By Lynn Willoughby
Bless the Beasts and Children ~ Glendon Swarthout
Swarthout wrote this coming of age novel in 1970, and many of his novels were made into movies. Hollywood loved him.
It tells the story of six emotionally disturbed boys sent to a summer camp in Arizona. They are from various cities in the US, sent by parents too busy to parent. The camp slogan is “Send Us a Boy, We’ll Send You a Cowboy!”
This is a camp run by a man’s man, where riding horseback, shooting, archery and canoeing are the favoured skills. The camp leaders tend not to assign cabins – they believe the thirty-six boys, ages 12-16, will sort themselves into their group of comfort. The leftovers are in cabin 6 and are called “The Bedwetters”, and for good reason.
Nevertheless, this pecking order leaves them at a severe disadvantage. The only way for a cabin to move up in rank at the camp, is to raid a superior cabin and capture it’s trophy head – a buffalo being the very top, a cougar, a black bear etc. are lower on the totem pole of camp.
This cabin full of thumb suckers, boys with super low self-esteem and awkwardness, plus lack of communication skills feels as though they are destined to spend the entire summer known as “The Bedwetters”.
Their counselor, called “Wheaties” by the boys, is worse than useless and really contributes to their lack of status. Eventually, he takes them to a ranch where they witness a canned hunt of 30 surplus buffalo, who are slaughtered, skinned and butchered before their eyes. The “hunters” have paid big money for the right to shoot the animals, and all of the deaths are slow and agonizing. This is the tipping point for the six boys, who are all teetering on the edge of their own breaking point.
This is a great story, well written, well documented and very emotionally charged. I hated to see it end. When presented with a brutality and bullying worse than their own experience, will the boys rally?? I couldn’t wait to see how the author handled the conclusion.
- The Tin Lizzie Troop
- The Eagle and the Iron Cross
………….and many more
The Homesman ~ Glendon Swarthout
Nebraska in the 1850s is a harsh and lonely place, especially for women. The brave homesteaders live in sod shanties or holes dug into the side of a hill. There are few trees. While the men dig wells by hand, break up the sod to plant crops, the women work even harder. They cook, wash clothes, bear children, labour in the fields and their gardens, fight off wolves, feed livestock and just try to keep everyone alive.
Not only are their lives brutal and unrelenting, there are no niceties, never any female companionship; there is never an end in sight, an end to this harsh and unrelenting kind of life. For some, their hearts and minds are broken by the bitter battle. A “homesman” must be found to escort four of them back east to a sanitarium or a mental institution.
When not one man steps up to take these four unfortunate women to Iowa, it is left to Mary Bee Cuddy – a local spinster, ex-school teacher and friend of the women, to make arrangements to transport them home to family or to an asylum.
Brave as she is, Mary Bee knows she cannot do this alone. Two of the women cannot walk, feed themselves, nor see to personal needs. None of them talk. It is early spring and Mary Bee knows there will be storms, there will also be breakdowns, Indian raids and a lack of game to feed the small group.
She eventually forces George Biggs, or whatever his name is, a low-life claim jumper who is set to be hung, to join her troup.
This novel is about their journey – the hardship, the loneliness, the madness and the heroism of the characters. It is heartbreaking. It is a tale of endurance – what all of the women seem to do best. It is a tribute to the women and men who homesteaded the frontier in both Canada and the USA.
- The Shootist
- Where the Boys Are
Between 1862 and 1934, the US federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads and distributed 420,000 square miles of federal land for private ownership.