Tag: social injustice


31. Animal Farm by George Orwell

October 10th, 2013 — 10:12am

Animal Farm was published in 1945 by George Orwell. As previously discussed, Orwell loves himself a dystopia — in this case, the dystopia is exploring the world of Communism and the rise of Stalinist Russia under the guise of animals.

AnimalFarm_1stEd

On Manor Farm, everything is going along as farms generally do, though Farmer Jones is known to be a tad bit cruel — he sometimes gets drunk and forgets to feed the animals, so that’s not the best animal ownership. Old Major, an old boar, gathers all of the animals together and tells them that he had a dream that animals controlled their own fates, as humans are parasites on the animals — they don’t do any work yet get all of the gain from the animals’ work. He calls his ideas “Animalism,” and the farm animals all agree that would be a wonderful way to live. They end their meeting by signing a song taught to them by Old Major called “Beasts of England,” all about the animals’ greatness.

When Old Major dies, two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, take up Old Major’s cause, organizing the animals against Farmer Jones, who leaves the farm when the animals attack him and his workers. The animals renamed the farm Animal Farm. They adopt the Seven Commandments of Animalism:

1. Whatever goes on two legs is an enemy.

2. Whatever goes on four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

3. No animal shall wear clothes.

4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.

5. No animal shall drink alcohol.

6. No animal shall kill any other animal.

7. All animals are equal.

Everything goes well on Animal Farm — all of the animals work, though they begin to notice that the cows milk is disappearing. Snowball is educating all of the animals, while Napoleon takes the puppies born to the two dogs on the farm and teaches them in secret, to the point where the animals don’t remember their existence. Mollie, the pony who enjoyed the finer things in life and had ribbons in her hair, leaves the farm when she is made to work, while Boxer, the carthorse, takes up the slack, making “I will work harder” his personal motto.

A schism between Napoleon and Snowball emerges, especially over the building of a windmill to bring power and productivity to the farm — Snowball is for it, Napoleon is against it. During a debate in front of the animals, Napoleon gets up and whistles, and a pack of dogs come charging at Snowball, chasing him off the farm. The animals realize that Napoleon has been training the puppies into his personal security team. Another pig, Squealer, convinces the animals that Snowball has been against them the entire time and that Napoleon has been singlehandedly working for the success of Animal Farm.

Things get bleaker on the farm. The animals begin to notice that the commandments are changing, small adjustments made to them until they’re finally changed to one single commandment: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Boxer becomes hurt and Squeaker tells the animals that Napoleon has arranged for Boxer to be taken to an animal hospital, but Benjamin, the cynical donkey on the farm, reads the side of the truck that comes for Boxer and sees that Boxer has been sold to a knacker for slaughter, and the money is going to buy whiskey for the pigs.

Years pass, and the pigs begin to walk on two legs, wear clothes, and carry whips. Napoleon also begins doing business with local farmers and invites them all over to a dinner, where he tells them that he’s changing the name of the farm back to Manor Farm. The other animals, who look in the window at them, realize that they can no longer distinguish between the pigs and the men.

Animal Farm is a condemnation of Stalin and his regime, as Stalin was allied with Churchill and Roosevelt during World War II and was looked upon favorably by the British people, much to Orwell’s distaste. He wrote Animal Farm to show the brutality of the Communist Party, and parallels can be made to every character:

Old Major – both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, the fathers of Communism.

Napoleon – Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from 1930 until his death in 1953.

Snowball – Leon Trotsky, a rival of Stalin exiled from Russian and assassinated on Stalin’s orders in Mexico in 1940.

Squealer – the Soviet press, which Stalin controlled throughout his rule.

Minimus – the takeover of art by propaganda in a totalitarian state that aims to control what its citizens think.

Boxer – the male working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Clover – the female working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Mollie – the selfish and materialistic middle-class.

Benjamin – those who were aware of Stalin’s unjust and oppressive policies but did nothing to try to stop them.

The Dogs – the Soviet secret police.

Moses – organized religion.

The Sheep – the duped citizens of a totalitarian state.

Mr. Jones – the Russian Tsar in the early 20th century.

Mr. Frederick – the Fascist Germans/Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Pilkington – the Allies before World War II, particularly the British.

Mr. Whymper – capitalists who got rich doing business with the USSR.

It’s the symbolism stuff that English teachers’ dreams are made of. Just think of the essay topics!

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Module 15: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

December 9th, 2012 — 6:18pm

To Kill a Mockingbird was published by Harper Lee in 1960. It is loosely based on Lee’s childhood and memories she has of her father and a case he defended when she was 10 years old. Since its publication, it has been frequently banned in public schools and libraries for offensive language, racism, and blunt discussion of rape, but it has also produced one of the most honorable and loved characters in fiction in Atticus Finch.

SUMMARY

The novel is narrated by Scout Finch, a young girl who lives in Alabama with her brother, Jem, and father, Atticus, along with their housekeeper, Calpurnia. It details several years in Scout’s childhood during the Great Depression and focuses on experiences related to two very different people in the town of Maycomb, Alabama — Boo Radley, who is a recluse and mysterious figure in the town, and Tom Robinson, who is a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Boo Radley is a legend in the town who is the subject of many rumors, the worst being that he is a prisoner in his own home after getting into trouble with local boys. He is rumored to have gone crazy — one story that Scout and Jem have heard is that one day Boo was sitting on the floor cutting papers with scissors when he calmly reached over and stabbed his father’s leg with the scissors. No one had seen Boo Radley since and it’s a game among the children to run past the house and avoid the pecans that fall out of the trees in the Radleys’ yard, sicne they’re poisoned. Atticus instructs Jem, Scout, and Dill (their friend who visits his aunt in Maycomb every summer) to leave Boo alone when he catches them daring each other to run up and touch the Radleys’ porch.

On their way to school one day, Scout notices something shining from the knothole in a tree in the Radleys’ yard and discovers that someone has left small presents, including chewing gum in foil, yarn, and dolls shaped like Jem and Scout. Scout thinks that Boo Radley has been watching them from his window, and thinks that maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

During this time. Atticus is appointed the lawyer for Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman from a poor family. Atticus accepts the case and defends Tom as he’d defend any other client, much to the disbelief of the town. Scout finds herself getting into a few fights at school when other children taunt her and call Atticus a “nigger-lover”. Atticus maintains that defending Tom is the right thing to do, which Scout and Jem agree with.

Atticus does not want Scout, Jem, and Dill to watch the court proceedings, so they sneak into the colored balcony and watch with the black citizens of Maycomb. Atticus proves that Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell are lying — Mayella and Bob say that Tom hit her on the right side of her face and held her down as he raped her; the doctor also testifies that the right side of Mayella’s face had been beaten. However, Tom Robinson is physically incapable of having hit Mayella on the right side of her face, as his left side is paralyzed from an accident when he was a teenager and the muscles in his arm were ripped up when his arm got caught in a cotton thresher. Atticus proves that Tom was trying to help Mayella, whom he felt sorry for due to her economic circumstances and friendless nature, when Mayella made sexual advances on Tom; Bob Ewell came home to see her flirting with a black man and beat her.

Despite the proof in front of them, the jury convicts Tom and finds him guilty. As Atticus leaves the courtroom, the people in the colored balcony stand as he passes. Dill, overcome by how rude the prosecuting attorney is, runs out of the courtroom crying. Jem and Scout follow him and run into the town drunk, who reveals that the bottle he drinks out of is actually soda — it’s easier for people to accept how he lives (with his black wife and children) if the townspeople think he’s a drunk and therefore not responsible for his actions. This is one of the first occasions that Jem and Scout that people and situations aren’t always as they appear.

After Tom’s conviction, he is sent to jail, and despite Atticus’s promise and work on an appeal, Tom is shot and killed when he tries to escape. The editor of the paper compares the conviction and killing of Tom Robinson to the killing of a mockingbird, which is a metaphor that Scout is familiar with — when Atticus gives Jem a gun, he tells him that he can shoot anything except for a mockingbird, as mockingbirds are innocent songbirds and only exist to bring beauty to the world. Scout realizes that Tom, and perhaps Boo Radley, are like mockingbirds.

Even though Tom is convicted, Bob Ewell is humiliated and upset with Atticus for revealing all of his faults in court. He vows revenge and spits in Atticus’s face when they meet on the street. On the night of the school play, when Jem and Scout are walking home (Scout in a ham costume), they are attacked in the dark. Scout is shoved to the side and can’t escape her ham costume, so she can only hear noises, which include a lot of scuffling and then heavy breathing. When she manages to break free of the ham, she sees a man carrying an unconscious Jem to the Finch house.

When she gets to their house, Atticus is calling a doctor. The doctor arrives and gives Jem a sedative and sets his broken arm. The sheriff, Heck Tate, arrives and tells Atticus Finch that Bob Ewell has been found stabbed with his own knife. When the sheriff and Atticus ask Scout what happened, she notices the mysterious man standing in the corner of Jem’s room and realizes that it’s Boo Radley who saved them.

Atticus and the sheriff decide that it is in both Jem and Boo’s best interest to claim that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife in the struggle with Jem — they know that if the word gets out that Boo saved the Finch children, the women of the town will bring him casseroles and fawn over him, which would be torture for the reclusive Boo. Tom died for no reason and now the man who was responsible is dead, is how the sheriff sees it.

Scout walks Boo home and he disappears into his house. Scout reflects that she never sees him again after that. She considers what life must be like from Boo’s perspective. She’s sad that she and Jem never repaid Boo for the gifts he left for them in the tree. She stands and looks at the street from the Radley house and imagines the town how Boo saw it. When she gets back to their house, Atticus is sitting by Jem’s bed and is reading a book, so she asks him to read to her. As she is falling asleep, Scout mumbles about a character in the book to prove that she’d been listening, but it also juxtaposes her encounter with Boo Radley:

“An‘ they chased him ’n‘ never could catch him ’cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an‘ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…”

His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.

“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

IMPRESSIONS

I love this book. I really can’t talk enough about how much I love it and will be searching for the rest of my life for a man exactly like Atticus Finch and when I find him I will marry him.

The book paints a truthful picture of a Southern town and the racial injustice that exists. I’ve never understood why people, Southerners in particular, try to ban or become offended by portrayals of racism in America. It DID exist and people WERE ridiculously horrible to each other. It’s the same with the Holocaust deniers — why? It takes away from the picture of Southern hospitality, perhaps that’s it. However, this book showcases a spectrum of prejudices, as it details the prejudices of both whites against blacks and whites against whites of a lower economic and social classes.

To Kill a Mockingbird is on banned lists for offensive language and racism. The offensive language, I found, is nothing that would make one blush, other than the talk of “niggers” and “nigger-lovers” and the discussion of the rape of Mayella Ewell.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

In her first novel, Harper Lee writes with gentle affection, rich humor and deep understanding of small-town family life in Alabama. … It is an easy going but narrow minded community, whose foot-washing Baptists feel perfectly free to denounce Miss Maudie Atkinson, a passionate garden-lover (for whom the scent of mimosa is “angels’ breath”) because “anything that’s pleasure is a sin.” At the other extreme stand men like Atticus Finch, a high-esteemed lawyer and legislator and the embodiment of fearless integrity, magnanimity and common sense. … The dialogue of Miss Lee’s refreshingly varied characters is a constant delight in its authenticity and swift revelation of personality. … [but] The praise Miss Lee deserves must be qualified somewhat by noting that oftentimes Scout’s expository style has an processed, homogenized, impersonal flatness quite out of keeping with the narrator’s gay, impulsive approach to life in youth. Also, some of the scenes suggest that Miss Lee is cocking at least on eye toward Hollywood. Movie-going readers will be able to cast most of the roles very quickly, but it is no disparagement of Miss Lee’s winning book to say that if could be the basis of an excellent film.
New York Times

Two other novels have turned up which may be classified as respectable hammock reading, if anybody reads in hammocks anymore. Walk Egypt by Vinnie Williams is well-written soap opera, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is sugar-water served with humor. . . .

To Kill A Mockingbird is a more successful piece of work. It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. Miss Lee has, to be sure, made an attempt to confine the information in the text to what Scout would actually know, but it is no more than a casual gesture toward plausibility.

The book’s setting is a small town in Alabama, and the action behind Scout’s tale is her father’s determination, as a lawyer, liberal, and honest man, to defend a Negro accused of raping a white girl. What happens is, naturally, never seen directly by the narrator. The surface of the story is an Alcottish filigree of games, mischief, squabbles with an older brother, troubles at school, and the like. None of it is painful, for Scout and Jem are happy children, brought up with angelic cleverness by their father and his old Negro housekeeper. Nothing fazes them much or long. Even the new first-grade teacher, a devotee of the “Dewey decimal system” who is outraged to discover that Scout can already read and write, proves endurable in the long run.

A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.
The Atlantic

LIBRARY USES

I would force every patron of the library to read this book if I could. There are so many uses — book talks with teenagers, displays for banned book week, displays for summer reading, excerpts to introduce studying civil rights and Jim Crow in history classes.

REFERENCES

Adams, P. L. (1960, August). Review of to kill a mockingbird. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.cardinalstage.org/critical-responses-to-the-nove

Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. New York, NY: J. B. Lippincott & Co.

Lyell, F. (1960, July 10). One taxi town. The New York Times.. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/archival/19600710tkamreview.pdf

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Module 10: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

November 14th, 2012 — 8:15am

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is historical fiction about Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic region during World War II. It is narrated by Lina, a 15 year old Lithuanian girl, as she and her family are deported to Siberia.

SUMMARY

The novel opens with men from the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, taking Lina, her mother, and her brother, Jonas, from their homes on June 14, 1941. Her father, provost at the university, has already been taken. They’re loaded on a truck with some of their neighbors and a few people they don’t recognize. They’re horrified that the next stop is at the hospital, as one of the people they are scheduled to take is a woman who is at that moment giving birth; they load her and her newborn baby into the truck as she’s bleeding onto her hospital gown.

Lina’s father, Kostas Vilkas, helped his brother and his family escape Lithuania to Germany, which put him on the black list as an accessory. Lina’s mother, Elena, speaks fluent Russian, which allows her to communicate with the NKVD. He is taken to a different camp from the rest of the family. They are stuffed into a train with even more prisoners, including the Andrius Arvydas and his mother, the son and wife of an officer in the Lithuanian army. The conditions in the train are horrible and they’re travelling through Europe for three weeks without stopping. On the train, the young woman’s baby dies and she is shot by an officer when she’s overcome by grief.

The train finally stops in Siberia, at a camp where they are assigned to live in shacks and work as beet and potato farmers. They stay there for a while, and Lina finds solace in her art. She has always been an artist and she’s particularly drawn to the work of Edward Munch. She decides to draw pictures of people and events so that she can send them to her father in hopes that he will find them.

While they’re at the camp, Andrius and his mother live in the officers house, where they are fed and treated better than the others. Lina is upset with this special treatment, but when she confronts Andrius about it, he reveals that his mother is prostituting herself to the officers to keep the officers from killing him. She’s horrified by this and distraught with his anger, which makes her realize that she’s falling in love with Andrius; when they reconcile, it’s shown that Andrius has similar feelings. He gives her a special stone to bring her luck and to remind her of him.

The NKVD tries to force the prisoners to sign papers saying that they are criminals and acknowledging that they’re being sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor and that they will pay a war tax of two hundred rubles per person, which most of them refuse to sign. Jonas becomes sick with scurvy from the lack of vegetables in his diet and almost dies until Andrius steals a can of tomatoes from the officers house. Soon after he heals, the prisoners hear that some of them will be transported to a different location. Some people are fools enough to think they’re being transported to America, but Lina knows better.

The prisoners, which now include prisoners from other camps, are taken farther north in Siberia. The NKVD take them to an empty field and tell them that they will have to build their own shelter, and quickly, as the arctic chill begins in September. They suffer through the cold temperatures and hypothermia. It is here that Lina discovers why they’ve been deported and that she is being punished because her beloved cousin and best friend, Joana, was able to escape — she is dying to allow Joana to live. It also here that a guard reveals to them that Lina’s father has been killed in prison. Lina’s mother takes sick and she dies in the shack.

Lina and Jonas are able to hide her body from the officers so they can bury her properly. The other prisoners help them, as a testament to how much they have become a family within themselves — they need each other to survive and Lina’s mother in particular was a unifying force due to her calm demeanor and peaceful spirit. Lina paints a map to her mother’s grave so that she will never forget where it is. Lina is determined to survive the camp and now cares for Jonas.

The other prisoners all take their turns with illness — scurvy, dysentery, typhus, hypothermia. They’re dying more and more every day. Jonas becomes very ill and just when Lina is afraid that he won’t be able to survive the night, an inspection officer, a doctor, appears at the shack. Dr. Samodurov is to inspect all of the prisons to report that everything is fine and the prisoners are being treated fairly, but he tells Lina that is not going to submit false reports. He spends ten days at the prison; he helps the prisoners store fish for the upcoming storms and plot a burial yard for the dead. The doctor tells her that it’s possible that her father hasn’t died; the guards have told prisoners before that people have died, only to be found living somewhere.

Lina is determined to live to reunite with Andrius. When they left each other, they promised that they would meet again, and when Lina closes her eyes, she can imagine that they are together as she holds the stone.

The novel ends with an epilogue from 1995 in Lithuania. A construction crew has discovered a wooden box int he ground that contains a glass jar full of papers. The papers contain drawings and a letter:

Dear Friend,

The writings and drawings you hold in your hands were buried in the year 1954, after returning from Siberia with my brother, where we were imprisoned for twelve years. There are many thousands of us, nearly all dead. Those alive cannot speak. Though we committed no offense, we are viewed as criminals. Even now, speaking of the terrors we have experienced would result in our death. So we put our trust in you, the person who discovers this capsule of memories somewhere in the future. We trust you with truth, for contained herein is exactly that — the truth.

My husband, Andrius, says that evil will rule until good men or women choose to act. I believe him. This testimony was written to create an absolute record, to speak in a world where our voices have been extinguished. These writings may shock or horrify you, but that is not my intention. It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.

Sincerely,
Mrs. Lina Arvydas
9th day of July, 1954 — Kaunas

IMPRESSIONS

This book was incredibly moving. This was a side of the Holocaust that I wasn’t very familiar with, but it was equally as horrifying — in fact, one of the characters in the book points out the similarities between Stalin and Hitler. The horrors that people can commit to others, blindly, without cause or reason, is stunning. I’ll never fail to be amazed by the deplorable ways that people treat others.

That being said, the story was effective for several reasons. Lina’s story is told through flashbacks to events in her family, adding a dimension to the story of her relationships and her life before they were taken. I enjoyed Andrius’s character because he had his own experience that added to the plot; it didn’t feel like he was added solely for a romantic element. There were so many descriptions of Lina drawing that I began to wish that there had been reproductions of drawings to add just one more realistic element to the story. The epilogue was great, because I was a little disappointed in the ending that left Lina in the camp, so knowing that they survived and she and Andrius married was cathartic.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Sepetys’ first novel offers a harrowing and horrifying account of the forcible relocation of countless Lithuanians in the wake of the Russian invasion of their country in 1939. In the case of 16-year-old Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, this means deportation to a forced-labor camp in Siberia, where conditions are all too painfully similar to those of Nazi concentration camps. Lina’s great hope is that somehow her father, who has already been arrested by the Soviet secret police, might find and rescue them. A gifted artist, she begins secretly creating pictures that can–she hopes–be surreptitiously sent to him in his own prison camp. Whether or not this will be possible, it is her art that will be her salvation, helping her to retain her identity, her dignity, and her increasingly tenuous hold on hope for the future. Many others are not so fortunate. Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, estimates that the Baltic States lost more than one-third of their populations during the Russian genocide. Though many continue to deny this happened, Sepetys’ beautifully written and deeply felt novel proves the reality is otherwise. Hers is an important book that deserves the widest possible readership.
Booklist

This bitterly sad, fluidly written historical novel tackles a topic woefully underdiscussed in English-language children’s fiction: Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. On June 14th, 1941, Soviet officers arrest 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother and her mother and deport them from Lithuania to Siberia. Their crammed-full boxcar is labeled, ludicrously, “Thieves and Prostitutes.” They work at a frigid gulag for eight months-hungry, filthy and brutalized by Soviet officers–before being taken to the Siberian Arctic and left without shelter. Lina doesn’t know the breadth of Stalin’s mass deportations of Baltic citizens, but she hears scraps of discussion about politics and World War II. Cold, starvation, exhaustion and disease (scurvy, dysentery, typhus) claim countless victims. Lina sketches urgently, passing her drawings along to other deportees, hoping they’ll reach Papa in a Soviet prison. Brief flashbacks, seamlessly interwoven, illuminate Lina’s sweet old life in Kaunas like flashes of light, eventually helping to reveal why the repressive, deadly regime targeted this family. Sepetys’ flowing prose gently carries readers through the crushing tragedy of this tale that needs telling.
Kirkus Reviews

LIBRARY USES

This book would be an excellent vehicle for a book talk. I would also recommend it be used in a display for Holocaust Memorial Day on May 8; it is important that the story of the genocide in the Soviet Union be told as well as the atrocities committed by Hitler.

REFERENCES

Between shades of gray. (2011). Kirkus Reviews, 79(2), 138.

Cart, M. (2011). Between shades of gray. Booklist, 107(11), 68. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/58626231/between-shades-gray

Sepetys, R. (2011). Between shades of gray. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

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Module 8: Unwind by Neal Shusterman

November 4th, 2012 — 11:12am

Unwind by Neal Shusterman is a science fiction book published in 2007. It takes place in a future America where a civil war has been fought over abortion and a compromise has been made — all pregnancies will lead in a child, but parents have the option to have undesirable children “unwound” between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. To be unwound meant that they would be harvested and their body parts would be used as organ donations and put in other people; because 100% of the children are being used, they’re still alive, so it’s technically not an abortion. The book follows a group of teenagers who are scheduled to be unwound but have run away and are attempting to survive.

SUMMARY

Connor’s parents have signed the unwind papers because he is a rebellious teenager; Risa is from a state home orphanage and is being unwound due to a surplus of children and not enough money to support them; Lev is being unwound as a tithe, a sacrifice from his religious family to serve the society with organ donation.

Connor runs away before he is taken to a harvest camp, but in doing so, he causes Risa’s bus to crash and takes Lev as a hostage to prevent being shot by the Juvey-cop, so the three of them are thrust together. Connor also shoots the juvey-cop with his own tranquilizer gun, so Connor is even more on the run. Lev is initially resistant to the escape, as he has been conditioned to believe that it is his duty to be unwound. They escape to the next town and attempt to get on a school bus to pretend to be regular teenagers and not raise suspicion; however, as they’re getting on the bus, Connor is distracted by a baby who is being storked — part of the unwinding laws has given the society “storking,” which is legal abandonment by mothers who do not want to raise their children and would have gotten an abortion. The lack of abortion has not created unwanted babies, and as long as mothers aren’t caught, they can legally leave their baby on the doorstep of a house, which makes the baby the homeowners’ responsibility. Connor notices the baby, as he shares with Risa and Lev, because years before his family was storked, but rather than raise the baby, his parents re-storked it to a neighbor. Two weeks later, they were storked again, but to their horror, they realized it was the same baby; their neighbors have been passing the baby around from doorstep to doorstep for two weeks, and the baby is now sickly and dies when Connor’s parents take it to the hospital. Connor has unconsciously gone to the baby and picked it up as the owner of the house opens the door. Risa, Connor, and Lev now have a baby to care for.

When they get to the school, they hide in the bathroom. Unbeknownst to Connor and Risa, Lev slips out and tells the secretary of the school that two unwinds have taken him hostage. While Lev is in the office, he calls his parents and his pastor, Pastor Dan, answers the phone. Pastor Dan tells him that he’s kept his name out of the papers so Lev can get a new life — this goes against everything Lev has been taught to think about unwinding and tithes. He had grown up thinking that this was God’s plan, but now to hear that his pastor is telling him that unwinding is wrong, he doesn’t know what to think or do. Lev pulls the fire alarm to create havoc and help Connor and Risa escape the juvey-cops and to escape himself. A kind teacher helps them by directing them to a woman who is helping unwinds. There are a group of kids she’s hiding in her basement, including a big bully type named Roland.

Sonia, the woman who’s hiding them, keeps them until a man who drives an ice cream truck shows up to take them to their next destination. The teacher, Hannah, comes back to take the baby from Risa — she knows they won’t get far with a baby and she promises Risa and Connor that she’ll care for it. The kids are taken to their next holding area, a warehouse next to an airport.

Meanwhile, Lev has joined forces with a kid named Cyrus, who calls himself CyFi and nicknames Lev “Fry”, for small fry. Cyrus and Lev are on their way to Joplin for reasons Cyrus won’t reveal to Lev. On their way, Cyrus suddenly changes his demeanor and personality, until he steals something and freaks out. He reveals to Lev that 1/8th of his brain has been replaced by a brain from an unwind and that part of his brain sometimes takes over and makes him do terrible things. He’s on his way to Joplin to find out what it is the unwind wants him to do there and to see if he can understand him better. Cyrus teaches Lev some street smarts along the way, as Lev has been sheltered his entire life.

When they get to Joplin, Cyrus’s brain directs them to the unwind’s former house, where the unwind’s parents are very confused and scared. Cyrus starts digging in their backyard, revealing all of the things that the unwound kid stole before he was unwound. Lev escapes after he screams at the unwind’s parents to tell Cyrus (who is now being controlled by the unwind’s brain) that they forgive him.

Risa and Connor, as well as the other kids that are in hiding, have been packed into crates and taken by plane to a place called The Graveyard — it’s literally an airplane graveyard in the deserts of Arizona that a former Air Force admiral has taken over and is using as a refuge for unwinds. They’re sad to see that Roland survived the trip, as he has become more and more of a bully and influential with the other kids. Risa understands what Roland is doing and convinces Connor that he needs to not rise to Roland’s challenge — the story of Connor’s escape from the juvey-cops has become legend, and the unwinds are all telling the story of the “Akron AWOL”, who they don’t know is Connor. Roland indeed tries to challenge Connor when he corners Risa in the bathroom and attempts to rape her — Connor interrupts but remains calm, telling Roland that the two of them broke up. Connor later tells Risa that he barely managed to control his anger, and they realize that they have feelings for each other. Lev has also made it to the Graveyard, but his personality is almost unrecognizable to Risa and Connor — he’s angry and rebellious, nothing like the gentle tithe they knew.

The kids in the camp, however, are becoming more and more unsettled — Roland has been getting them against the Admiral, and they rebel, destroying things and trying to attack him. The Admiral, who was in the hospital wing with Risa, has a heart attack. Roland, Connor, and Risa fly the helicopter to take the Admiral to the hospital to try to save the Admiral. While they’re there, Roland turns in Connor, Risa, and himself; however, he barters with the cops for his life by turning in the kids at the Graveyard.

The cops raid the Graveyard and take all of the kids to a harvest camp. Risa’s musical talents grant her amnesty from immediate unwinding; the head of the camp has made a band of the talented kids so that they can play music on the roof of the unwinding facility so calm the kids. Roland is unwound, and a description is given in the book, and it’s horrifying. Just saying.

Connor is set to be unwound, and Risa recognizes him. Lev has joined with other kids to become a clapper, people who turn themselves into bombs by having explosive chemicals put in their bloodstreams that detonate when they clap. They plan to detonate the harvesting facility, but when Lev finds out that Connor is going to be unwound, he moves up the detonation time to save Connor.

Just as Connor is being taken into the harvesting facility, the two other kids that are clappers with Lev detonate themselves and the harvesting facility is destroyed. Lev intended to clap as well, but at the last minute changes his mind, determined to pull out unwound youth from the wreckage and save Connor. Connor, Lev, and Risa are all taken to the hospital — Connor’s injuries have made him the recipient of unwound parts, including, to Connor’s horror, and arm from Roland. The nurse at the hospital has given him the ID of a guard from the facility that had been killed, to keep Connor from being harvested himself. Risa, having been on the roof with the band when it collapsed, is now paralyzed from the waist down and is refusing treatment, which saves her from being unwound. Lev’s blood is still full of chemicals, and because he is the only one who did not clap, has become a sort of folk hero and media darling, as he chose to save people rather than destroy them.

The novel ends with a party at the Admiral’s house, celebrating the birthday of his son, who he and his wife unwittingly had unwound. All the people who received parts from his son attend, bringing him entirely there. Connor and Risa go back to the Graveyard, carrying on the Admiral’s work as he had refused a heart from an unwound and is now too weak to go back. They also reveal, however, that they will be seeking to destroy other harvesting facilities, so that unwinding will end completely.

Time for a sequel!

IMPRESSIONS

This book was amazing. The argument about abortion is very topical in today’s political climate. The writing and the narration, which switched between several points of view, kept it fresh and interesting — it was nice to get different perspectives to explain different parts of the society, like the clappers and the storking. The story was amazing and well executed; at no point did they have a new concept that wasn’t fleshed out and well explained.

I was reading this during the school week, and I had the book on my desk; when my students saw it, they all went craaaazy about wanting to talk with me about it. They all loved the book and were excited to discuss it. As soon as I finished it, I put the sequel on request at the library.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Following in the footsteps of Jonathan Swift, Shusterman uncorks a Modest Proposal of his own to solve a Pro-Life/Pro-Choice dilemma. Set in a future in which abortions are outlawed but parents have the option of signing over their 13- to 17-year-olds to be used as organ donors, the tale focuses on 16-year-old Connor, who falls in with other prospective Unwinds and finds a temporary refuge (thanks to a clandestine organization with its own peculiar agenda) before being captured and sent to Happy Jack Harvest Camp. Though laced with intrigue, betrayals, and narrow squeaks, the story is propelled less by the plot (which is largely a series of long set pieces) than by an ingeniously developed cast and premise. But even readers who gravitate more to plot-driven fiction will find this present-tense page-turner thrilling, though it’s guaranteed to leave some feeling decidedly queasy—despite the (improbable) happy ending.
Booklist 2007

What keeps “Unwind” moving are the creative and shocking details of Shusterman’s kid-mining dystopia. First, there are the Orwellian linguistic tricks. People who have been unwound are not “dead” — they are “in a divided state.” Then there are the rules and rituals. Before being unwound, Lev is honored with a lavish “tithing party,” which bears a strong resemblance to a bar mitzvah. The most terrifying scene is devoted to the unwinding itself. The author’s decision to describe the process is a questionable one — a book’s great unknown can leave the strongest impression on a reader — but he executes as precisely as the surgeons who perform the unwinding.

Ultimately, though, the power of the novel lies in what it doesn’t do: come down explicitly on one side or the other. After all, there are benefits to unwinding — children with fatal diseases can be saved by perfect transplants. And if the people of Jesusland can come to understand their countrymen in the United States of Canada — or vice versa — aren’t we all better off?
New York Times 2008

LIBRARY USES

This book is begging to be used in a book talk for high school students. Begging.

REFERENCES

Peters, J. (2007, October 15). Unwind by neal shusterman. Booklist. Retrieved from http://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=2120692&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

Shusterman, N. (2007). Unwind. New York, NY: Simon And Schuster.

Vizzini, N. (2008, March 16). Young and in the way. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/books/review/Vizzini-t.html?_r=2&

Comment » | SLIS5420

20. Native Son by Richard Wright

January 22nd, 2012 — 7:25pm

Native Son by Richard Wright was published in 1940. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American who is living in poverty in Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, and is reportedly based on the case of Robert Nixon. The novel is split into three separate books: Fear, Flight, and Fate.

FEAR
Bigger Thomas is twenty years old at the beginning of the novel. He lives with his mother, brother, and sister in a ghetto of Chicago. In the opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the dark in the small apartment that he and his family shares. A rat appears in the room and Bigger chases it and kills it with an iron skillet; he then terrorizes his sister, Vera, with the dead rat until Vera faints. Bigger’s mother scolds him, while Bigger’s internal monologue reveals that he hates his family because they’re suffering and he can’t do anything about it — he feels that he’ll only ever be able to have low wage, menial work and feels an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that he masks with ferocity and violence. Because that’s healthy and normal.

Bigger’s mom wants him to get a job with a white man named Mr. Dalton (who happens to be the Thomas family’s landlord), but instead Bigger meets with some of his friends at a local poolhall. They start talking and Bigger reveals that every time he encounters a white person he feels that something bad is going to happen to him. He and his friends, Gus, G.H., and Jack, plan a robbery of a white man’s store; they are all afraid of what will happen if they’re caught robbing and hurting a white man, but none of them admit it. They’ve burgled many black-owned businesses before, but robbing from whites is new territory. Bigger is so intimidated by white people that he no longer sees them as individuals, instead picturing them as an all-encompassing pressure of “whiteness” that is smothering him like a blanket. When they meet back at the poolhall to head out for the robbery, Bigger brutally attacks Gus in order to sabotage the night. This makes him realize that he needs to listen to his mother and seek out a job with Mr. Dalton.

He gets a job as Mr. Dalton’s chauffeur. Mr. Dalton, in owning the majority shares of several building in the South Side ghetto, has been exploiting black families for years; however, he sees himself as a philanthropist because he donates money to black schools and gives jobs to black boys like Bigger.

On Bigger’s first day of work, he shows up to the Daltons’ house and is immediately ill at ease; the house is large, Dalton and his wife, who is blind, use large words that Bigger doesn’t understand, and the Dalton’s daughter, Mary, comes home and asks Bigger why he isn’t in a union, which makes Bigger dislike her and fear that she will cost him his job. That night, Mary has Bigger drive her and her boyfriend Jan, who is a Communist. Mary and Jan are eager to show off their progressive ideals and racial tolerance. They force Bigger to take them to a restaurant on the South Side and sit with them at the table. They order a bottle of rum and take it with them for the rest of the night. Bigger drives Jan and Mary around while they get completely trashed and grope each other in the back seat of the car while Bigger drives them around the park.

When they return to the Dalton’s house, Mary is too drunk to get out of the car, much less maneuver the stairs, so Bigger carries her to her room. He is a little drunk as well, and intoxicated by being so close to a white girl, and when they get to Mary’s room, Bigger kisses her.

Just as Bigger is putting Mary in her bed, Mrs. Dalton appears in the doorway. He knows that, because she’s blind, she can’t see him but he is still terrified that she will realize that he’s in her precious innocent daughter’s room and have him fired, if not worse. He’s also afraid that drunk Mary will say or do something that will make Mrs. Dalton further enter the room, so he puts a pillow over her face to muffle her; when Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger realizes that he has smothered her to death. Very Shakespearean.

Bigger realizes that the punishment for murder will be a lot less than an accusation of sexual assault. He decides to frame Jan, hoping that the Daltons will think poorly of Jan and his Communist leanings and assume that he’s dangerous and has kidnapped Mary. He takes Mary’s body down to the furnace to burn it; when he has trouble pushing her body into the small opening, he takes a hatchet and cuts off her head to make it fit. After he gets her body in the fire, he adds extra coal to the furnace and goes home. What.

FLIGHT

Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in the room where a white girl had been killed: therefore he had killed her. That was what everyone would say, anyhow, no matter what he said.

Having commited murder and seemingly gotten away with it has given Bigger a sense of power that he has previously never known. When he goes back to the Daltons’ for work the next day, Mrs. Dalton has noticed Mary’s disappearance and asks Bigger about the happenings of the previous night. He makes an effort to point the finger at Jan. Mrs. Dalton sends him home for the day and Bigger goes to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. Bessie is a stereotypical woman, nagging that he doesn’t love her and Bigger gives her money to shut her up. Bigger tells Bessie that Mary Dalton has disappeared and she begins to talk about different disappearances, including one where people murdered a child and asked for ransom money later. Bigger gets a cartoon lightbulb over his head and decides to do just that. He tells Bessie that he knows a little about what happened to Mary and is going to blackmail the Daltons; unfortunately, Bessie’s responses to him make him realize that she’s started to suspect that he’s had something to do with Mary’s disappearance.

When he returns to the Daltons’ house for work, they have hired a private investigator, Mr. Britten, to try to track down Mary. Mr. Britten talks to Bigger; Bigger senses that Britten is a little bit racist and accuses Jan based on his religion (Jewish), politics (Communist), and his attitude toward black people (friendly). In talking to Britten, Bigger takes on the role of the simple-minded black boy, which is almost as chilling as his role of violence; he is intuitive enough to know when to play into the stereotypes that are expected of him. He manages to fool Mr. Dalton, who thinks that he’s not a bad boy, but not Britten, who states that “a nigger’s a nigger” and that they’re all bad in some sense. Britten and Mr. Dalton bring in Jan and grill him about the night before, but of course his story is different than Bigger’s. When Mr. Dalton offers to pay Jan for information about Mary, Jan leaves.

Bigger checks on the furnace and then heads to Bessie. Jan confronts him in the street, but Bigger pulls a gun on him. Needless to say, they don’t have a very long chat. When Bigger gets to Bessie’s, he composes a ransom note and signs it “Red,” to further add suspicion to the pinko Communist Jan. In the letter, he demands $10,000 and adds a drawing of a hammer and sickle. Bessie has begun to have second thoughts about the whole thing and accuses Bigger of killing Mary. Bigger admits it, but says that it’s okay:

“If you killed her you’ll kill me,” she said. “I ain’t in this…. You told me you never was going to kill.”
“All right. They white folks. They done killed plenty of us.”

Bessie begs to be left out, but Bigger doesn’t want her to turn him in, so she has to stay involved. He delivers the ransom note by slipping it under the Daltons’ door when he reports for work.

Reporters have now caught wind of the story and descend upon the Dalton house. Bigger is told to clean out the furnace; he sifts some of the ashes into the lower bin and adds more coal, hoping that he will not have to take the ashes out until the reporters leave. However, the ashes still block the airflow, causing thick smoke to fill the basement. At this point, some of the reporters have come down to the furnace and one of them grabs a shovel and offers to help clear the ashes.

When the smoke dissipates, several pieces of bone and an earring are visible on the floor. As Bigger looks at these remnants of his gruesome killing, all of his old feelings return: he is black and he has done wrong. He once again longs for a weapon so he can strike out at someone. While the reporters marvel over the glowing hatchet head in the furnace, Bigger sneaks up to his room and jumps out the window. He runs to Bessie’s house to stop her from going to collect the ransom money. When Bigger explains that he accidentally killed Mary, Bessie tells him the authorities will think he has raped Mary and has murdered her to cover up the evidence. Bigger thinks back to the shame, anger, and hatred he felt that night. He thinks that he has committed rape, but to him, “rape” means feeling as if his back is against a wall and being forced to strike out to protect himself, whether he wants to or not. Bigger thinks that he commits a form of “rape” every time he looks at a white face.

Bigger and Bessie go to an abandoned building to hide out, and Bessie takes this time to tell Bigger just how much she hates him for ruining her life. Maybe not such a good idea to insult and anger the man with a streak of murderous violence. Bigger rapes Bessie on a pile of blankets that they brought with them and, after realizing that he can’t take her with him but he can’t leave her behind to turn him in, he hits her several times on the head with a brick that is lying nearby and throws her body down an airshaft.

Bigger goes through the city finding vacated apartments and alleys to sleep and eat, as all of the money he had was in Bessie’s pocket and is now at the bottom of an airshaft. He finds a newspaper and realizes that his time is probably running out — the press reports that Bigger probably sexually assaulted Mary before killing her, and the authorities have a warrant to search any and every building on the South Side, including private homes. Not believing that a black man could have formulated such a complex plan, they are also searching for a communist (read: white) accomplice. White anger is turning on blacks and there are reports of smashed windows and beatings throughout the city.

It begins to snow in the city and Bigger is forced inside. In one of the vacated apartments, Bigger thinks about life in the city and what it has become for blacks. From a window, Bigger marvels at the dilapidated buildings where black tenants live. He thinks back on his own life as he sees three naked black children watching their parents have sex in a bed nearby. He remembers how his family was once driven out of an apartment just two days before the building collapsed. Next door, Bigger hears two people debating his situation. One man declares that he would turn Bigger in to the police and he blames people like Bigger for bringing white wrath down on the whole black community, while the other argues that Bigger may not be guilty, since whites automatically view all black men with suspicion when a white girl is killed. Bigger decides that when he is captured, he will not say that the crime was an accident.

The police arrive to search the building where Bigger is hiding. Bigger escapes to the roof just as they burst into the building. A dramatic shoot-out ensues and the authorities finally capture Bigger, who is half-frozen from the cold and snow. The men carry Bigger down as a crowd of furious whites demands that they kill “that black ape.”

FATE

In jail, Bigger lives in a world with no day, no night, and no fear or hatred, as such emotions are useless to him now. He feels gripped by a deep resolution to react to nothing, and he says and eats nothing. He longs for death, but as a black man he does not want to die “unequal, and despised.” Bigger wonders if perhaps the whites are right that being black is the same as being an animal of some sort. Nonetheless, the hope that another way of life exists, one in which he would be able to forget his racial differences, keeps coming back to him.

The authorities drag Bigger to an inquest at the morgue. He senses from the white people around him that they plan not only to put him to death, but also to make him a symbol to terrorize and control the black community. A feeling of rebellion rises in him and he begins to come out of his stupor. In the morgue, Bigger sees Jan and the Daltons. As he gradually begins to snap out of his psychological stupor, he faints, overcome by hunger and exhaustion. When Bigger awakens in his cell, he believes he has “come out into the world again” in order to save his pride and keep the authorities from “making sport of him.”

Bigger asks to see a newspaper. The headline reads, “Negro Rapist Faints at Inquest.” The story compares Bigger to a “jungle beast” who lacks the harmless charm of the “grinning southern darky.” Edward Robertson, editor of the Jackson Daily Star, advises total segregation and a curtailment of the education of the black population, which he claims will prevent men like Bigger from developing. Bigger contemplates returning to his protective stupor, but is not sure if he is still able to do so.

Jan comes to visit Bigger in jail. He says that he is not angry for Bigger trying to blame him and that he wants to help Bigger. Jan says he was foolish to assume that Bigger could have related to him in a different way than he relates to other white men. Jan says that he loved Mary, but he also realizes that black families loved all the black men who have been sold into slavery or lynched by whites. Jan introduces Bigger to Boris A. Max, a lawyer for the Labor Defenders. Max wants to defend Bigger free of charge.

Buckley, the State’s Attorney, suddenly enters Bigger’s cell. Though Max argues that white power is responsible for Bigger’s actions, Bigger feels his burgeoning friendship with Max and Jan quickly evaporate when he sees the self-assured Buckley. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton enter the cell and ask that Bigger cooperate with Buckley and reveal the name of his accomplice. In response, Max asks that they not sentence Bigger to death. Dalton says that despite the crime he is not angry with all black Americans. He announces that he has even sent some Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club earlier in the day. Doubtful, Max questions whether Ping-Pong will prevent murder.

All the visitors leave the cell except Buckley, who warns Bigger not to gamble with his life by trusting Max and Jan. Buckley shows Bigger the mob gathered outside, which is screaming for his blood and urging him to sign a confession that also implicates Jan. Adding that the authorities know Bigger raped and killed Bessie too, Buckley pressures him to confess to other unsolved rapes and murders. Bigger realizes he could never explain why he killed Mary and Bessie because it would mean explaining his whole life. Bigger confesses to the murders but writes nothing to explain them. He signs his confession, feeling that there is no alternative. As soon as Bigger signs, Buckley starts to brag about how easy it was to extract a confession from a “scared colored boy from Mississippi.” After Buckley leaves, Bigger, feeling empty and beaten, falls to the floor and sobs.

At the inquest in the courtroom, Mr. Dalton takes the stand and Max is permitted to question him. As Max knows that Mr. Dalton owns a controlling share in the company that manages the building where Bigger’s family lives, he asks Dalton why black tenants pay higher rents than whites for the same kinds of apartments. Dalton replies that there is a housing shortage on the South Side. Max retorts that there are areas of the city without housing shortages, and Dalton replies that he thought black tenants preferred living together on the South Side. Max then succeeds in making Dalton admit that he refuses to rent to black tenants in other neighborhoods. He accuses Dalton of giving some of the real estate profits to black schools merely to alleviate his guilty conscience. Before dismissing Mr. Dalton, Max asks him if the living conditions of Bigger’s family might have contributed to the death of his daughter. Dalton cannot comprehend the question.

The coroner exhibits Bessie’s body to the jurors. Bigger knows that the authorities are using Bessie only to ensure that he will get the death penalty for killing Mary. Bigger becomes angry that they are using Bessie in death just as Bessie’s white employer used her while she was alive. He feels that the whites are using both him and Bessie as if they were mere property.

Bigger is indicted for rape and murder. Bigger asks to see a newspaper, which reports that he is certain to receive the death penalty. Max visits Bigger in his cell. Hopeless, Bigger tells Max that none of his efforts will be of use. Bigger feels destined to die to appease the public, and, therefore, has no possibly of winning the trial. Max tries to get Bigger to trust him. Despite his best efforts to avoid opening up and trusting anyone, Bigger does end up trusting Max, but still believes Max’s efforts will prove futile. Max then asks Bigger why he killed Mary. Excited at the prospect of finally feeling understood, Bigger tells Max that he did not rape Mary and hints that he killed her by accident. When Max presses him further about his feelings, Bigger states that Mary’s unorthodox behavior frightened and shamed him. When Max points out that Bigger could have avoided the murder by trying to explain himself to Mrs. Dalton, Bigger explains that he could not help himself and that it was as if someone else had stepped inside him and acted for him.

Bigger explains to Max that there has always been a line drawn in the world separating him from the people on the other side of the line, who do not care about his poverty and shame. He says that whites do not let black people do what they want, and admits that he himself does not even know what he wants. Bigger simply feels that he is forbidden from anything he might actually want. All his life, he has felt that whites were after him. Thus, even his feelings were not wholly his own, as he could only feel what whites were doing to him. Bigger once wanted to be an aviator, but he knew that black men were not allowed to go to aviation schools. He wanted to join the army, but it proved to be segregated and based upon racist laws. He saw the white boys from his school go on to college or the military when he could not. Having lost hope, he began living from day to day. Bigger says that after he killed Mary and Bessie, he ceased to be afraid for a brief while.

“Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything. . . . You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more. You just work say in and day out so the world can roll on and other people can live. You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks. . .”

He paused. Max leaned forward and touched him. “Go on, Bigger.”

“Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God. . . .” he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. “They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die.”

Bigger knows that he faces the death penalty, and therefore believes that it is too late to learn the meaning of his existence. He wishes he could retreat back into his mental stupor. He has a newfound feeling of hope for a new world and a new way of viewing himself in relation to other people, but this hope is tantalizing and torments him with uncertainty. Bigger wonders if perhaps his blind hatred is the better option anyway, since hope anguishes him more than it comforts him. The voice of hatred he has read in the newspapers seems so much louder and stronger than the voice of understanding he has heard in Max and Jan. Bigger despairs that this hatred will endure long after he is dead.

In the courtroom, Max presents his case. He argues that Bigger is a “test symbol” who embodies and exposes the ills of American society. Max explains that his intent is not to argue whether an injustice has been committed, but to make the court understand Bigger and the conditions that have created him. Max points out that the authorities have deliberately inflamed public opinion against Bigger, using his case as an excuse to terrorize the black community, labor groups, and the Communist Party into submission.

Max goes on to say that the rage directed at Bigger stems from a mix of guilt and fear. Those who clamor for Bigger’s swift execution secretly know that their own privileges have been gained through historical wrongs committed against people like Bigger, and that their wealth has been accumulated through the oppression of others. Bigger’s options have been so limited, and his life so controlled, that he has been unable to do anything but hate those who have profited from his misery. Stunted and deformed by this oppression, Bigger was unable to view Mary and Jan as human beings. Max argues that the Daltons, despite their philanthropy, are blind to the world that has created Bigger and have themselves created the conditions that led to their daughter’s murder.

Max warns that killing Bigger quickly will not restrain others like him. Rather, these other blacks will only become angrier that the powerful, rich, white majority limits their opportunities. Popular culture dangles happiness and wealth before the oppressed, but such goals are always kept out of reach in reality. Max argues that this smoldering anger born out of restricted opportunities—though now tempered by the effects of religion, alcohol, and sex—will eventually burst forth and destroy all law and order in American society. By limiting the education of blacks, segregating them, and oppressing them, white society itself is implicated in Mary’s murder. Max claims that white society “planned the murder of Mary Dalton” but now denies it. He says that his job is to show how foolish it is to try to seek revenge on Bigger.

Max argues that Bigger murdered Mary accidentally, without a plan, but that he accepted his crime, which gave him the opportunities of choice and action, and the sense that his actions finally meant something. Bigger’s killing was thus not an act against an individual, but a defense against the world in which Bigger has lived. Mary died because she did not understand that she alone could not undo hundreds of years of oppression. Max points to the gallery, where blacks and whites are seated in separate sections. Blacks, he says, live in a separate “captive” nation within America, unable to determine the course of their own lives. He argues that such a lack of self-realization is just as smothering and stunting as physical starvation. Bigger sought a new life, Max says, and found it accidentally when he murdered Mary. Max argues that Bigger had no motive for the crimes and that the murders were “as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one’s eyes.” The hate and fear society has bred into Bigger are an inextricable part of his personality, and essentially his only way of living.

Max says that there are millions more like Bigger and that, if change does not come, these conditions could lead to another civil war. He says he knows the court does not have the power to rectify hundreds of years of wrongs in one day, but that it can at least show that it recognizes that there is a problem. Prison, he says, would be a step up for Bigger. Though Bigger would be known only as a number in prison, he would at least have an identity there. Finally, Max argues that the court cannot kill Bigger because it has never actually recognized that he exists. He urges the court to give Bigger life. Bigger does not entirely understand Max’s speech, but is proud that Max has worked so hard to save him.

After Max’s arguments, Buckley declares that Bigger does in fact have a motive for Mary’s murder. Buckley claims that since Bigger and Jack masturbated while watching a newsreel about Mary the same day she was killed, Bigger must have been sexually interested in her. Buckley tells the courtroom that Bigger was a “maddened ape” who raped Mary, killed her, and burned her body to hide the evidence. Buckley concludes his argument by saying that Bigger was sullen and resentful from the start, not even grateful when he was referred to Mr. Dalton for a job. Buckley calls Bigger a “demented savage” who deserves to die, and whose execution will prove that “jungle law” does not prevail in Chicago. The court adjourns. After a brief deliberation, the judge returns and sentences Bigger to death.

Max visits Bigger again and tries to comfort Bigger, but Bigger wants understanding, not pity. He continues, saying that sometimes he wishes Max had not asked the questions, because they have made him think and this thinking has scared him. The questions have made Bigger consider himself and other people in a new way, and have caused him to realize that his motivation for hurting people was simply that they were always crowding him. He did not mean to hurt others, but it just happened. When Bigger committed the murders, he was not trying to kill anyone, but rather to make his life mean something that he could claim for himself. Bigger asks Max if this sense of meaning is the same reason that the authorities want to kill him. Max urges his client to die free, believing in himself. He tells Bigger that only his own mind stands in the way of believing in himself. The rich majority dehumanizes people like Bigger for the same reason Bigger could not see the majority as human—they each just want to justify their own lives.

Bigger tells Max he does believe in himself. He did not want to kill, but there was something in him that has made him kill and that something must be good. He tells Max that he feels all right when he looks at it this way. Max is horrified at Bigger’s words, but Bigger assures him that he is all right.

Richard Wright has been criticized for using the character of Max to promote his Communist ideology — while Wright has said that Max is promoting a world in which there is no black or white, there is no evidence in the book that the future will lead us to that world. If anything, the world is almost even more fractured after the trial. Wright was a member of the Communist party when he writing the book, which is why the heroes of his book were Communists, as well.

I first read this book in college and it scared the crap out of me. The thing that is the most unsettling is the anger. Bigger Thomas is one of the most angry characters in literature. Reading it in the 21st century was disturbing, and I don’t live with that sort of racial tension. I can only imagine what reading it in the 1940s was like. I know that there still is racism in America, but I have never experienced that intense hate and violence. Native Son is a very important book, if only for the sole purpose of scaring the crap out of white people and making people realize how the other side lives.

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