Books That Bullied Me at School: The Weepies

on Saturday, June 19, 2010
Some kids are born with a love of books. Others, well... not so much. While my brother karate-kicked, sprinted and race-walked his way through childhood, I was, according to Mum, perfectly happy just sitting in a corner with my face buried in the latest Encyclopaedia Brown or Agatha Christie. Frankly, I remember it differently. Sure, I might have read a few books, but I spent most of my time dressing up as a superhero or ninja and making D-grade home movies (often musicals) with my equally nerdy friends. Hopes of Hollywood were dashed, however, when I raided mum's closet and dressed up as Frank N' Furter only to have Dad refuse to film my full re-enactment of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Apparently there was such a thing as too far, even back then. Well, I guess I'll just stick with mum's version. For my literary dignity's sake.

So, as I was saying... I was a voracious reader as a kid. No question. I greedily devoured anything and everything I could lay my grubby little mitts on. It's all I ever did, irrespective of what those grainy Hi-8 videos might show. By the time I reached high school I fancied myself a proper bookworm, not like the other schmoes in my class, and was insulted by the dross my teacher expected me to read. I cared so little about our Year 7 text that, when I got to writing the list for this month's Books That Bullied Me At School challenge, I came up totally blank and had to leave it out. Even when my friend Ariel reminded me that it was Betsy Byars's little known (and long-out-of-print) novel The House of Wings, I can't say it rang any bells. "You know," he said, "the one about the boy and his grandfather and the crane. Sappy crap. Nothing happens." It was only when I received a second-hand copy from Abebooks and saw the cover that it began to seem vaguely familiar.

Turns out there was good reason for my having suppressed any memory of this flailing flapper. The book is lamer than the stupid blind crane at its heart. The plot is pretty much exactly as Ariel remembered it. Except he forgot to mention that it happens over the course of a single day and is about as plausible as any twelve year old child actually liking it. The injured bird as metaphor for a grandson's love is clunky. Both the crane's survival and Sammy's backflip in the face of abandonment by his parents beggar belief. Betsy Byars doesn't seem to regard a child's resentment and anger as legitimate and allows emotional bait and switch to easily win them over. The message, I think, is that adults know best and kids should fall in line. Classic paternalistic propaganda. Here's the thing. Those educational bureaucrats sitting in their cubic zirconia palaces have a responsibility to find age-appropriate books that challenge kids who already read and convince those that don't that reading is a worthwhile pastime. The House of Wings does neither. It is a twee, weepy and insultingly simplistic piece of twaddle with a bratty kid I seriously wanted to throttle, a grandfather I hoped would die and a crane that belonged in a soup. With celery.

No wonder I so vehemently resisted Mrs. Auster's attempts to get me to read the Year 8 text, Bridge To Terabithia. Only one year down and Mt Scopus already didn't have a great track record when it came to recommending books. At home I was ripping into Stephen King and Dean Koontz and had no interest in some charming tale of childhood friendship between outcast kids who resort to inventing imaginary kingdoms. Unless, of course, the kids would be set upon by giant flesh-eating spiders and the kingdom turned out to be one of Dante's circles of Hell. I don't remember if Mrs. Auster resorted to bribery or blackmail but I did eventually read the damn book (an official term coined by Daniel Day-Lewis in our Year 12 visual text, My Left Foot). And so it was that, in 1989, a thirteen year old Bram ended up crying the entire way through a winter's night as a young friendship was formed and then tragically lost in a swollen creek. I turned up to class with my tail between my legs and admitted that the book was okay. It was my greatest high school defeat.

Since that day Bridge to Terabithia has twice experienced a resurgence in popular kiddie culture. The first was obliquely, in the 1992 film My Girl starring a very cute Anna Chlumsky and an as-yet-unspoiled-by-Michael Jackson Macaulay Culkin. It wasn't a literal adaptation of Katherine Paterson's book, but it was close enough for me to see the derivation. Then, a couple of years ago they actually made a proper film of the novel, complete with tacky CG effects. I never saw it, partly because I was afraid of sobbing in a cinema full of kids, but from what I heard, Lord of The Rings it certainly was not.

As I dredged through the dark recesses of my brain for the various Books That Bullied Me at School, Bridge To Terabithia proved one of the few fond memories. I was hoping that, like I Am The Cheese, it would stand the tests of time and maturity. It didn't. In fact I struggled to find what had moved me so greatly when I was a kid. Okay, so the outcast kids find solace in one another. And they get a little puppy that they seem to think is like Falkor from The Neverending Story. Their confidence grows and they strike back against the school bully, only to find out that she is suffering far more than them. It is all very touching. And then the girl drowns. Sweet. Like treacle. But hardly a timeless classic.

Which leads me to the last of my so-called weepies, a book that has also been butchered in film (the horrible Richard Gere pukefest Sommersby) and on stage (The House of Martin Guerre). I might not have forgotten about it in the same way as I did The House of Wings, but I certainly didn't remember Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre in any substantive way. Otherwise it wouldn't have ended up in this category. Based on a true story from the 1600's, the novel tells of Bertrande de Rols whose husband goes off to war, disappears for five years, and then returns a changed man. New Martin takes on almost saintly proportions, suddenly becoming an attentive husband and father, responsible townsman and all-round good guy. There is, however, one slight problem. As Bertrande suspects, new Martin might not really be her husband at all. Oops.

I wish I had ignored the way it was taught - a story of romance and torn loyalties - because on rereading this novel I was absolutely blown away. The impostor Arnaud du Tilh is one of the greatest cads of all time. He is a dirtier, more rotten scoundrel than both Michael Caine and Steve Martin combined. Far from weeping, Arnaud had me laughing out loud at his magnificent chutzpah. Sure, he was a petty criminal, but he was a darn side nicer than the original Martin who, in my humble opinion, could have done with a lancing in the nuts. One could hardly blame Bertrande for ignoring her suspicions for three years. And what a horrible price her conscience paid when, in a great travesty of justice, Arnaud was executed. The Wife of Martin Guerre really goes to show that a kid's opinion of a set school text will depend greatly on the way in which it is taught and that that sometimes the interpretation dictated by those who set the curriculum is severely limited. And to think, I might actually have enjoyed studying for my final English exams. At last, a tear.


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