Looks like things are getting a little warm over at Guys Lit Wire with regards to a recent segment aired on CNN’s Glenn Beck show. First, if you haven’t checked it out, go there now and read through the post and the comments. There’s no way I can summarize what’s going on, but it’s a fairly interesting discussion that concerns the idea of boys’ books and the need to return to what one of my high school English teachers once referred to as books “in the Hemingway tradition of the rugged individual.”
Among he comments you will note I mentioned writing an essay this semester providently focusing on three books that featured boys in the roles of protector over female characters. It was a difficult essay for me at the time — written under a deadline and not as organized as I would have liked — which is my lame-o way of saying that I probably should have gone back and edited it before doing what I’m about to do.
I’m posting it here.
So, adding a distant aside to the din on protective boys in teen fiction, here is the essay I wrote a few months ago. Warts and all. And it’s long. And I have some follow-up comments at the end. If you make it.
To The Rescue:
Three Portraits of Boys Protecting Girls in Young Adult Fiction
c. 2008 David Elzey
For this essay I had intended to examine the voice of boys, and was determined at the very least to come to some understanding, some grounding in what “works” with some writers. After searching through my recent reading I settled on three books that presented three different boys whose voices were strong and, in their own ways, unique.
Eric Calhoune in Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes presents us with a senior on a mission to save a fellow outcast who has lapsed into a catatonic state. Eric’s voice is has the bitter edge of the underdog, the fat kid who has learned how to channel his anger into subtle forms of revenge and self-deprecating humor. In Neal Shusterman’s Unwind we meet Conner Lassiter, a runaway boy put up for retroactive abortion by his parents at the age of seventeen. Conner’s is a voice in hormonal rage, a boy with a strong sense of justice but he’s too quick to anger when strategy would suffice. An it-could-happen future is the setting for the dead and the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer, where a natural cataclysm forces Alex Morales to assume responsibility for his younger sisters. Alex’s voice is one bound by duty, tradition, and a strong undercurrent of faith; all other emotions are held at bay as survival becomes the driving force. All three boys are moved to act by external forces, all three challenged to question what they know, or were taught to believe, all three struggling to make the right decisions for those they care about.
Three boys struggling to make the right decisions for those they care about.
Until I’d made note of that fact I hadn’t realized how strong a link this was between these three books. For all three, the force that binds them and drives them is the desire to protect people they love, and all of those in need of protection are female. Is it possible that this desire to protect is something uniquely masculine, something boys struggle to acquire on their path towards discovering who they are as young men? Since strong female characters in literature are no longer considered rare or unusual, are contemporary boy characters still wrestling with the complex societal expectations of being the protectors of the weak? To varying degrees, the answer in these three recent Young Adult titles appears to be yes.
Pfeffer’s the dead and the gone is a parallel sequel to her previous book Life As We Knew It, taking place in the same months that follow when an asteroid knocks the moon from its orbit. The sequel is set in New York City where events are viewed from the perspective of seventeen year old Alex Morales. Alex’s father has just left for a funeral in Puerto Rico, his mother has reported for late duty at the hospital where she is a nurse, and his older brother Carlos is a Marine deployed to Texas. The initial effects of the moon’s orbital shift cause tidal waves and flooding that Alex will quickly learn have taken his parents.
In the initial hour of the blackout, before Alex completely understands how bad things are, he returns home from his after school job and immediately assumes assumes his role as the head of the family. His younger sisters, Bri and Julie, have already found a flashlight but he instructs them to use it to find the radio so they can learn about blackout. Failing that, his older sister Bri defers to Alex asking “Do you think everything is okay?” “I’m sure it is,” Alex said (5). Alex has already taken control of the situation and the parental role of the soother. Later, when his sisters wonder about their brother Carlos, and whether their parents are okay, Alex doesn’t hesitate to answer “We’re all fine. By Monday everything will be back in order” (11). In the initial moments of a calamity it is easy to hope for the best, but the full weight of responsibility is placed on him by Carlos when he gets a moment to call in before being deployed: “Look, Alex, you’re in charge now until Papi gets home. Mami’s going to be depending on you” (16). Alex’s sisters not only accept his leadership, they defer to him when they ask if they are safe. “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. I promise” (17). Mighty big words, and responsibility, for a seventeen year old boy.
Alex is constantly reasserting his role, or being reminded of it by others: “Because I’m trying to protect you” (33); “Who died and made you boss?” (69 and 88); “It’s for the best, he told himself” (87); “I’m in charge… Until Papi comes home, and you’ll respect me like you respect him” (99-100); “I’m going to do what’s best for you… You’re my responsibility” (100); “…I have sisters to watch out for” (142); “Julie doesn’t talk about it, but you’re responsible for her now” (164); “…you’re thirteen years old and you can’t look out for yourself” (211). Though it isn’t stated outright, there is an undercurrent that Alex’s role as protector is cultural. A Puerto Rican boy going to a private Catholic high school would carry with him the traditions and expectations of both cultures. And the girls would likewise expect Alex’s protection as well.
Beyond his initial scrounging for food, securing their apartment, and making sure his sisters continue their schooling, Alex protects the girls in other ways. When he discovers that bodies of the reclaimed dead are on display he doesn’t tell the girls he has an appointment to make an identification because, if their mother wasn’t among the dead, “They could keep on hoping then, but he hadn’t figured out whether that was a good thing or not” (56). Later, when he has a chance to send his older sister Bri away to a convent farm in upstate New York, he not only makes the arrangements but doesn’t tell her until a few hours before the bus is to take her away (92-98). During a food riot Alex is forced to walk over other people and ignore a fallen infant in the street in order to protect Julie(128). And in two separate incidents Alex protects Julie from being assaulted on the streets (216), and from being traded in exchange for safe passage out of the city (225).
Alex’s stoicism is consistent throughout — “I can manage on my own, especially if I know Bri and Julie are safe” (230). Only after he is felled by flu (275) and loses Bri in a fatal elevator mishap (295) does Alex finally feel the full weight of what he has taken on. Early on he allowed himself a moment to grieve “when his sisters couldn’t see him” (40), and then nothing more until he is confessing to his priest about Bri’s death to relieve the guilt he felt so they could see “how inadequate he was” (303), for failing to protect her as he promised.
The severity of events, and the constant reinforcement of expectations, forced Alex to exist almost entirely as a protector. Bri, the older but weaker sister, and Julie, the stronger but naïve one, clearly would not have survived without Alex’s efforts. His every waking moment is driven toward finding ways to assure Bri and Julie’s survival. Alex’s position is never seriously challenged or questioned by his sisters, he doesn’t even question his role until the very end. The book’s message isn’t necessarily that in times of crisis all boys revert to a mere protector-of-the-weak authority figure, but for Alex, in this book, that’s all he’s allowed to be.
In another speculative future, Neal Shusterman give us an America following a second civil war fought between pro-life and pro-choice forces. The result of these “Homeland Wars” was an accord meant to appease both sides, a compromise that outlawed abortion on moral grounds but permitted parents to have children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen “unwound,” essentially allowed to be harvested for their body parts.
Into this world, teens who know they are scheduled for unwind many attempt to runaway, including Conner Lassiter, a boy with a temper and a strong sense of social justice. After a double escape from authorities, Conner finds himself on the run with two other unwinds – Risa, a ward of the state who has outlived her usefulness, and Lev, a boy whose unwinding is part of his family’s religious tithing. Shusterman tells the story from multiple perspectives with each of these main characters telling their stories as they cross and join paths.
Risa isn’t initially in need of saving, as Connor himself notes that kids from state homes “have to learn to take care of themselves real young, or their lives are not very pleasant” (46). It’s Risa who actually takes care of Connor and Lev when they are first on the run by suggesting they change their clothes and identities (45), then schemes to make it happen (55). What changes their relationship is when, in a moment of combined weakness and rage, Conner saves an unwanted infant from being “storked,” the term for an infant dumped anonymously on a doorstep (62). It’s a foolish move for kids on the run to slow themselves down with an infant, but it provides them with the unexpected benefit of looking like a young family. Later, as Risa assumes duties as a surrogate mother, they discover the baby is a girl, becoming the first girl Conner saves (66).
Posing as a young family brings out the first glimpse of Conner’s concern toward Risa. “You okay about the baby?” Conner asks after it has been taken up for adoption (116). And when they begin the first leg of their journey in an underground railroad for runaways he puts his arm around her. “I’m cold too,” he says. “Body heat, right?” and she doesn’t rebuff his advance (117). As Conner’s concerns toward Risa blossom her hardness towards him softens, and the stage is set for him to protect her.
Warehoused in an airport hangar, where the runaways await the final trip toward a sanctuary called The Graveyard, Risa and Conner become aware of the manipulative behavior of Roland, a hulking military reject who see Connor as a threat to his perceived role as leader (146). It takes some convincing but Risa helps Conner see “A kid like Roland doesn’t want to fight you, he wants to kill you” (147). Cornering Risa in order to assault her is Roland’s ploy to draw Conner into a fight, playing on the idea that Conner would naturally come to her rescue. Using reverse psychology Conner not only avoids the fight but saves Risa as well (151). “(E)ven with all his troubles, she sees Conner as a hero” (152). What began as a shared interest in preservation has backed Conner into the masculine position of defending Risa against an almost biological predatory male encroachment battle. It’s a cold world that has a variety of names for dealing with children as objects but no mention of the emotion love. It’s no wonder unwanted teens like Risa and Conner can’t recognize their mutual attraction toward one another, but equally odd that they naturally revert to traditional gender roles.
At The Graveyard, Risa, Conner, and Roland are separated into job camps, though they occasionally have contact with one another. The roles they assume follow traditional gender lines. While Roland is amassing an army of followers to overtake the operation (soldier), and Risa is busy becoming a medic (nurse), Conner finds himself becoming the eyes and ears of The Graveyard’s leader, a man known as The Admiral (leader/politician). Conner passes along his suspicions about Roland (222) but lacking proof The Admiral cannot take action. Preparing to confront Roland himself, Conner cryptically warns Risa to avoid The Admiral to avoid becoming a target if his interrogation of Roland goes awry (233). Then he leans in and kisses her “in case something happens and I don’t see you again,” and she returns the kiss “…in case I do see you again” (234).
Their romance solidified, Conner is still unable to protect her when Roland manages to turn all three of them into the authorities. The police promise to have them all unwound for events surrounding Conner’s original escape, but Conner insists Risa “had nothing to do with it! Let her go!” (261). Shipped off to a body harvesting center Conner is received as a hero among other kids who have tried to escape, a legendary figure among fellow unwinds, one who might be their savior. Reflecting on his short life Conner considers how “The whole day weighs heavily on him – the way the kids think he can somehow save them, when he knows he can’t even save himself…. His one joy is knowing that Risa is safe, at least for now” (276).
A terrorist group, that includes Lev who has become hardened by his experiences on the run, sets off an explosion at the facility that knocks Conner unconscious and sends Risa to the hospital (309). Emerging from a two-week coma Conner’s first thoughts are of Risa (317). In an odd twist, it was Lev who pulled Risa from the wreckage and saved her life. Once they recuperate, Conner and Risa return to The Graveyard where Conner assumes operation of the facility following the Admiral’s departure: Conner can finally channel his outrage against the system to protect and save as many unwinds as he can (332).
Conner has grown slowly into his role as protector, first out of a general concern borne of circumstance, then out of affection, finally with a sense of purpose. Risa doesn’t start out needing to be saved, but as Conner’s natural leadership becomes apparent she begins to trust him enough to allow herself to be protected. Protecting Risa is a very delicate dance, one that comes with her permission, but it is genuinely appreciated in the end.
From its title one might assume that Eric Calhoune deliberate attempt at Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes would constitute the oddest form of protection. While Eric does, indeed, spend a year trying to keep his weight up to prove to his best friend that he hasn’t changed (7), it isn’t until his friend Sarah disappears into a catatonic trance that he is moved to confront and protect her from the secret that has driven her to this state (138). The women surrounding Eric are not weak; his single mother is a respected newspaper writer who won’t stand for anyone manipulating her (164); his swim coach, Cynthia Lemry, runs a controversial class called Contemporary American Thought and has no qualms threatening administration from interfering with her instruction (213); and Sarah herself, badly disfigured by a burn incident when she was three, is easily the toughest character of all three books combined. That Eric must ignore Sarah’s direct instructions in order to protect her only proves that his desire to save her is stronger than any loyalty. “…I was her only friend. I’d rather have her hate my guts and be safe than love me and be alone” (180-1)
Sarah Byrnes is in a mental facility in a catatonic state, unable (or unwilling) to communicate with the outside world. The historical friendship between Eric and Sarah is seemingly uncomplicated as he initially presents his concerns to Lemry: “She’s my best friend and she’s dying. We became friends when I was as fat as she is ugly, and I promised her a long time ago that I would never turn away from her” (23). Unsure what put Sarah in the hospital, Eric is nonetheless determined to do anything he can to keep her from dying, to save her. This is tricky, as Sarah once made it clear to Eric that she considers outside help a weakness, especially help from adults (58). That Sarah will stand up to Dale Thornton, the school bully, and repeatedly take his physical abuse on principle is her object lesson to Eric in this matter (25-26) .
In junior high Dale accuses Sarah of lying when she claims her face was burned when a pot of spaghetti was spilled on her. In defending her against Dale, Eric initially misses a telling detail when he notes the rage these comments elicit (91). Sarah has never previously let anything people say about her looks have any effect on her. Sarah certainly doesn’t need Eric’s protection, or his defense, but in her anger and her inability to deny the accusation she opens a door for Eric to find a way to repay her unflagging friendship. As Eric begins to accept what is the truth – that her father inflicted Sarah’s burns – he becomes emboldened to action (99-102).
In order to save Sarah, Eric not only has to lull her into speaking to him in the hospital (138), and get her to confirm that her father is the one who burned her when she was young (142), he has to find a way to get Sarah safely away from her father (198). This proves difficult as Sarah’s father has threatened to kill Eric for his meddling (224). With the aid of his friend Steve, and through Lemry’s intervention, Eric is able to keep Sarah safe (201-204). But in a twist that echos Shusterman’s Unwind, it is another male character, the man Eric’s mom is dating, who subdues Sarah’s father and protects them all (284). Realistically, this makes sense because it would have been absurd to think a teenage boy could have taken on the homicidal maniac that is Sarah’s father, but to the extent that he could Eric did everything within his power to safeguard his best friend from harm.
Sarah isn’t the only girl Eric protects. For years he’s been mooning over Jody Muller, girlfriend of one of his swimming rivals Mark Brittain (78). When Mark and Jody move to drop Lemry’s class on moral grounds – Brittain is a holier-than-thou fundamentalist – Eric casually offers Jody liberation in the form a whispered joke: “If you ever want a boyfriend who encourages freedom of expression… dial 1-800-FAT-BOY” (104). The joke’s on Eric when Jody not only takes him up on the offer, but confesses that her unsupportive boyfriend got her pregnant in the past, forced her to have an abortion, and then denied it ever happened (147-153). It isn’t clear at first whether Jody is merely trying to deliberately hurt her former boyfriend by seeing Eric, but in the end Jody and Eric remain together. The simple promise of support is all it took to make Jody feel safe and protected enough to walk away from a bad relationship .
Though Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes is the most realistic story of the three it follows the least conventional path of boys protecting girls. Eric’s evolution from wimpy fat kid to protector of women comes from his friendship with Sarah, the toughest person in the story who cannot see how best to save herself. In the cold-hearted future of Unwind the awakening of Conner’s protective nature matures when he is able to replace the rage he feels toward the world with his affection toward Risa. Having been a ward of the state, Risa is willing to relinquish her defensive stance and allow herself to be cared about, if not completely cared for. And in the cataclysmic landscape of the dead and the gone Alex has no other choice but to become the protectorate of his younger sisters. Through duty, family honor, and religious acculturation, Alex has little choice but to dedicate himself to making sure his family remains safe and alive to the extent that he can.
For two of these stories the boys in question – Conner and Eric – do not set out to protect girls who are clearly not weak, and in fact the boys have to work hard to gain enough of the girl’s trust in order to protect them. For Alex, his single-minded determination reads almost like a character flaw, an immaturity and weakness that prevents him from seeing little beyond his sense of preservation. Alex’s story almost becomes a game of trying to guess how and when he’s going to fail in his duties; for Conner and Eric it’s a only a question of how they will succeed.
In looking at the voice of boys what became clear in these books was a strong undercurrent of characters driven to protect the girls they cared about. Their voices, their thoughts and actions, are driven by a something that seems less like character and more biological in origin. Whether culturally influenced, bound by loyalty, or vaulted by circumstance, the boys in these books are pressed into service as heroes to the rescue.
Crutcher, Chris. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. New York: HarperTeen, 2003.
Pfeffer, Susan Beth. the dead and the gone. New York: Harcourt Children’s Books, 2008.
Shusterman, Neal. Unwind. New York: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2007.
If you have read this far, I salute you, you rock. If you feel that in my essay I managed to leave out my opinions in the matter then you will have noticed the fundamental problem at the heart of what still bothers me about it.
Where I fail to draw a conclusion about the meaning or importance of this particular phenomena of (over)protective boys let me say that a very large part of me hates this portrayal of boys as saviors I can totally see where some boys might enjoy this. The idea of saving someone you love or are in love with may be the closest boys get to the kind of stuff that appears in traditional romance novels. We don’t expect that women who read romance novels expect to be whisked of their feet by some ripped Scotsman on a horse; likewise, boy readers might night see these male protagonists rescuers as anything more than a fantasy image.
But the question remains: has our culture really emasculated boys, and can it be corrected through reading, or have we finally pried the pendulum from the patriarchal extreme and brought it closer to center where it belongs? If books really had as much power as Glenn Beck and his ilk believe to alter an entire gender, then what’s his excuse?
Oh yeah, he probably didn’t read much as a boy. That would explain a lot of his inanities.