COLUMN: Losing and winning a book battle

My Grade 9 English class would have been a mostly forgettable experience had it not been for one of the books on the curriculum.

The book was Of Mice and Men, a novella by American writer John Steinbeck, published in 1937.

The story follows two migrant farm workers, one with a mental disability, as they work at a California farm. The novella examines the loneliness experienced by each person at the farm.

The book has received considerable acclaim and is recognized as a 20th-century literary classic.

But the language in the dialogue was considered vulgar, especially by the standards of the day.

And when some parents in town read the book, there was an outcry because of this use of language.

The opposition to this book was strong enough that the following year, Of Mice and Men was no longer on our junior high school’s curriculum.

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It would have been delightful irony if Of Mice and Men had been replaced with Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel about a dystopian society where books are burned.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, it was replaced with The Day of the Triffids, a 1951 novel by British science fiction writer John Wyndham. There was no great outcry about this novel.

It wouldn’t be fair to call the curriculum change an attempt at censorship or book banning. Censorship is an ever-present threat and this week is Freedom to Read Week in Canada, a time to raise awareness about book challenges.

What happened instead was that one book was removed from the school’s curriculum and replaced with another. Of Mice and Men was still available at bookstores and at the public library.

The book battle was over and the outraged parents had won.

Or had they?

I’ve read Of Mice and Men and The Day of the Triffids, as well as other works by Steinbeck and Wyndham.

The themes in Steinbeck’s story are important. While it is set on a farm in Depression-era California, the loneliness felt by the migrant workers and others in the story is something many can understand.

As for the language, we had heard every one of the controversial words in Of Mice and Men, as well as some that could not be found in that book.

Pulling the book from the curriculum did not remove those words from our ears — or from our mouths. It didn’t make the language go away.

Wyndham’s novel didn’t have the same salty dialogue and as a result, it was considered a safer choice on the curriculum.

But The Day of the Triffids, a post-apocalyptic novel, presented various types of societies, including polygamous colonies, socialist communes and tribes with authoritarian leaders.

Why did the language in Steinbeck’s novella generate a stronger reaction than the concepts in Wyndham’s novel?

I don’t know if Of Mice and Men ever made it back onto the school curriculum. By the time I was in high school, the Grade 9 English course didn’t concern me anymore.

However, the book battle that year left its mark.

Over the years, I have read plenty of books which have come under fire from critics.

Some of these include Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Wars by Timothy Findley and others.

Some of these are books I’ve read primarily because of the controversy surrounding them. If the censors had ignored these books, I might not have noticed them.

Did the outraged parents consider this when they spoke out about Steinbeck’s novella?

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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