Books That Bullied Me at School: The Moral Sledgehammers

on Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Sometime fairly early on in my school captaincy, I was called into the headmaster's office and given a stern dressing down over my tendency to speak my mind on contentious political issues (mainly relating to Israel) at community gatherings. As a representative of the school, he said, I was expected to tow the party line of unequivocal support. Criticism, to put it crudely, was for the anti-Semites. "The solution is simple," I remember him saying. "Just shut your mouth." It was a peculiar position for the school to take given that, over the previous twelve-odd years, Mt Scopus had done its level best to instil in me a strong sense of, and passion for, social justice. Yet, the flaming of our moral consciences was an uneven affair, something I have only come to realise in retrospect. And nowhere is it better laid out than in the two English texts set (I think in Years 10 and 11, though I'm not sure), Montana 1948 and Let The Circle Be Unbroken.

Like many of the novels I have revisited for the Books That Bullied Me At School challenge, I remember only scant details. However, I clearly recall the searing effect both these books had on my young mind. In fact, if any single scene stands out from any book I read back at school it is the one of Cousin Bud, in Mildred Taylor's Let The Circle Be Unbroken, being set upon by the gang of white youths and forced to undress in front of his teenage daughter. It was the first time that I bore witness, outside the context of the Holocaust, to a man being completely stripped of his dignity and it caused me to have what probably remains my most visceral reaction to a book ever. Anger wrestled with despair. I wanted to reach into Taylor's world and tear those hooligans' hearts out.

I purposely left this category until last because I remember having loved both these books and wanted to end the challenge on a high. I'm glad to say that I was not disappointed. Both stand up brilliantly. Montana 1948, Larry Watson's devastating examination of rural American bigotry seen through the eyes of a small town sheriff's son is a coming-of-age novel where maturity is heralded by an earth shattering slap in the face. Little Davey, however, is merely a bystander - it his father, Wesley, for whom one feels sorry. He is essentially a good man who finds himself in an untenable position. Having cast aside his lofty dreams of a legal career to follow in the family tradition of becoming sheriff, he is trying to make the best of a disappointing life. It is an uneventful affair until it becomes apparent that Wes's brother, the prodigal son, war hero and now local doctor, has been raping young Indian women in town and on the nearby reservation. When one of them (who coincidentally is Davey's nanny) threatens to speak out, he murders her and Wes is forced to choose between family and justice, neither of which are forgiving mistresses. In what I consider to be something of a cop out on Watson's part, the choice is ultimately made for him, but he is destroyed nonetheless. It is a powerful message for a mid-teen mind - paternalism towards 'natives' only goes so far and it doesn't take much to strip away the veneer of civility and show the true colour of colonial brutality.

Let The Circle Be Unbroken is even more caustic in its indictment of institutionalised racism. From the show trial at its beginning, where a black teenager is put to death for a crime he didn't commit, to the hatchet job on Cousin Bud's dignity, it pulls no punches. Yet The Colour Purple this ain't. What our teachers failed to bring to our attention was the ghost of Upton Sinclair that marches proudly between almost every line. Indeed, Let The Circle Be Unbroken reminded me more of The Jungle than anything by Alice Walker or Toni Morrison, with its harrowing depictions of the trampling on workers' rights and violent suppression of any attempts to unionise. This was post-Depression deep south USA, where the economy was still in the dumps. The New Deal was a farce. The story of Stanley setting out to find work only to be ruthlessly exploited in the sugar fields was every bit as heartbreaking as when Cassie is dragged away from the "Whites Only' drinking fountain or Mrs. Annie Lee is mocked at the town hall when she tries to register to vote. On rereading Let The Circle Be Unbroken I now see that Mildred Taylor was so much more than my teachers ever gave her credit for. It was an opportunity lost, or at least only partly realised.

So here's the thing. Both these books were great but to a school for Jewish Australians, a decent proportion of whom came from South Africa, they were only subtle hints; allusions to injustices that had been done 'over there'. Where were the books of S. Yizhar or David Grossman? What about Coetzee, or Gordimer or Brink? And where were Gary Crew, Xavier Herbert or even Thomas Keneally to set us on the path of righting the wrongs done to indigenous Australians? Apparently the lesson of social justice needed to be taught without recourse to anything that might cut too close to the bone.

It is as if we were all dragged into the headmaster's office that day...


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