Reading Life 5

So I finished Patron's Higher Power of Lucky, and not surprisingly I liked it. And go figure, I wasn't thrown off by the first mention of the word scrotum, nor by the second mention of it a couple of pages later. I was, however, thrown by the third mention of it, there near the end of the book, not because it's a term offensive in a sexual sense, but because I’m reading as a writer and as teacher of literature and writing. I fully understand that our hero, Lucky, is word-curious, and so if it was a recurring thing with her, that is, to look into the word again and again in an attempt to discover for herself its meaning, its nature, then I'd buy its final use (would that she would have instead heard Short Sammy use the word 'father,' 'cremated,' 'cremation,' 'remains,' or 'urn,' words that she does deal with over and over throughout the story, words that she's very curious about, words that carry both scientific and spiritual weight with her (she even calls herself a scientist and "a girl-speck looking for her Higher Power" (127))). As it is written, I would have to point this seeming weakness to a group of middle schoolers or college level folks. It makes no sense whatsoever to bring it up twice right at the beginning and then never again until the very end. The question, "Brigitte, what is a scrotum?" comes out of nowhere. I wasn't prepared for it. (I don’t mean that I wasn’t ready for it, I mean the author didn’t prepare me for it to resurface and to do so in this context.) And worse, Brigitte's answer is too clinical, almost as though she'd been preparing to answer this very question throughout the novel. And worse than that, Brigitte's next comment leaves me baffled: "You know if anyone ever hurt you I would rip their heart out." Lucky, or the narrator, says right prior to this, "For some reason," and the reason isn't even implied. If someone had indeed tried to hurt Lucky in any way, shape, or form at any time during the story, then the comment would be justified; as it is, I don't buy it. Another weakness, if you'll allow me (then I swear I'm going to praise the fire out of the book! and even recommend that the book not be banned anywhere): the story takes too long to get started. It's not until around page 40 that we are finally clued into what Lucky's desire is: to not lose Brigitte as her Guardian, and she becomes more than a ultra-witty character, she becomes sympathetic when we find that she has lost her mother and has no idea who her father is. If kids choose not to finish this book, it will most likely be for this reason.
So, it falls on our shoulders as teachers and librarians to encourage our young readers to keep going. Insist that it is part of the book's thematic and symbological structure. An overriding theme or image is that of threads tied into to knots, but not just any knots: like the "Ten-Strand Round Knot" Lincoln gives to Lucky one day, this book comes together beautifully: it is "a piece of jewelry, intricate and beautiful" (67). The knot, the work of art, doesn't become such when it is a bunch of individual strings; not until Lincoln (read Patron) begins to tie all these loose threads (read seemingly disjointed bits and pieces of narrative for those first 40 pages) together do we get this work of art, this award-winning novel. Booktalk it that way: admit upfront that there is cause for this apparent weakness, this disjointedness, this rambling at the outset of the novel; if our students know in advance that it is part of the author's intention to put a book together in this way, they will likely give you, and it, the benefit of the doubt. Like Jim Trelease kind of says in his The Read-Aloud Handbook, sometimes we, the educators, are the only ones reading aloud to them, or talking to them about books. Ours shouldn’t be simply to put books in their hands, not even the right books in their hands, but to talk these books up, to give students the language with which to speak about literature themselves. I would also have to mention the other weaknesses addressed above (not the just the word scrotum but the other flaws), not in order to get them to giggle or to blush or whatever, but to get them to start talking about books like readers, and maybe, dare I say, writers (but really, who needs the competition, right?). I'd compare this book to Steinbeck's Cannery Row for its wit, its meandering style. Short Sammy and the other 12ers would fit perfectly with the guys of the Palace Flophouse and Grill (excuse me if I got this reference wrong; it’s been so long that I’ve read it and don’t have a copy in fro). Both books, if you're not careful as a reader, appear to be about nothing, but they are both about huge events in people's lives. I'd say to students that sections of Patron’s writing are pure poetry, the language so beautiful, etc.
As to the censorship issues surrounding this book: Instead of using the same old same old (and tired) argument: Don't censor, you bunch of right-wingers/evangelicals/conservatives (I am a Christian and a social conservative myself, by the way); it's her right and the readers' to use the language and to read it; this word is tame versus what kids say on an everyday basis; you're violating my freedom of speech, or Patron's; it's a scientific term (in the case of this book, this argument doesn't hold water, in my opinion, because even though it is clinical, the word in the book refers to a dog's genitalia, not a boy's), etc.; we should, because we are all intelligent folk, those of us concerned with our young people's love for literature and their success and well-being, we should use the book itself to prove its own worthiness. We all know these people who will skim until they find "that" ugly word, or base their opinion on what they foolishly read in a silly rag like the NYT, or hear another skimmer talk about; but why aren't we informing them? Parents won't read the books necessarily; so we need to booktalk literature to them also. They're part of the community as well. Reach them, we reach the intended audience. But know this, that there are a great many very intelligent parents out there who are on the conservative side who will not only ban the book but burn it if we make it an "us versus them" thing. We are not ignorant, those of us who would rather our children not be exposed to stuff in certain settings/contexts/ways; I, as a parent, will not give up my right to talk to my sons about sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. I will do it, in my own way, in what I feel is the right time.

A slightly different version of this review first appeared on middle_school_lit@yahoogroups.com on 21 February 2007.

1 comment:

Undomestic said...

I agree with you that the 3rd mention of it seemed very awkward, and Brigitte's response didn't seem to make sense either. Although I enjoyed the book, I felt the end was very rushed.