Six boys are dropped off at Box Canyon Boys Camp for the summer by their wealthy, disinterested parents. Even at camp, they are misfits and wind up together in a cabin known as the “Bedwetters”. After witnessing a horrifying slaughter of buffalo, the six friends sneak out to save the buffalo, and in so doing, themselves.
Swarthout’s Bless the Beasts and Children is a “coming of age novel” starring a group of wealthy, unwanted boys. Each boy has serious psychological issues that, as shown through a series of awkward flashbacks, are his through a result of poor parenting. In order to cope, and to prove once and for all that they are worth something, the boys set out to save a herd of buffalo from an annual, inhumane slaughter. The boys sneak out of camp, steal a truck, run into a group of “gunslingers” and ward them off by shooting their car. These acts of “heroism” and “bravery” it seems, are the means by which these boys will become men. It is the means by which they will attain – and prove – their self worth. The boys, led by the self proclaimed father figure and savior John Cotton, succeed in saving the buffalo, and one would presume, themselves. But at what cost? If we are to believe Swarthout then the ends surely justify the means. And the answer to all of it – Oedipal complexes, obesity, neurosis, hopelessness, despair – can be found within ourselves.
- Author: Glendon Swarthout
- Publisher: Doubleday & Company (1979)
- 205 pages
- Reading Age:
- Scholastic Reading Level: 6.7
- Scholastic Interest Level: Grade 9 – Grade 12
What You Need to Know
- Role Models/Authority Figures – All six boys comes from wealthy, dysfunctional families. There isn’t a moral adult figure in the book.
- Violence – The opening scene of the book is a dream sequence in which the boys are represented as buffalo and are being hunted. The leader, John Cotton, is being hunted by his mother. “Stephen Lally, Jr. had a temper tantrum. Screaming at the top of his lungs he rose from his bed on hands and knees and rocked, butting his head against the wall…When they returned, he had killed all the pets. Goodenow’s lizards…let out and stomped on the floor…Billy’s pets…the hoptoad he squashed. The baby jackrabbit he cornered and, pretending it was his baby brother, battered to death with a branding iron.” (26) The boys are at a summer camp and raid a cabin. In reataliation they are “dragged outdoors…they were roped to a pine trunk while one of the victors brought the chamber pot from their cabin. Goodenow began to cry. So did everyone. even Cotton, everyone but Teft…It served them right. They were born losers. And while they crid and the camp laughed, placing the pot on the ground and taking triumphant turns, the Apaches (opposing cabin) urinated in it.” The boys steal a pick up truck to reach the Buffalo Preserve. On the way, they meet a group of bikers at a cafe and, while escaping the bikers anger, shoot a hole in the tire with their .22. They threaten to shoot a person if they aren’t left alone. Goodenow threatens suicide. Cotton follows him to the barn and finds Goodenow “standing on a feed bin with a rope over a rafter and a noose around his neck, ready to jump.”(107) (He doesn’t). At the Buffalo Preserve, the buffalo are corralled into a pen where visitors shoot them repeatedly “until blood was pumped in gouts from her ears and mouth and from beneath their tail.” (114)
- Sexual Content – One boy, Goodenow became phobic of school and was thus sent to a school psychologist “who quickly diagnosed the Oedipal relationship. When he was four, Gerald’s father died, and for eight years he slept with his mother.” (43)
- Language – The boys repeatedly use “damn” , “ass” and “hell” in several variants.”Bitch” is used once. And “I am Christfully sorry.”
- Consumerism – Mention of the movie “The Professionals”. (88)
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs – Cotton smokes cigars. Cotton steals four 1oz whiskey bottles from the airplane he drinks one, and then saves the other three to hand out after they have “rescued” the buffalo.
- Religion – Symbolic savior in John Cotton as his death (suicide or bad driving, we can’t be sure) in the end “cracks their heart even as it freed them, too, forever.” (204)
- Other – Animal Rights “…and the site of their remnant [buffalo] stirs in us the most profound lust. The most undying hatred. The most inexplicable guilt…Therefore we slay, and slay again, for while a single buffalo remains, the sin of our fathers and hence our own, is imperfect. It is as though the land of Canaan into which we were led was too divine, and until we have done it every violence, until we have despoiled and murdered and dirtied every blessing, until we have erased every reminder of our original rape, until we have washed our hands of the blood of every lamb in the blood of every other, we shall be unappeased. It is as though we are too proud to be beholden to Him. We cannot bear the goodness of God.” (119)