Sunday, 18 November 2018

Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout

Glendon Swarthout is an intriguing American novelist whose diverse books have often been filmed — indeed I wrote about Tommy Lee Jones's striking adaptation of The Homesman last year. 

Bless the Beasts and Children was also turned into a movie. I haven't seen it (though I've owned a copy of the soundtrack album since I was a kid).

Bless the Beasts begins at a dude ranch in Arizona where difficult boys are sent by their rich parents. It focuses on the most problematical of the problem kids, a group of misfits and outcasts who share a cabin — and also share the contempt of the others.

It tells a classic quest story, with the kids escaping from the ranch in the middle of the night and going on a mission. We only gradually learn what that mission is. It turns out to be a fairly horrifying one. 

They are headed for a national park where there is an annual slaughter of buffalo. Yes, that's right, the iconic beast of the American West. For dubious reasons their population is deemed in need of regular culls.

And it's not as though the "hunters" have to track the buffalo down or anything like that. The poor animals are just driven into a pen from which there is no escape and the "sportsmen" (and women) shoot at them at such close range they can't miss — although the animals are frequently grievously wounded and a long time dying.

The kids share in the horror felt by the reader (or at least by this reader) and the novel is an animal rights and eco-activist milestone. Indeed there was quite an outcry when the book (and film) appeared, from the vast swathes of people who had no idea such butchery was taking place — and wanted it to stop.

Glendon Swarthout often writes beautifully about the wild, ancient landscape he clearly loves. The Mogollon Rim is described as "inconceivable and paleozic";  the Grand Canyon is all "fossil silence and echo".

He also writes movingly of "the stench and desperation of the beasts" and of how the kids, attempting to rescue the buffalo, are surrounded by the creatures who crowd around: "the breath of innocent animals blessed them." 

I have somewhat less admiration for Swarthout's attempt to conjure up teenage slang: "Cool it, or the shooters'll be down here triggering us" Triggering? But there's no denying how invested I was in these characters, and their mission. And when their leader says, as they set off to save the beasts, "Good luck. To us and them," I was moved.

The edition of the book I read featured an extremely useful introduction in which Glendon Swarthout is quoted making the very perceptive point that his novel is kind of an anti-Lord of the Flies... he isolates a group of young boys and instead of descending into savagery they rise to heroism.

As a bitter footnote, I have to tell you that Swarthout's book didn't put a stop to this practice. The "hunt" continues, in a modified fashion: as first State game rangers accompanied the brave hunters "to deliver a quick-kill shot to any poor animal which a nervous marksman had only wounded.

More recently the brave shooters were required to hunt on foot, and their prey is no longer penned up in front of an audience. "The buffalo now have the privilege of being blasted to bits in private just like every other American game animal."
(Image credits: The book covers are from Good Reads.)

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