This past weekend, I was one of five judges for a local literary contest. We met at someone’s home and spent hours discussing the stories and how the dozens of writers had interpreted the contest’s theme. We voted and argued and hashed out our opinions until we agreed on the winning stories.
Post judging, we had dinner. And because we’d talked about stories all afternoon, we talked about stories all evening, too. And somewhere in there, we discussed stories we’d read in high school. Stories we loved. Stories we hated. Stories we loved and everybody else hated. (I’m looking at you, Silas Marner.)
My most loved book in high school was not The Grapes of Wrath, but it was the most memorable. Senior year, I took an American Literature class as an elective. This class was populated by a lot of boys, from a lot of sports teams, because one of the coaches let slip that this particular teacher in this particular elective let students read in class. And she gave open book tests. TAKE HOME open book tests. This was the only class in my high school with a waiting list. I don’t know how I got in, to tell you the truth.
Of course, there was a catch. Day One, the teacher passed out an approved reading list. Each quarter, we had to read X number of novels and complete X number of (take home, open book) tests. Seems like a dream come true, so what was the catch?
The books were long. Or hard. Some were long and hard.
I’m talking Faulkner, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Robert Penn Warren. Ford Madox Ford. The USA Trilogy. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Henry James and Edith Wharton. The Ugly American. Little Women. The Scarlett Letter. House of the Seven Gables. East of Eden. James Michener. A Farewell to Arms. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sinclair Lewis.
We were indeed allowed to read in class–in total silence. If you complained, or were disruptive, or didn’t read, you were booted out. Nobody wanted that. Despite having to read a long hard book, we were still in a classroom with a teacher who pretty much never spoke, because she sat at her desk and read the entire period, too.
Still, some of the boys were not very happy, and I seem to recall a limerick about Francie Nolan that I dare not repeat. But I was content, happy to read in silence for an hour every day–until The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck shocked me. I’d grown up hearing Great Depression stories, but we had no family experience like the Joads crossing the desert with Granma dead in the back of the truck, and none of my cousins breast-fed a grown man to keep him from starving as Rose of Sharon had.
But the real shocker was something else. The authorial choice that blew my young mind was that Steinbeck made a pig eat a baby.
When I came to that part of the book, I expressed my shock by, well, screaming. “Oh my God, the pig ate the baby!”
To which all of the boys responded by screaming back, “What page are you on? What page!”
It was pandemonium. The teacher next door—a coach–burst in to demand what the heck was going on. I kept repeating, “The pig ate the baby! The pig ate the baby!” As usual, our teacher didn’t speak, but the coach zeroed in that I was the troublemaker. He pointed at me and said, “Go see the nurse.”
I don’t know why he didn’t say, “Go see the principal,” but I saw the nurse. I think she put a cold compress on my forehead.
The next day, everyone in class had speed read The Grapes of Wrath. I was temporarily famous until someone reading Slaughterhouse Five reported what Billy and Montana were up to at the zoo, with the Tralmalfadorians watching. Sex and voyeurism trumped pigs eating babies.
This was the first time an author utterly surprised me–not by a gimmick or device or even an unexpected plot twist, but by a brave choice that was true to the story. In The Grapes of Wrath, for me, that moment crystallized the themes of desperation, despair and survival.
Unexpected, unforgettable choices. How often does an author accomplish that?
I will share two other books whose authors, in my opinion, made brave dramatic choices. The first is Stone Fox, by John Reynolds Gardner, a middle grade novel.
The other is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne.
Both books for young readers, as it happens.
Both of these books left me breathless in the moment, and admiring ever since. The authors made dramatic choices that elevated it, not because of shock value, but because in hindsight, the choice was inevitable. Right for the story.
Has a book ever blown you away by sheer surprise? Do you recall a story with a shocker that you didn’t see coming, but after it happened, you’ve never forgotten it?
Tell me about it.