After parental complaints, Champaign’s Unit 4 School District recently compromised on allowing the reading of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner in its sophomore honors English classes. Controversial books are usually the ones most worth reading. One of the books I remember having to read was The Scarlet Letter. I suppose it was as good a book as any, but I never finished it. Within the last few chapters I gave up and went through the motions until the end of the unit. Losing interest in a classic book is not difficult. Its language may be antiquated, the sentence structure too hard to decipher and timely subject matter tends to lose its relevancy over time.
John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men may have escaped the curse of inconsequence for the same reasons it was banned from public schools for most of the 90s. It contains offensive language, racial epithets, sexual overtones, violence and death: the makings of a good story. While it has lost a bit of significance since 1937, the inherent loneliness of the major characters and their subsequent longing for companionship are always relevant.
The story takes place during the Depression, when men rode the rails cross-country looking for work, drinking Sterno and smoking old stogies they found. I’ll admit the stereotype, but Steinbeck successfully brings the era to life time and again. Of Mice and Men is the tragic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers trying to scrape together enough money to buy a place of their own.
“We’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—“
“An’ live off the fatta the lan’,” Lennie shouted. “An’ have rabbits.”
The only hitch in the plan is Lennie. With the mental capacity of a five-year-old, he’s a massive hulk who doesn’t know his own strength. He also has a penchant for petting things until they die or start screaming for help. Lennie’s affinity for all things soft leads to the pair’s frequent midnight escapes from town to town, hiding in drainage ditches until the lynch mob passes.
Somehow the drifters land employment on a ranch in Steinbeck’s beloved Salinas Valley in California. The two men settle in, vowing that this time it will be different. Trouble rears its head when the boss’s son, Curly, takes an instant dislike to Lennie. Curly is a small man, quick to take offense, angling for a fight to make up for his diminutive stature. George warns Lennie to steer clear of him. A tangle with the boss’s son would only put them out of work and their little farm just that much farther out of reach. It is easy to guess where the story will go as soon as Curly’s wife darkens the bunkhouse doorway. She is pretty, in a low-rent sort of way. Her hair falls in soft blonde ringlets.
Loneliness is an undercurrent in Of Mice and Men, but the theme manifests itself mainly through the ranch outcasts. Candy is an old man missing a hand. He still manages to do odd jobs but feels the end of his time on the ranch looming. Crooks, a black man disabled by a crooked back, accepts segregation from the other workers but experiences the absence of any close relationships just as acutely. Curly’s wife, not named, is trapped in the prison of her marriage. The wary ranch hands continually thwart her attempts to reach out for any form of human interaction. She remains unnamed in the story because “Curly’s wife” is the only persona she is allowed.
For the transitory life they led, George and Lennie’s partnership is unusual. Most men working as they did traveled alone, but George and Lennie have each other and the shared dream of a place of their own. It’s too bad the little farm only exists among the cloudy spires of Fantasyland.
Lennie is far more interested in the prospect of a hutch full of rabbits to torture than the permanence a farm offers. As soon as his eyes glistened at the thought, my mind immediately conjured up Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck running into Hugo the Abominable Snowman after stopping for lunch in Albuquerque. When Hugo sees Daffy with his shirtsleeves up around his head, Hugo turns into a skipping CD:
“I will name him George. I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him and pat him and pet him and rub him and caress him.”
The suspect similarities between Hugo and Lennie may have piqued my interest enough to read Of Mice and Men, had it been on the summer reading list for English class. At 118 pages, it is a very easy read, and although the plot is a little predictable, the ending still comes as a shock. The offensive language and violence are not gratuitous. Without them, the characters wouldn’t breath; the story would have a limp.
The same is true of The Kite Runner and many other books that have caused contention in their day. If Khaled Hosseini had not included violence in his story, it would not touch its readers the way the author intended and would have suffered for it. Controversial books are supposed to foster new ideas and critical discussion. What better way to pass the time in school than by learning?
Rating: 4 of 5