Bless the Beasts & Children
Doubleday Library of Congress # 79-94331.
*Pocket Books 25th anniversary edition ISBN 0-671-52151-9.
Pocket Books Enriched Classics edition ISBN 0-7434-9369-9
Glendon Swarthout’s masterpiece about teenaged summer campers trying to save an Arizona buffalo herd from inhumane slaughter in the bestselling classic – Bless the Beasts & Children.
Bless the Beasts & ChildrenBless the Beasts & Children became far and away Glendon Swarthout's biggest bestseller, never out-of-print from the day it was published in 1970, and is probably his masterpiece. It was a selection of the Literary Guild, the Doubleday Book Club, as well as a Reader's Digest Condensed Book. It has been published in foreign languages all over the world, even in Romania, twenty-five years later! Bless the Beasts & Children has sold well over 3 million paperbacks in the United States alone, and the latest Pocket Books 25th anniversary edition with a special introduction by Miles Swarthout, continues to be used in high school and college literature classes across the country. The novel was nominated by Doubleday as its Pulitzer Prize candidate in fiction in 1970. The film by Stanley Kramer in 1972 was not nearly as successful, but did contain some famous film music and can still be seen on television regularly (see film listings).
Based upon his only son's adventures in high school and as a summer camper and counselor at a private boys' ranch camp in Prescott, Arizona, Bless the Beasts & Children tells a tragicomic tale of a group of disturbed teenaged boys from over-privileged families who are "warehoused" by their inattentive parents at a summer session at an Arizona boys camp in hopes that their lazy, urban kids will be toughened-up in this camp's rigorous, cowboy program. While on a field trip with their militaristic counselor, Wheaties, the boys see an annual buffalo "hunt" sponsored by the Arizona Fish and Game Department, in which their counselor has drawn a permit. Sickened by the slaughter of these great beasts while trapped in big pens by these "sportsmen," the youths resolve to save the next days' allotment. Riding from their camp later that day on their horses, the boys steal a pickup in Prescott and head on up to Flagstaff on their mission-of-mercy. Complications arise, but these problem boys band together and manage to free these national symbols, but only after strenuous effort and at great cost.
Glendon Swarthout's more positive response to William Golding's classic novel, Lord of the Flies, and Golding's thesis that all men are basically beasts, stands as one of the first contemporary bestsellers to take up the cause of animal rights. It remains to this day one of the few controversial novels which ever resulted in some political change and social good -- the Arizona legislature mandated changing the regulation of their annual buffalo hunt to more humane practices due to the student protests resulting from this book and film. Glendon's theme that even a group of misfit youths, if banded together in common cause, were capable of a great, heroic deed, still resonates strongly with American teenagers and their teachers, and this classic novel is still mandatory reading in many English literature classrooms across the country today.
"Bless the Beasts & Children is alternately hilarious and scalding, pathetic and poignant. But it is never maudlin; its heroes' buffoonery never overshadows the cruelty that has shaped their lives. They, like the buffalo they set out to free, come face to face with their own freedom. But the price, the price . . ." Jim Hampton, National Observer.
"This is Mr. Swarthout's best novel since They Came To Cordura, an exciting mission-pursuit story with an engrossing cast of characters." Publisher's Weekly.
" Swarthout's thematic concerns -- the American Dream, the subduing of a continent and its inhabitants, sacrifice and brotherly love -- are integral to the narrative. 'Powerful' is a tired word to use on a novel, but how else is there to describe a book that leaves you limp? The best I could do after staring at the last page for several minutes was a respectful 'wow'." Catherine Petroski, the Austin, Texas Statesman.
"It's a novel that no reader, once hooked, can put down. It is both tragically sad and funny, both nostalgic and frighteningly contemporary. And it tells us something about our times that too many are trying to overlook. You shouldn't miss this one." Nard Jones, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
"Glendon Swarthout's latest work is a superb example of the kind of novel that evolves when a writer's craft is equal to the grandeur of his theme. Bless the Beasts & Children is a compassionate book, a true book, a book of the heart; it is also a compelling drama that grabs you with a grip that can't be pried loose . . . With this novel, Glendon Swarthout has added something fine and important to the literature of our age." Novelist Brian Garfield, the Saturday Review of Literature
"Make no mistake -- this book, despite its placid surface story, is really a tale of horror and cruelty, of honor and compassion, of savagery and serenity. In short, it is a brilliant statement of the human condition . . . a book which uses litotes -- the sort of understatement which only a gifted novelist can use effectively -- to tell us things about ourselves which we may not wish to know."
Edwin McDowell, Arizona Republic.
"Bless the Beasts & Children is a beautiful novel. It is tightly written, with a singleness of purpose that sets up a tension relieved only when the final page is finished. Even then the boys, their motivation, and the culmination of their actions will long remain with the reader -- to haunt him and to remind him how traumatic reaching for adulthood really is." Shirley Sievers, South Bend, Indiana Tribune.
"Well-written, almost poetically sparse, author Swarthout's ninth book adds to his prestige the acclaim that he handles the characters of runaway kids every bit as easily as he maneuvered rebellious soldiers in They Came To Cordura." The Los Angeles Times Calendar.
"This is one of the rare books whose impact will far exceed its size. A brief synopsis of the plot cannot prepare the reader for the emotional involvement he will encounter . . . Truly an excellent book." Nancy Chalfant, Sunday News&Leader, Springfield, Missouri.
"The initial pages of Bless the Beasts & Children are as dramatic and absorbing as anything this reviewer has read in a long, long time and the intensity of mood is sustained and heightened throughout the novel. Like all good fiction Bless the Beasts can be read on more than one level. It is at a minimum, a rattling good action story, which is quite an accomplishment for a novel which has for its main characters six adolescent boys at a summer camp. On a deeper level it is a record of the triumph of the human spirit over the vulgarity, sham, and cruelty of our time." Elliott R. Horton, Morgantown, West Virginia Dominion Post.
"Mr. Swarthout has written a parable of our time which on another level is a splendid and very funny adventure story. He says that in spite of all, the human spirit will prevail . . . Bless the Beasts & Children is a sort of Lord of the Flies with hope. It will make your day a little better and you won't soon forget it." L.T. Hammond, Jr., Asheboro, North Carolina Courier Tribune.
"The completion of their mission is heroic in the grand Swarthout manner -- and also in his manner, the ending leaves a king-size lump in the reader's throat over the irony that bludgeons idealistic innocence." Pat Hanna, Rocky Mountain News, Denver.
"Swarthout's tale is so funny, and heartbreaking, that the ugly vulgarity of our times which has thrown these beasts and children together is almost forgotten. The passage from adolescence to maturity has been a favorite theme for such writers as Salinger, Conroy, James Kirkwood and William Bradford. But none of them has written of it with such warmth and joy and understanding. You will not soon forget the Bedwetters or the magnificient beasts -- the buffalo -- which share their adventure." Robert Armstrong, Minneapolis Tribune.
"Bless the Beasts & Children might have been self-conscious. Instead it is a wonderful book in which a provocative subject is handled with wit and compassion." Thelma Altshuler, Miami Herald
"A powerful, absorbing, tenderly written novel, a knowing comment on today's world, Bless the Beasts & Children is an unforgettable experience." Louise Rogers, Greenville, Mississippi Delta Democrat-Times
"Glendon Swarthout has written a strangely moving little story of six boys who set out on a mission of violence to avenge with they felt was unbearable cruelty . . . The author interrupts the swift and violent record of the boys' deeds to insert vignettes of their lives. The result is strangely compelling." Fannie Butcher, Chicago Tribune
"When you read the book be prepared to laugh and cry. I cried more than I laughed. This outstanding novel will surely find a place on library shelves of school libraries as well as those of all who are concerned with the young people who become dropouts, runaways and lost segments of society. In addition, it is fast-moving and easy to read. The students will wait in line to read it."
Sioux Falls, Texas Argus-Leader
"This is Swarthout at his finest. He has told a tale about children without the triteness or cuteness that usually accompanies tales about children. These are real kids; products of an affluent American culture that furnishes children transistor radios and color televisions to ward off loneliness. It is a compactly told story, dreadful in its implications, yet filled with tender, bittersweet moments as six lonely little kids struggle to find themselves and, at the same time, to affirm, ritualistically, the goodness of God." Frederic Kelly, New Haven, Connecticut Register
Excerpt from Bless the Beasts & Children
In that place the wind prevailed. There was always sound. The throat of the canyon was hoarse with wind. It heaved through pines and passed and was collected by the cliffs. There was a phenomenon of pines in such a place. When wind died in a box canyon and in its wake the air was still and taut, the trees were not. The passing trembled in them, and a sough of loss. They grieved. They seemed to mourn a memory of wind.
Six of them waited in early morning, held in a kind of enclosure behind thick posts and planks and bunched up not because they were afraid but because, unused to being penned, they were excited and close together, they could communicate by odor. They snuffed one another. Through dilated nostrils they drew in the hot, animal odor of their excitement.
Then men came, horsemen. A gate was opened. Shouted at, they tried to stampede out together, but the gate was slammed after the lead three, Teft and Shecker and Lally 1, were through. The others waited. Soon the air was split by rifle fire. It spooked the three remaining. They milled in circles, bending planks and sideswiping posts, unafraid yet more excited than ever, since it was a stimulus in the ear which they could not identify. In the after-silence they waited again.
The horsemen returned. The gate was opened and the last three, Cotton and Goodenow and Lally 2, were let down a lane of wire fencing. It was good to be unpenned and free in the vivid morning. But when they paused to drink from a pond the horsemen harried them on, waving hats and shouting.
In an open field they made a stand. One hundred yards away a line of vehicles confronted them, and before the vehicles, a line of humans. Released earlier, Teft and Shecker and Lally 1 were nowhere to be seen. This puzzled them, as did the gunshot and Goodenow’s going down, first to his knees, then folding his hindquarters, then heavily on one side. He did not move. Cotton and Lally 2 snuffed the strange new odor emanating from the carcass.
At the next report Lally 2 leaped up and came down stiff-legged, and at the other violences in the ear shook his head and toppled, his eyes glazed, his limbs doubling and extending convulsively and brilliant red blowing from his mouth and nose. Cotton snuffed the blood. This smell he knew.
One lunge sent him into top speed, running this way only to be turned by vehicles, running that way only to be hemmed in by horsemen. Snorting, he tried another, battering head down into a wire fence and recoiling upon his haunches. He bounded up, maddened by the obstacle of steel which must give way before him.
Raging, he stood. Omnipotent, glaring at the line of humans, he centered on the muzzle of a rifle and down the barrel and into the half-face of a woman seated on a tarpaulin sighting him. She fired. He recognized her. The microsecond’s recognition shattered his heart even as her bullet broke his brain. It was the face of his mother.
Cotton woke with a cry.
His forehead, palms, and inner thighs seeped sweat. He disgusted himself. He was fifteen, the oldest, too old to have bad dreams.
He checked the time. It was five of eleven. He had been asleep less than half an hour. Hoisting himself on an elbow, out of habit he checked his personnel. Goodenow, Teft, Shecker, Lally 1--where was his brother? Then he remembered: Lally 2 had moved pillow and sleeping bag under his bed at lights out. In the seventh bed, Wheaties, their counselor, about whom no one gave a damn anyway, snored. All present, sir, and accounted for.
Cotton saluted himself and lay back listening to the sorrow of wind in the pines outside the cabin and the pulsing of transistor radios inside. That was how they induced sleep, the other five, with their radios, the way puppies ceased to whimper and dozed off if you tucked a ticking clock in their boxes to represent another heartbeat. At lights out they slid into sleeping bags and tucked the tiny radios under their arms and tuned them to the Prescott station for country & western or to one in Phoenix for soul. At first the dark was full of twang and nasal lament for lost loves and defunct broncs or electronic incoherence about baby, baby, and the blues, but as they twisted in their sleep, as the radios worked down in the bags, the music fuzzed and faded until it was not music but a presence near their feet. Eddy Arnold kept them company, or Aretha Franklin. Through the night the radios pulsed, and they were not alone.
Mornings and evenings were their most difficult times. Mornings they were reluctant to leave the security of the sack. Goodenow groaned, Teft scratched, Shecker and the Lally brothers dawdling dressing as though the reality beyond the cabin lay in wait for them with fang and claw, crouched. Evenings they dreaded the coming of the dark, and with it emigration into dreams, the conscious sending away of conscious self into the unknown. They put it off as long as possible. Teft went to the latrine. Shecker talked. Goodenow read paperbacks and magazines by flashlight. Lally 1 threw things. They drank from canteens slung over bedposts. Shecker ate candybars. In the gloomy corners Goodenow poked for omens, using flashlight for fingers. On the bare cave walls of the cabin Lally 2 painted hieroglyphs in light, undecipherable messages to tomorrow. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my batteries to keep. Evening was better for them now than it had been in the beginning. Cotton was proud of that. But it was still bad enough, and tonight they had slipped. This had been the worst of the summer.
They had returned in late afternoon from an overnight camp-out in the Petrified Forest. After washing up they went to supper in the chow cabin, forcing food down. No sooner were they outdoors again when in the midst of everybody, Goodenow vomited. He urped everything. Goodenow wet the bed. He was driven from two cabins for it. Cabins were not assigned. Boys bunked where they wished at first, or where they could, by chance or hunch or necessity. In a few days, according to camp theory, everyone would find his group, his home far from home, and his achievement level as well, for the laws of temperament and competition inevitably separated the deviant from the normal, the losers from the winners. Let them alone and the thirty-six youngsters would divide themselves naturally into six teams, each with its own cabin and counselor. But even at fourteen Goodenow still wet the bed. He was also a sissy, and thumbs at everything except making Indian beadwork belts and headbands. He was also homesick and cried much and when, the second morning, he was driven from a second cabin, he put on swim trunks, went to the tank, a small artificial lake, waded in up to his chin, and stood sobbing an intention to drown himself. Neither counselors nor campers took him seriously. To demands that he duck and do it, he bawled that the water was too cold. Spectators rolled on the ground. When asked why he didn’t suicide in his sleeping bag, which was wetter than the tank anyway, and certainly warmer, he splashed out of sight between canoes. He remained immersed until Cotton that afternoon talked him out of the tank with an invitation to join his cabin. There, he was assured, no one would laugh at him, and if anyone did, he, Cotton, would beat hell out of him. How they passed the evening after Goodenow vomited, Cotton could not recall, except that it had been an evening unlike any of the summer. No one hung or horsed around. What they had witnessed during the day had traumatized them. They dared not discuss it. Like walking wounded they scuffed separately among the trees, hiding from one another in the twilight. For the first time they welcomed the onslaught of the dark.
At lights out the cabin became a ward. Lally 2 regressed under his bed. The others zipped themselves into sleeping bags as though into burrows, tuning radios in and volume higher than ever before. There was no going to the latrine this night, no talking, no throwing things, no reading or eating or slurping from canteens or confession with flashlights. They fled into a sleep which was not repose. Now they could speak. Now all could upchuck what they had seen that day. They turned the night into an echo chamber. Goodenow thrashed. Teft ground his teeth. The Lally brothers chorused horror. Cotton dreamed of them being penned like beasts and murdered by their own parents. All of them cried out in a babble of id, ego, odor, blood, and the madness of men while Dionne Warwick ululated soul and Roy Acuff sang of sin and redemption. It was a catharsis by voice, and in vain.
Cotton listened again. Something was wrong. He counted off four radios, not five. Easing out of bed he peered under the bed beside his. Lally 2 was gone. Pushing feet into sneakers, he paddled outside in his skivs and along the path to the latrine. Lights were on but the john was deserted, as the shower room. More swiftly this time he jogged back to the cabin, and bending under the bed again he found the half-burned foamrubber pillow Lally 2 had brought from home also missing. That cinched it. He stood for a moment shivering, knowing why but determined not to admit, even to himself, that he knew why.
He stepped across to Lally 1, put one had firmly over his mouth, and with the other fist gave him a punch in the ribs. Lally 1 squirmed and grunted.
“Where’s your brother?” Cotton whispered, removing his hand.
“I know that. Where?”
Lally 1 told him, adding, “He said he was going and he did, so what.”
Cotton was furious. Lally 1 was fourteen, his brother only twelve. “Don’t you even care?” he hissed.
“No, I don’t. It’s no skin off mine.”
“Well, I do and you better. How was he going--walk all the way there and back?”
“He said walk into town, then hitch rides.”
“He’s crazy. Okay, out of the sack. We’re going after him, all of us.
“Yes you, damn you, or I’ll destroy you. Now move it. I’ll wake the others.”
Bed by bed, hands over mouths and mutters to throw on clothes and move it, Lally 2 had taken off and they had to catch him, Cotton roused Teft and Shecker and Goodenow, who sprang sweating from the locked, tormented cells of sleep. Action offered escape. They seemed to know, as he did, why Lally 2 had gone, and where. And after what the day had done to them, the night could do no worse. By the time he pulled on pants and a tee-shirt they were ready, following him out the door as stealthily as Indians and remembering, even, to leave their radios to lull the counselor, Wheaties. Cotton was proud of them. They were finally showing him some smarts.