Celebrating Women’s History Month!
To this day I regret the experience of reading some of those books!
Fifty-odd years after the fact, I’m still bitter over some of the utter garbage they forced me to read in high school. Looking back on the torture of those “classic” books, I wonder how much misogyny, both hidden and overt, I imbibed along with those supposedly-great works, such as Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace. (God know why, but I read a couple more of de Maupassant’s stories later on, probably only because they were included in short story compilations. The man absolutely despised women. His female protagonists were all vain and empty people, devoid of genuine feeling and lacking in character, and all were suitably punished through dreadful events by the end of each story.)
Maupassant and his misogyny aside, among the worst books I suffered through were Moby Dick, The Oxbow Incident, Lord of the Flies, and The Plague. Not to put too fine a face upon the matter, none of this was reading to be recommended for a teenage girl suffering severe clinical depression. I attribute a great deal of my senior year suicidal ideation to having been forced to read The Plague. But I found few redeeming features in any of these novels. It was not just that most of them were stultifying (which they were); they were upsetting, sometimes gross, often disgusting. Despite the fact that I could discern important themes promoted within the stories, they were still not novels I would have chosen to read, and I regret the experience to this day. I’m actually sorry that I can recall a great many passages from those books, because most of what I remember of them is disturbing.
The one disquieting book that I recollect with some redeeming grace is Elizabeth Kata’s Be Ready With Bells and Drums (A Patch of Blue), which our 7th grade class was, quite surprisingly and after a great deal of back-and-forth between our teacher, the school principal, and our parents, given to read. Reading it was, however, still distressing; not because the subject, racism, was in any way repellant, but due to the descriptions of physical, verbal and emotional abuse suffered by the main character, Selina. Owing to my personal experience of neglect and abuse, the described situations felt agonizingly familiar. I dared not tell my teacher, my friends—certainly not the other students–that the vivid portrayal of one brouhaha in the book, the screaming quarrels and obscene insults, were all too familiar; were daily occurrences in my own home.
To the disgust of my teacher, Mr. Phillips, I could only repeat inanely that I disliked the book. Disguising my true reasons, I complained that I found the slang speech of the characters irritating. Beyond that, though, I provided only the vaguest and most unsatisfactory reasons for my aversion.
In retrospect, I realize that this one book, of all those I was forced to read, was a genuine classic; a truly important, timely story, one that initiated hard conversations about racism (an unusual and valuable discussion in a 1967 classroom). Sadly, I was just at a very bad point in my adolescence to be reading it.
Rereading the book as an adult, I still found many passages of the book distressing, but was in a better position to handle my reactions.
Still, there is one literature lesson which I remember with pleasure. During my freshman year of high school, our teacher assigned the class to write a long, comprehensive essay on a book of our own choosing, with the caveat that she must approve the book we selected. “None of those trite romances!” she commanded. I smiled. At the time, I was working my way through the entire Pearl S. Buck oeuvre, having begun with Pavilion of Women and continued with The Good Earth. I’d just finished Jane Eyre. I’d twice read Karl Bruckner’s The Day of the Bomb, the heartbreaking account of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. I constantly borrowed from my mother’s huge collection of biographies and historical fiction novels about famous women of history: Nefertiti and Hatshepsut, Empress Josephine, Harriet Tubman, Isabella of Spain, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Katherine Swynford, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Esther, Elizabeth I, Katherine of Aragon, Empress Tzu Hsi, Anne Boleyn, Lady Julian of Norwich, Mary, Queen of Scots… Stories of real women and their formidable effect upon history that were certainly never touched upon either in my history classes or in the “masterworks” (emphasis on master) that I was forced to read.
I no longer remember which of these books my well-read adolescent self selected for my essay; I only recall that I didn’t need to reread it after having it vetted by my teacher. I just wrote my paper and earned my A.
I recall many passages from those biographies and novels, too, and the lessons that I learned from them: primarily, that women have had limited power throughout history, even when they achieved wealth and status, and also that the few female authors whose books were considered classics were still somehow of too little importance to be believed valuable for instructing the young.
I wonder sometimes how my love of reading survived the awful books that I was tortured with in high school. And I’ll never forgive my schools and teachers for the misery I endured in each page.