Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Sunday 2 October 2011

Banned Books Week

This week (24th September to 1st October) has been Banned Books Week. Every year in the US, hundreds books in the public (state) school system and in public libraries are "challenged", but many are never reported. During Banned Books Week, the public was challenged to read banned and challenged books. I decided to read Young Adult novel  Bless Me, Ultima by award winning Mexican-American author Rudolfo A Anaya.

This is the story of Antonio, a seven year old Chicano boy growing up in New Mexico during World War Two. His brothers are away in the army, and in the early part of the novel the loss of young men is a palpable background to the story: the mothers in mourning going to Mass, and then a traumatised veteran kills the sheriff. Antonio's parents, a farmer's daughter whose hopes for respectability through Antonio's becoming a priest, and his father, former vaquero (mounted livestock herder, similar to a gaucho or cowboy) turned road mender, have conflicting dreams for the family. His mother wants to stay close to her family; his father hopes to move to California once his older sons return. It is into this atmosphere that Ultima, the wisewoman and healer, comes to stay with the family.

As soon as she arrives, Ultima recognises something within Antonio, and becomes his mentor in curanderismo, the healing arts. She teaches him not only the herbs and their properties, but also how to respect them. Antonio has vivid dreams and deep sympathies, which reflect not only his learning as a curandero, but also the conflicts of Catholic teachings and traditional beliefs, and the conventionality of his mother's family and the freedom loving nature of his father. Then his uncle Lucas is cursed by the three bruja (witch) daughters of Tenorio Trementina. Antonio not only witnesses Ultima break the curse, but also internalises Lucas' illness, leading to his recovery. However, Tenorio becomes determined to destroy Ultima and anyone protecting her. Antonio witnesses a number of deaths as a result.

Bless Me, Ultima contains swearing both in Mexican Spanish and in English, and what could be taken for mocking of Catholic religious practices through the children re-enacting confession with Antonio as reluctant priest. However, there is nothing more shocking in it than in Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood scenes with children. I was unsurprised to see that the principal who removed the book in Norwood, Colorado later admitted that he had in fact not read it. I am at a loss to find where the parents of Fayetteville, Arkansas find the book irreverent. The scene where the children are re-enacting confession, as I mention above, shows that Antonio is an unwilling participant and feels uncomfortable doing so; Anaya is definitely not approving of this behaviour.

In my opinion the changes to the UK education system, with more state-funded independent schools and giving more "freedom" in the curriculum could lead to similar challenges to literature here. In my opinion this should be resisted. Parents should and do have the right to disapprove of books for children; they have every right to control what their children read at home. However, no parent should have the right to control what other children read. Literature exists to provoke, challenge and make us think. It should be discussed, studied and its merits should be judged. How else will a child in the City of Birmingham, UK know about the lives of children in Birmingham, Alabama, or children in East London, UK know about children in East London, South Africa? "Only connect", as EM Forster says in Howards End. Through reading, that is what we do.

An appropriate song: La Bruja by Lila Downs, an amazing Mexican singer.

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