Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ten Dangerous Books for Boys, or, how to scandalize the Politically Correct reading establishment

It is now well-recognized that boys are not reading. What is the problem? Most commentators want to say that boys have an aversion to books. But the problem is quite the opposite: books have an aversion to boys. The New York Times Sunday Book Review's new edition features an article which attempts to address this problem. Here is the proffered solution:
[B]oys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers. 

Excuse me while I dab my eyes delicately with my hankerchief, touched as I am by this tender thought.

Okay, let's get something straight here: solution's like this are part of the problem. I'm normally against shooting spitwads in class, but I will make an exception in this one case. The entire educational establishment has tried for about 50 years to force boys into their effeminate mold. They've succeeded in evacuating literature of all the things that boys like in books: danger, bloodletting--and an iron moral code that is not preached at them in some smarmy way, but assumed in the moral universe of the book by the heroic characters, who not only believe it, but enforce it with a vengeance.

Boys have had to seek their pleasure in cheesy horror novels because the wimpy Cultural Authorities won't give them the adventure books that were once staples in every boy's life.

Of course, what writers like this really mean by "pricking their dormant empathy" is producing books about contemporary boys just like they perceive their prospective readers to be who are alienated, cynical, and disinterested. Exposing them to boys who are just like them, we are given to believe, will have some kind of therapeutic effect, the exact nature of which is never actually explained.

The thought that they should be exposed to heroic characters who represent an ideal that should be imitated has yet to cross their minds. And then they wonder why boys are interested.

This is supposed to work with girls, who unaccountably read authors like Judy Blume, an author, one writer has remarked, has been popular with many girls because she is "the only adult who didn't lie to them." But if you scratch the surface of such platitudes, what you discover is that being "honest" with children involves telling them lies, such as that we live in a basically amoral universe. Girls buy these books, of course, because girls do what they are told.

Boys, on the other hand, who have their own innate sense of justice, will have no part of this.  They are not interested in  getting in touch with themselves and others. The minute the politically correct schoolmarms approach, they head for the woods, where they are allowed to pick up sticks and pretend they are swords and fight monsters and hunt frogs and swing from trees--anything but be preached to by people whose sermons consist of politically correct twaddle.

The liberals have a routine: They produce books that spout the establishment agenda, but are so bad that they provoke opposition here and there in isolated places, the vast majority of which has no practical effect because most people just don't care. But it allows them to appear as if they are braving real dangers when, in fact, the worst thing that could happen to them is to break their fingernails on their keyboards as they write about how brave they are.

I'm not against letting these people portray themselves as brave, so long as they experience some actual pain, the perpetration of which I am not at all opposed.

Here are some books that predate the Conspiracy Against Boys. They are examples of a genre of books once deemed by Digby Anderson as "blood and morality" books. They're the books boys want but that the Reading Establishment frowns upon--because they don't lie. 

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Am I embarrassed by the fact that the first book on my list of books for boys is by a woman? You bet I am. So why did I do it? There is a story about the battle of Salamis in which Xerxes proclaims, as he sits on a promontory watching the battle in which the Greek ships, some commanded by women, are defeating his forces, proclaims, "Their women fight like men, and our men fight like women." While many contemporary men write like women, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes like a man. She  was not primarily concerned with changing boys into the docile beings that women think they want in the way of men (but, when they finally see the actual results, are horrified). She portrayed boys as they really are: squirming, fighting, eating, mischievous, frequently lazy, often distracted, sometimes unconsciously cruel, but always lovable--not despite these things, but because of them. Writing of her husband's childhood, Wilder gives you a portrayal of boyhood in the mid-19th century, long before anyone thought that boys ought to be more like girls. The literary critic Mark Van Doren once said that a poet "is a namer, not a describer"--which is just another way of saying that adjectives are for sissies. Wilder (with a masculine penchant for nouns and verbs), produced pure poetry as she writes about her husband's childhood, simply telling what Almanzo did, where he did it, and what it was like, and who he did it with. She told (as we recount here the many things you can do with nouns) when, where and how he did it, how much of it he did, what was done to him--and what he had. Oh, and the dude can eat. Practically every chapter features Almanzo consuming mass quantities of his mother's home cooked food. In one of the other books in this series, he eats 21 pancakes in one sitting. Check it  out.

Call it Courage, by Armstrong Sperry. I submit that every boy be required to kill a large white shark with a knife as well as a charging wild boar to prove his manhood. That at least is what Mafatu has to do to prove his in this short but fabulous book about a Polynesian boy who is afraid of the sea after his mother dies, but who leaves in one of the village canoes, ends up on a deserted desert island, and in addition to killing wild beasts, has to deal with the threat of cannibals. It just doesn't get any better than this. He returns to his village with a necklace of sharks' teeth and boar tusks and they realize he has become a man. I told my boys when they were younger about the traditional Cothran rite of initiation into manhood, which involved tying them down on a hill of fire ants for 24 hours (just like the Indians), but, unfortunately, they were already too inured to my somewhat warped sense of humor by that time to take me seriously. They also pointed out that there are no fire ants in Kentucky and that no Cothran had ever actually had to do this. Obstacles that could be overcome, I argued, but to no avail. Every time I hear they need a book to read, I go get a copy of this book and give it to them, at which point they remind me that they have read it before and that, anyway, this is the tenth time I have tried to hand them this same book. Too many times, fathers are simply unappreciated.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson. This is the book that Henry Fonda's crotchety character in On Golden Pond makes his grandson read when he (the boy who has been too long under the influence of the effeminacies of the city) comes for a visit. Stevenson was a great writer. Period. Jim Hawkins' widowed mother runs the Admiral Benbow. One day, Billy Bones, who, it turns out, has a treasure map sought by a bevy of less than savory pirates, shows up at the inn. Once the pirates are dispatched by several certified males who come to help, the adventure begins as they go hunting for the treasure, whose location is indicated by the map. There is gold, skulls and crossbones, rum, and "yo, ho, ho"s--all the necessary elements of a respectable pirate story. Jim becomes a man in the process. It is a book that will scandalize your local women's studies professor--which is just one of the very good reasons for reading it. All of Stevenson's books are good. Boys may also enjoy his Twice Told Tales.

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, by Allan French. This is the heroic tale of an Icelandic boy whose father has been killed, who is betrayed by those close to him, and who goes on a quest to avenge his father's death. It's got swords, bows and arrows--and, in a shocking turn of events that would force the evacuation of the campus at any teachers college, actually uses them in physical violence against the bad guys for a good cause. Allan French, I am told, was a member in good standing of the Kolbieters, a group of Oxford scholars and others who translated Norse sagas together for fun. His The Red Keep is also good.

The Mark of Zorro, Johnston McCulley. Somehow this story made it into a modern movie, although the effeminate cultural barbarians dutifully sterilized it of all the aristocratic patriotism in the original, leaving Zorro an oversexed and overgrown adolescent. Dispense with the Antonio Banderas movie. Even the Disney series (great as it was) does not approximate the original pulp fiction work of McCulley. What a great yarn. Returning from school in Spain, where, unbeknownst even to his own family and the girl he loves, he has become an expert with a sword, Don Diego de la Vega rejoins his father in Old California, pretending to have become a sissified dandy. He becomes the scourge of the corrupt army officers who are persecuting the poor as he becomes, in disguise, Zorro (Spanish for "the Fox"). Your school librarian (do they still have actual books in your school library?) will need smelling salts as your child reads of this son of a nobleman ("Boo, hiss," they will say) stands up for the poor and dispossessed--and who, horror of horrors, stands squarely on the side of the Church, which is portrayed in a solidly positive light in the character of Fray Filipe. And there is an extra bonus: there are sixty other Zorro stories, many, I am told, as good as the first and all equally anathema to the politically correct Cultural Authorities.

The Cat of Bubastes, by H. A. Henty. Henty wrote over 100 books, all of which featured a young teenage boy (he is given different names in the different books, but is essentially the same character) who is witness to various great historical characters and events. In Under Drake's Flag, it is Ferdinand Drake, the British privateer accosting the Spanish fleet, in The Young Carthaginian, he accompanies Hannibal as he plagues the Romans across the Italian peninsula. In this book (my favorite of the ones we have read), Amuba, a young prince of his tribe, is taken prisoner and enslaved in the household of the High Priest of Egypt. The sacred Cat of Bubastes--the official cat god of the Egyptians--has died and must be replaced with another one, chosen by the priest for its special qualities. But Chebron, son of the High Priest, accidentally kills the cat, setting off this harrowing tale. The bonus in this one is that the Pharoah is Thutmose III, portrayed here as the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and therefore Moses himself is part of the story. This book contains quite a number of fascinating (and historically accurate) observations about the Egyptian religion. Every boy should be given a good dose of Henty in order to inoculate him against the Plague of the Feminizers.

Little Britches: Father and I were Ranchers, by Ralph Moody. Moody wrote a number of stories (all excellent) about growing up in Colorado at the beginning of the 20th century--and other places, after his mother, upon the death of his father, moves them back east. Ralph's father grew up in a deaf household, and says little. But in one scene, Ralph comes home from school with his clothing torn. He admits to his indignant mother that he has been in a fight with a bully at school, to which his mother responds (in a remark that will cause palpitations of delight among the ) that he should never, ever fight at school no matter what the circumstances. But that night, as he is milking the cows, his laconic father asks, "Heard you got in a fight today at school." "Yes, sir," responds Ralph. "Did you lick 'im?" his father asks calmly, not bothering to stop with his own work. "Yes, sir." "Good," says his father. Nothing else was said. It made me remember one of my sons, who was having a problem with a boy at school who was constantly taunting him, asked me whether he could just slug the kid. I told him that if he did, the principal would throw him out of school for a week and that I would ground him on top of that, but that, if he needs it, it might be worth the cost. You can continue on with Man of the Family, The Home Ranch, Mary Emma & Company, and Shaking the Nickel Bush. And don't miss Fields of Home, where Ralph spends a summer with his crotchety, unpleasant grandfather who, despite his dyspeptic demeanor, teaches Ralph lessons he will remember for the rest of his life.

A Texas Ranger, by N. A. Jennings. This book is part of the Lakeside Classics series that has been published by R. R. Donnelly and Sons Printing company once a year since 1902. These books are fairly rare but each one is a primary source account of American history. This one is an autobiographical account of Jennings, who, writing later in his life, recounts his time as a Texas Ranger in the late 1800s, a time of trouble along the Texas-Mexican border very similar to what the region is experiencing today. I just got back from McAllan, Texas, which lies right across the border from Reynoso, where drug cartels have engaged in full battles in the city streets. Some of the violence has spilled over into Texas. I asked a priest I was with who was the principal of a school in Reynoso if it was as bad as the news accounts had made it sound. "It is worse," he responded. In Jennings time, gangs from Mexico were terrorizing settlers along the border, and the Texas Rangers were called in. Forget Walker, this is the real story of real men who, with a good horse and a good gun, executed justice on the frontier. In one scene, a new ranger, wet behind the ears, joins the group. That night, they take him on a snipe hunt, leaving him (as veterans of the game have traditionally done) wandering out in the middle of nowhere (in this case the desert) to find his way home, no snipes actually being available. The young man returned several hours later, at which point the others, safely cooling their heels around the fire and snickering, ask him whether he had caught the snipe. "Yup," he said, holding up a wriggling burlap sack in his hand. As they traded questioning glances among themselves, the rookie suddenly flung the contents of the bag around the fire. It had been full of rattlesnakes. For the pranksters it was a mostly sleepless night. This book will cause equally sleepless nights for the Feminizers.

Old Squire's Farm, by C. A. Stephans. Stephans was a writer and editor at The Youth's Companion, one of the great 19th century family magazines, from which these stories were taken. He recounts his youth, which he spent mostly in the company of his cousins and grandparents. He and his cousins were orphans of the Civil War after the three sons of the Old Squire (their grandfather) and his wife were killed in the war. The old folks raise them on their farm in rural Maine. The girls help do chores and cook, and the boys work hard and get into trouble. The accounts of their adventures at the little school, building a fortified sled to drive through the gauntlet of hostile boys in the settlement down the road, the summer swims in the watering hole, and tricking the mean bull down the road into disturbing a hornets nest are pure Americana. In one scene, as the boys are sheering sheep, a young man shows up at the barn door looking for work. His dress tells them he is from the city. With a twinkle in his eye, the oldest of the boys (the smartest and most mischievous), tells the newcomer that they might be able to use him, but that, in order for them to see whether he is capable, he must first shave the pig. In a hysterically funny scene, the young man from the city, with a determination that impresses them all, actually does it. The Old Squire, returning from town, realizes what the boys have done, and suppressing his own mirth, hires the determined young man. There are stories of sorry and stories of love; stories of hardship and stories of laughter. And then there is the final scene, in which, years after the cousins have all grown up and left, they all return to the farm to surprise their lonely grandparents, who they see, as they peer through the window, eating supper all by themselves, bereft of all whom they have loved. At this point, even male readers are allowed to cry (but only here). They realize that one of them must forsake his own career to care for the people who sacrificed their own life for them. And there is a sequel: Skating on Ice, which is just as good.

King Solomon's Mines, H. Rider Haggard. Haggard is probably the greatest of all the old adventure writers. His style influenced Tolkien, and was popular and beloved in his time. He wrote this book on a bet. Stevenson had just written Treasure Island, to much popular acclaim. He wagered with a friend that he could write an adventure book that would outsell Stevenson's work. He won the bet. Surprisingly, the book is still in print, despite the fact that it portrays blacks as primitive African tribesmen, when everyone knows that that is a historical myth and that precolonial Africa was more advanced culturally that Europe at its cultural zenith. I was shocked when several years ago, the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen featured, as one of the four literary heroes returned from the grave, Sean Connery in the role of Alan Quatermain, the  protagonist of King Solomon's Mines. I had assumed the book had been entirely forgotten. Mines was written when Africa was still the Dark Continent, mysterious, not fully explored, and dangerous. It was also a time when lost civilizations, long dead, were being uncovered. King Tut's tomb had just been discovered, and the discovery by Schliemann of the lost gold of Troy was still fresh on everyone's mind. Haggard's literary innovation was to have his characters discover great civilizations too, but with a twist: they were still there, alive and thriving. Haggard also wrote about women, mostly of the disquieting and intimidating type, who enjoy the unfair advantage of supernatural powers which they use to strike fear into the hearts of men. It's kinda creepy. C. S. Lewis' favorite fantasy book (with the possible exception of George MacDonald's Phantastes) was Haggard's She Who Must Be Obeyed, although I much prefer Morningstar, a book which Roger Lancelyn Green has called the "greatest evocation of ancient Egypt ever written."  Haggard also coauthored, along with the great writer of Fairy Tales, Andrew Lang, The World's Desire, a sequel to Homer's Odyssey, and which features Helen of Troy, whose fabled beauty is so great it is literally physically debilitating to the man who beholds her. Haggards's historical fantasies are vivid, exotic, and beautifully written. His stories are as evocative as their titles: Montezuma's Daughter, Nada the Lily, Alan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, People of the Mist, Ivory Child, Treasure of the Lake, Queen Sheba's Ring, Maiwa's Revenge, Pearl-Maiden, Red Eve, The Ghost Kings. Haggard spent much time in South Africa, and combines a classic literary style with the African tradition of storytelling. And don't miss his Zulu trilogy: Marie, Child of Storm, and Finished.


Carrie said...

I found this post extremely interesting, both because I am a girl and a writer. The idea that women cannot write books encouraging boys to be men, so clearly expressed in the beginning of your review of Farmer Boy, is naturally repulsive to me. It seems to suggest that there are no contemporary female authors who see men in their Biblical roles, as defenders, protectors, and warriors. I believe this is far from the case.
However, as you seem to be very educated and well-exposed to all sorts of literature, I wonder at this opinion of yours. Have I misunderstood?

Martin Cothran said...


I'll admit that my remarks might come off that way, but I really mean no denigration to females writers. You will find, in fact, that in a couple more posts with more book lists, that there are more female authors, one of which is Baronness Orczy, who wrote the Scarlet Pimpernel books.

My point, really, is that boys in general like different things than girls, and that in general we don't give it to them. Writers like Wilder, Orczy, Janice Holt Giles, H. A. Guerber, Beryl Markham are female writers who have written books that successfully appeal to boys. On the whole, however (if the history of boys books is any indication, and I think it is), male writers normally do a better job of it.

If you've read my blog, you'll know my penchant for hyperbole, but it shouldn't be taken to mean that I don't like female writers: I do. In fact, I think Laura Ingalls Wilder, for one, will go down as one of the great American writers.

It is not an insult to female writers to say that they're writing is not masculine.

Lee said...

Generally speaking, women's (and girls') sensibilities do not speak to boys (or men).

Just one example: attitudes about fighting. It is commonplace today, in schools, that when a fight breaks out between two boys, both are punished equally. "It's wrong to fight, period," is a woman's sensibility.

But it's not the world that boys live in. As Jean Shepard once said, in the world of boys, there are bullies, toadies, and the endless rabble of victims. Nothing, and I mean quite literally nothing, matches the satisfaction of watching a bully get his. When that happens, and it doesn't happen enough, it is the essence of justice. It plays a music all its own.

And a music to which, in general, the female of the specie is tone deaf.

Some guys just need to have their noses flattened. It's their only hope of becoming a better person.

Lee said...

As for female writers, when I was a teenager, I enjoyed Andre Norton's sci-fi books.

And on the whole, I think Beverly Cleary did a good job writing about Otis Spofford, Beezus and Ramona's erstwhile nemesis.