The only thing that saddens and dismays me more than when people try to get a book removed from a school curriculum or a public library is that school districts and library boards have to listen to crackpots who request this.
These incidents are usually started by an overprotective parent who doesn’t want a child exposed to ideas that may “corrupt” them. But when you do a little research you’ll discover that people have asked that works ranging from those by ancient Greeks to Toni Morrison and J.K. Rowling. That’s when you realize it’s not the work itself, it’s the ideas in the work, and the way they challenge the status quo that scares people. Some people, I should say, not all. But, as you know, it’s always, sadly, the loudest, most ignorant bitcher who always gets heard.
To fulfill this category, I selected Dalton Trumbo’s powerful antiwar novel “Johnny Got His Gun.” Trumbo, a Communist and someone who served time in jail for his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisted for a time from working in Hollywood. He got around that in a scrappy, heroic way, even winning two Oscars for his work written under pseudonyms because he was unable to write openly.
So I guess that given his background, his antiwar novel featuring a war casualty that is little more than a mind in a pile of meat, would be somewhat controversial. It was, sort of, but has never been seriously challenged the way, say, “Catcher in the Rye” or “The Chocolate War” have been.
But I read it so I’m writing on it.
The book takes place entirely inside the mind of Joe (that’s right, not Johnny) Bonham, as he lay in his hospital bed after being injured during action in World War I. As he is tended to by nameless, faceless nurses, he slowly comes to realize the extent of his injuries. He’s deaf, blind, his legs and arms were blown off as was his jaw. He can only lay in his bed and try to heal. But for what, he wonders.
He looks back on his life and remembers his family, his loves, work, people who helped and hurt him in the past and tries to find meaning in why he is still alive. Between these memories, he tries to find ways to discover the time, the day, even the year. These tasks give him purpose. Eventually, he finds a way to communicate, but what can he say?
This novel, like most works set in war, is absolutely anti-war: “He thought here you are Joe Bonham lying like a side of beef all the rest of your life and for what? Somebody patted you on the shoulder and said come along son we’re going to war. So you went. But why? In any other deal even like buying a car or running an errand you had the right to say what’s there in it for me?” And this “When I swap my life for liberty I’ve got to know what liberty is and whose idea of liberty we’re talking about and just how much of that liberty we’re going to have. And what’s more mister are you as much interested in this liberty as you want me to be?”
You’ll note that there are no commas or quote marks in the text, which takes some getting used to.
As fascinating as it is, and as beautifully written and intellectual (though easily understood—Joe is, you might say, your average Joe) I found myself asking where he was going with this book and why it was taking so long. But then there’s a stirring passage—especially a retelling of the birth of Christ, which he does to keep himself sane—and you find yourself right back into it.
It’s a shame it’s so often read in high schools, because it’s a book that will challenge adults and should be read with adult sensibilities, which may challenge and disturb.
Post your banned book review in the comments below. I’d love to hear what’s being read out there.
Next up in the Classics Challenge 2016/17: A biography of a writer or a memoir. Now, I don’t know why I included “of a writer” a part of this category. I guess I was interested in reading about the creative process. Choose whatever you want. I’ve selected “Groucho and Me,” a memoir written by Groucho Marx.