Home > 1970, 20th Century, American Literature, Classics, Gallmeister, Highly Recommended, Made into a film, Novella, Swarthout Glendon > Bless the beasts and children by Glendon Swarthout – “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”, they said

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

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.

  1. May 3, 2020 at 11:25 am

    I think I’d find this a stressful read – anything about group norms and undercurrents close to bullying really get to me. I’m sure you’re right about a culture of toxic masculinity resulting in the leaders like Trump and Boris Johnson. This does sound excellent though, and how wonderful that it resulted in a change in buffalo hunting.

    Like

  2. May 3, 2020 at 11:56 am

    I do think this idolisation of the lone ranger/cowboy hero has proved so toxic in American politics and history, so yes, I think I’d be quite cross with the premise of this book. But I’m glad those children decided to do something about it…

    Like

    • May 3, 2020 at 12:08 pm

      It’s a great coming-of-age adventure. We see how they manage to stick together, get past the hurdles to reach that buffalo ranch.
      It’s an excellent book. Lots of things packed in few pages.

      Like

  3. May 3, 2020 at 12:34 pm

    I know you had to do a book review but I would have liked a whole billet on manliness. The Australian idea (the Australian Legend) is slightly different from the American, but derived from the same root, the Noble Frontiersman. And it leads to stupid things like politicians being judged by how autocratic they are – ‘strong leader’ – and being criticised for changing their minds.

    You remind me how annoyed I was with the kids’ primary school where exams, at which they would excel, were deemed demoralizing for the other students, but athletic competitions with prizes for the fastest etc were somehow not.

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    • May 3, 2020 at 1:59 pm

      Sorry Bill, but I don’t think I can write billets like one about manliness. I don’t have the skills to write academic papers about anything.

      I wonder if they have the same “Frontierman” in Canada.

      I totally get why these exams made you angry. Have high grades and you’re a nerd, be good in sports and be a hero…

      In France, there is no emphasis on sports the way there is in American highschools. People do sports mostly out of school and it remains a private matter.

      And we really don’t have this very American species: the cheerleader.

      Like

      • May 3, 2020 at 2:19 pm

        Only Americans have cheerleaders! And it’s that dichotomy between ‘real men’ and women forced to be blonde bimbos that led inevitably to Trump.

        Like

        • May 3, 2020 at 6:47 pm

          I have an issue with cheerleaders, to be honest. I would have a smaller one if there were male equivalents for female sports.

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      • May 3, 2020 at 3:37 pm

        On the basis of this blog post, and specifically of your ability to pull in references to Gary, Balakian, Rick Bass and Trump, I would say that you *do* have the skills to write papers about “things”. Non-academic writing is also perfectly acceptable.

        Liked by 2 people

        • May 3, 2020 at 6:50 pm

          Well, quoting different writers is easier than writing a constructed dissertation but thanks for the pep-talk!

          Certains ont le complexe du cornflakes, moi j’ai un peu le complexe du professionnel du tableau Excel vs le professionnel de l’écriture! 🙂

          Like

  4. May 3, 2020 at 5:04 pm

    So much of that ‘lone cowboy’ image comes from Hollywood too, not reality. The European immigrants should have learned from the people there instead of killing and displacing them, but unfortunately for this country that didn’t happen.

    Like

    • May 3, 2020 at 6:55 pm

      Certainly, Hollywood has a big part in that but westerns existed in literature before the cinema, no?

      European immigrants were so certain to know the Truth (Christianism) and to come with a higher civilization that they couldn’t be open to other cultures.

      Plus, they come from a tradition that says that nature is at the disposal of mankind and with a cardinal principle: someone must own the land.

      No way they could have cohabited properly with the Natives without giving up part of their beliefs. And since they were convinced to be superior and comforted in this belief by their religious leaders, it was doomed from the start.

      Liked by 2 people

      • May 5, 2020 at 3:10 am

        Yes, I very much agree that the traditions and beliefs of the immigrants would make them unable to accept or even listen to what the Native people could have taught them, it’s just truly unfortunate that this was what happened. Here and elsewhere in the world.

        ‘The Virginian’ by Owen Wister was published in 1902 and I think that book is thought of as the first Western; Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour followed him. But Hollywood Westerns really solidified a mythology of the ‘Old West’ in many American minds. Then came television programs with the same glorifying propaganda.

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        • May 5, 2020 at 9:33 pm

          I agree with you, it’s a pity they missed out on learning from the Natives and build a constructive relationship.

          I’ve read a Zane Grey. And the film versions of westerns stuck in people’s minds a lot more than books and the mythology spread around the world…

          Liked by 1 person

      • May 8, 2020 at 2:06 am

        The Métis people of the plains would disagree!

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        • May 8, 2020 at 2:07 am

          (in reference to the “doomed from the start” bit)

          Like

          • May 8, 2020 at 1:51 pm

            I’m not familiar with their history but of course, things could be different at human level and not all the immigrants agreed with the politics led by Washington or the local States.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. May 3, 2020 at 5:05 pm

    It sounds stunning but I’m not sure I’d be able to stomach it because of the cruelty against animals. Toxic masculinity and animal abuse go often hand in hand. Also the belief a “a real man” needs meat.
    It sounds like a very important book though. The question is – do we see the killing or is it just mentioned?

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 3, 2020 at 6:58 pm

      It is a stunning book and yes, the hunt is described. (thankfully, I’d say, otherwise, it wouldn’t have been such a scandal. So it was a gratuitous description of violence)

      Just use one of the reader’s inalienable right: skip pages!

      I think it’s an important coming-of-age novel. I wonder if it’s taught in schools because it is a good book to study in class.

      Liked by 1 person

      • May 3, 2020 at 7:03 pm

        It sounds like it would be great for teaching. But maybe it’s too violent? I could skip but I’d still have to skim and it might be too much. I’d never heard of it and found it quite a coincidence that both you and Vishy got it.

        Like

        • May 3, 2020 at 7:08 pm

          The hunt is only a few pages in the book. Most of the novel is about the kids, their journey to the ranch and flash backs about their life back home.

          Is it too violent for highschool students? We’re talking about people who find normal to take kids to the shooting range.

          Vishy had it on the TBR and I got it from my Gallmeister binge. I think it’s a classic in its way, like Lord of the Flies.

          Like

          • May 3, 2020 at 7:24 pm

            I don’t know. To me it’s very weird what can and what can’t be taught in American schools. Since it’s not about sex or offends their religion, it’s very possible it would be acceptable to teach it.
            Nowadays, this would be marketed as YA.

            Like

            • May 3, 2020 at 8:20 pm

              You’re right, it’s not always logical.

              I guess it’d be YA now, yes. Like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, that I recommend if you haven’t read it. (this one is always on the banned-book lists for highschools)

              Liked by 1 person

              • May 3, 2020 at 8:44 pm

                I haven’t read it but I’m pretty sure I’ve got it somewhere. So many children’s books are always banned. Pathetic.

                Liked by 1 person

              • May 4, 2020 at 7:46 am

                I know. That’s what happens when you rely on private funds for school. The educative team loses its independance.

                Liked by 1 person

  6. Vishy
    May 3, 2020 at 11:20 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! Thanks so much for doing this readalong with me 🙂 I love the French Gallmeister cover of the book. I loved reading your thoughts about the traditional American thinking on what it means to be a man. I loved the way the main characters in the story contradict that and show that there is another way of life possible – not compete, but work together on a project which is meaningful. It is so nice that the book influenced actual change in the rules. I still remember the first scene in which Cotton dreams that he is a bison and when he comes out the enclosure, someone points a gun at him and he realizes it is his mom. It was heartbreaking, and I was so glad that was a dream. Your question on the English title is very interesting! I think botch the titles mean the same thing. I think there was only one ‘the’ in the English title, because ‘beasts and children’ was considered together. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I loved your review!

    Like

    • May 4, 2020 at 7:43 am

      Thanks. Gallmeister has original covers, in the sense that these illustrations are made for the books they publish and not taken from a database of images.

      I agree with you about the characters. Romain Gary writes a lot about weakness and what it brings to the world. He says that strength lacks genius because it relies on itself while weakness needs to be inventive to overcome difficulties. That’s exactly what these teenagers did. They have to stick together, support each other and never lose sight of their goal.

      I also think that, for the first time, they had a purpose and their action matters. When they’re with their families, for different reasons for each boy, they don’t matter. Their parents were all happy to ship them off to boot camp and not see them for the whole summer.

      Like

      • Vishy
        May 7, 2020 at 8:33 pm

        So nice to know about the Gallmeister covers, Emma. I can’t stop looking at the covers! I loved what Romain Gary said. What he said is very true. Thanks so much for sharing!

        Like

  7. May 8, 2020 at 2:04 am

    Beautiful review. I am going to track down the French version and read it.

    “The model of [American] masculinity is the cowboy: a tough, silent type, who grits his teeth in adversity, defends himself with a gun and shows no emotion.” This is such an apt observation! This cowboy mentality is also at the root of violence against Indigenous women.

    My answer to your question about the English title – because it sounds betters! “Blessed the apples and oranges.” An extra “the” would be grammatically correct, but would sound off.

    Like

    • May 8, 2020 at 1:49 pm

      Thanks. The French translation sounds good, as do all the translations published by Gallmeister.

      Thanks for your answer about the English title. I wondered if there was a grammatical reason or an underlying meaning. But if it sounds better, that’s a good reason too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • May 10, 2020 at 4:05 am

        Oh wait, was the book written in English? I always try to read in the original language.

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