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Bless the beasts and children by Glendon Swarthout – “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”, they said

May 3, 2020 32 comments

Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout (1970) French title: Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes. Translated by Gisèle Bernier.

One of the great pleasures of book blogging is doing readalongs. Reading is a solitary affair but there is something very satisfying in reading a book along with someone else and have the opportunity to discuss it with another reader who has all the details fresh in mind. Vishy and I decided to read along Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout and Vishy’s review is here.

Six teenagers, aged twelve to fifteen share a cabin at Box Canyon Boys Camp, Arizona. The oldest is John Cotton, from Cleveland. He lives with his mother, who’s already gone through three marriages and three divorces. Lawrence Teft III comes from NY and is testing is father’s patience as he doesn’t want to follow the designated path: go to Exeter and Dartmouth. Samuel Shecker, son of a Jewish comic who has a show in Las Vegas finds solace in food and in his father’s jokes. Gerald Goodenow suffers from school phobia and his stepfather decided it was high time he grew up. The Lally brothers come from Illinois and are raised by absentee parents who are not over their honeymoon phase and never added the parenting role in their couple.

The boys camp sounds like boot camp for teenagers or a school for alpha males. There are six cabins, five named after Native American tribes and the last one is named the Bedwetters. There is a competition between the cabins, with challenges, trophies, rules and a good dose of public humiliation for those who lose. Five trophies are animals (manly animals like a mountain lion) and the last one is a chamber pot. All the challenges are sports ones, of course. Weakness is not allowed at Box Canyon Boys Camp and our six protagonists, with their psychological issues and non-athletic physique are the Bedwetters. It makes them weak in the eyes of the other kids and the camp’s counselors. They are the misfits of this camp, all sent there by parents who wanted to get rid of them for the summer and teach them how to become men. More about that part later.

At some point, John Cotton had enough and decided to turn his roommates into a real tight-knit team. When the book opens, they are back in their cabin after a traumatic day. We don’t know what they witnessed but it was bad enough for them to leave the camp at night and go on a secret mission. We follow them as they take their horses to go to the nearest town, steal a car and go to the location where they witnessed something terrible. They are determined and will conquer their fears to achieve what they set up to do. I will discuss their mission later on, with a spoiler alert if you don’t want to know what they are up to.

Before that, I would like to point out an important aspect of this coming-of-age novella: what white America considers as “being a man”. When John Cotton decides to boost his roommates, how does he win his leadership? He smokes, he has a weapon, drinks a bit of whisky and imposes last names to address to each other. For this teenager, this is what a real man looks like. There is no room for feelings, weakness or compassion. His mission to dry out tears, fears and need for love in his teammates. This is also the message conveyed by their fathers or father figures: to become a man, you need to survive and conquer at Box Canyon Boys Camp.

The philosophy there is based on the Darwinism applied to humans: put up some competitive events to speed up natural selection. Allow the strongest boys to humiliate the weakest ones. They are not asked to help them to catch up, no, they are enticed to rejoice in their success and look down on others. There is no room for intellectual brightness, a man is someone who excels at physical activities. Intellectuals are not real men either.

The more I read American literature, the more I think that part of the white population of America has an issue with the definition of masculinity. The model of masculinity is the cowboy: a tough, silent type, who grits his teeth in adversity, defends himself with a gun and shows no emotion.

I am sure there were (are?) Box Canyon Boys Camps, just as there are dude ranches for adults. After all, the camp’s slogan is “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”. The rules of the camp in Bless the Beasts and Children left me speechless. I have never heard of such camps in France, even in the fifties. What kind of education is that? They also reminded me a passage of Balakian’s memoir, when he compares his Armenian father’s parenting to the one of his WASP friends.

He makes the same comments as Roth when he tells about his childhood in the Jewish community in Newark. Their fathers didn’t have the same definition of “being a man”. They didn’t objectify women the same way or talk about them like connoisseurs of fresh meat, as Gary used to say. True, it was in the 1950s or the 1940s and Swarthout’s book came out in 1970. But Rick Bass mentions the same cowboy reference in his Book of Yaak published in 1996. (Upcoming billet). It is an issue that Gary questions in 1965 in The Ski Bum (in French, Adieu Gary Cooper). Sometimes I wonder if this long-lasting admiration for the cowboy model didn’t bring Trump to power. Bass and Gary think it has a negative impact on the way politics is done, because acting strong is acting like a cowboy and not negotiating or protecting the weak.

But I digress. Time to come up with the part with spoilers. You may wonder now what the beasts are and why there are bison on the covers. The children gave themselves the assignment to free a group of buffalo from a reserve in Arizona. Why? Because the day before, on their way back from hiking in Petrified Forest, they stopped by this bison reservation and stumbled upon the day of bison hunting, organized to monitor the population of buffalos. Hunters won tickets at a lottery and were allowed to shoot at close range on cornered animals. The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) called it hunting. The children in Swarthout’s novella named it slaughtering and overcame their fears to stop it.

Bless the Beasts and Children is famous for being a book about animal rights. Swarthout shows the cruelty of men who enjoy killing for pleasure. He was well-informed and the cruel hunts he describes really took place. After his book went out and was made into a film, the AGFD had to change the rules of buffalo hunting.

And Swarthout seems to ask us: what’s better? The cowboy masculinity of these buffalo hunters or the children’s weakness and compassion for the beasts?

Highly recommended. Of course, published by Gallmeister in a revised translation.

PS: A question and a comment about the book titles, in English and in French.

Question about the English title: Why is it Bless the Beasts and Children and not Bless the Beasts and the Children? Why only one the?

Comment about the French title: In my opinion, it is not Bénis soient les bêtes et les enfants because in this case, bête is heard as someone stupid and not beast whereas Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes immediately conveys the idea that bêtes are animals.

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