by Beth Dolinar, Contributing Writer
“Wait…what? They killed Lennie?”
They were the words of my daughter about the ending of “Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s novella about migrant workers during the Depression.
“They didn’t have to kill him,” she said as a few tears flowed.
She was in middle school then, and the book had been assigned. As she and I read the ending together, I already knew about the shocking denouement, having read the book myself at around the same age.
I remember how jarring a read it was for me, with its rampant cruelty and misogyny; perhaps most unsettling was the way in which the mentally disabled Lennie was treated. And then there was the deeply offensive racist language. I’d read the book in one evening—an uncomfortable experience, as I recall.
“Of Mice and Men” is among the most challenged and most banned books of the past hundred years, joining a list that includes some of the other novels I’d been required to read, most notably Orwell’s “1984” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“The Catcher in the Rye” makes all the lists, too. I didn’t open that one until I was 24, and devoured it while riding in a car to my first television job. Had I known it was on the sacking lists, I’d have read it anyway because its voice of youthful disenchantment was the freshest I’d ever experienced.
Communities and parent groups are challenging those books and many others now. The commentary suggests they’re locking away the books out of fear a child will be changed by reading content that is provocative and offensive.
But isn’t that the point of reading? To carve a path that is essential to growing up and understanding the world? To, as Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” said, climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it.
Few of us will ever know that walk—not in the flesh anyway. It would be arrogant to suggest that I know what it’s like to walk through life looking and being different. Reading puts me as close to that experience as I will ever get.
Maybe adults who ban books lack confidence in the intelligence of their children. An age-appropriate book in a child’s hands is a runway, the beginning of travel to new places and other ways of thinking. Even angry or unpleasant truths can be ultimately life-affirming when taken in the context of a compelling story about interesting characters.
And so, to a parent who wants to keep “Of Mice and Men” away from his child I ask this question.
“Have you read it?”
If you do, you will see that the ugly racist language was sadly common for that time and place— despicable then and despicable now. The demeaning treatment of women was inexcusable then and inexcusable now. The cruelty and dismissiveness toward people with disabilities was wrong then and now.
But it happened and is a shameful part of our shared history; removing the book from a library shelf doesn’t erase that history. A student will read the book and be shocked, or appalled, or disgusted.
Or, like my daughter, be all those things but also touched and sad. I knew that, even at 13, she was intelligent enough to read the book without being damaged by it.
As we put the book back in her bag to return to the school library, I thought about the people living inside of it, so downtrodden, hopeless, damaged and struggling. Empathetic George and poor, hapless Lennie. They were people to care about, leading lives worth knowing about, in a time poisoned by hatred and fear.
Was my daughter changed by reading it? I think so. I hope so.
About the author: Beth Dolinar is a writer, Emmy-award winning producer, and public speaker. She writes a popular column for the Washington “Observer-Reporter.” She is a contributing producer of documentary length programming for WQED-TV on a wide range of topics. Beth has a son and a daughter. She is an avid yoga devotee, cyclist and reader. Beth says she types like lightning but reads slowly — because she likes a really good sentence.