might not survive a challenge. However, my wife got away with Snow Falling on Cedars, and there are a couple of graphic bits in there, so maybe…
But on to the book. Barzak’s One For Sorrow is, for me, a kind of combination of Salingerian (is that even a word) angst and alienation with Bradburyesque wonder, magic and ghostiness (now I’m definitely just making them up). The novel concerns unhappy teenager Adam McCormick who is able to talk with the ghost of a murdered classmate, and who, unhappy at school and with his family, eventually runs away with the ghost and is tempted to join him in the afterlife. The elements of the fantastic in the novel feel just as tangible as the details of Adam’s family life. Though the book has a poetic, elegiac quality to it, Barzak doesn’t let his well-tuned prose take over from his believable characters and their well-drawn setting. If a teacher was inspired by someone who had the courage to get Catcher in the Rye inside classrooms forty years ago, then this would be the way to be a similar kind of trailblazer. The book is hip, contemporary, touching, poetic and damn good. Barzak’s also a really nice guy, and that doesn’t hurt. But don’t tell him I said so.
Susan Palwick’s Flying in Place is the shortest, and at nineteen years, the oldest book on this non-list. It’s also absorbing and moving. You couldn’t construct any kind of long unit around it since some of your students would read its less than two hundred pages in one sitting, but it’s beyond great and so deserves mention. Like Barzak’s book above, it’s a ghost story, in this case the story of twelve-year-old Emma Gray who is contacted by the spirit of her older sister Ginny. Emma eventually learns that she is not the only one who has suffered her father’s secret nocturnal visits, but she finds that she will have to take action if things are ever to change. Again, from my brief description, this may sound like another issue book, but Palwick gets Emma’s voice so perfectly and treats both the fantastical and the realistic aspects of her experience with equal weight, so that the book is much, much more than an essay about the evils of sexual abuse.
Like the others, this post has gone on long, so I’ll stop here. All of the books I’ve mentioned are ones I love and would enjoy or have enjoyed bringing to students. Again, I’ll say that I’ve got nothing against the old books, and I do think that one of the most important ingredients in the English classroom is the teacher’s excitement about the literature. As a department head, I don’t think I ever said no to a book that a teacher really wanted to get a class set of, even if it wasn’t one that I personally would have chosen. I just think that we have to remember that one of our big goals is to inspire life-long learners and life-long readers, and one way to do that is to keep our reading lists fresh and contemporary.