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Bless the Beasts and Children

Apr 12 2017

For the last two days, I've had the privilege to stay home from work with my 15 year old daughter, Rose, as we've both picked up some bug that has us coughing constantly and running fevers.  I passed a good bit of this time reading out loud to her from one of my favorite books, Glendon Swarthout's "Bless the Beasts and Children".  It was a treat to share something so special with her during those two sick days.

Swartout's novel is a tale of six misfit kids who meet at a Box Canyon Boy's Camp one summer. They are sent their by their self absorbed parents in hopes that the camp will turn this motley group of thumb suckers, bed wetters and delinquents into men.  The camp's theme is, "Send us a boy and we'll send you a cowboy."  During the final week of an eight week camp session, these six boys set out at night to a game preserve in order to set free a herd of American bison set to be part of a controlled hunt the next day.  It is at once unrealistic yet believably written.  I know, as I read it to Rose, there were references lost on her: radio stations that go off the air during the late night hours, Marlon Brando movies and the Vietnam War.  It occurred to me that this is not unlike how it was for me watching the Waltons when I was a kid. This depression era TV classic was set about 40 years in the past when I was coming of age in the 1970s. I remember references that were lost on me at the time: Ike Godsey's community telephone, the Civil Conservation Corps, crop dusters and sharecroppers. In the same way, the 1970s, the time period of Bless the Beasts and Children, is four decades prior to the time Rose is growing up in.  Does my childhood look like the distant past to Rose as my dad's childhood seemed to me?  No doubt.

This novel, I realized during this most recent read through, helped feed my fascination for summer camp culture.  By the time I was 16, I began my five year career of summer camp counselor.  But that was just the beginning.  As a performer, summer camps from South Carolina to upstate New York have been a steady venue for my show.  Then, in 2005, I accepted the job of camp director at Baptist Park, a church camp in northern Maine.  Consequently, camp culture has been a part of Rose's life all 15 years as well. While her church camp experience is hardly Box Canyon Boy's Camp, there are things that are universal to all camps: the kid who thinks he's funnier than he is, swimming in cold water, stringing beads in arts and crafts, the late night walks to the restrooms.  As we read of these happening in Swarthout's novel, we both knew very well how accurately they were portrayed.

The beauty of this little book comes mostly from the lead character, John Cotton's, influence on the other members of his cabin group.  Cotton is, in some sense a Christ figure, right down to his initials.  True, he is far from sinless, and there is no resurrection from the final, tragic scene.  But he does die a sacrificial death to free the Bedwetters from their torment. Unlike "Lord of the Flies" Christ figure, Simon, who represents the vulnerable Jesus proclaiming "Let the little children come to me," Cotton parrellels more the Christ of action: turning tables in the temple, calling out the Pharisees and ultimately riding into Jerusalem with a laser focus on His mission

Cotton also unites his unlikely group of misfits just as surely as Jesus united 12 oddball disciples.  Teft, the juvenile delinquent in the group, could certainly be equated with Simon the Zealot, an anti-Roman anarchist who was part of Jesus inner circle.  Goodenow, is as opposite Teft as  Mark, an agent of Rome, would have been to Simon the Zealot.  Similarly, Lally 2, the bunkmate who started the Bedwetters excursion, has the same impulsiveness as Simon Peter.  Christ was able to make sense of all these personalities and organize them into a first century church that changed the world, and Cotton had at least an element of that same team building leadership.

 The real turning point in the novel is when Cotton feigns giving up on their mission, and watches slowly as one by one the other five leave him behind to continue to deliver the bison herd.  They were committed and capable with or without him. As a Christian educator, there are few more fulfilling experiences than seeing my students pressing on with faith and service after I am no longer their source of motivation; when they internalize and personalize the vision I've tried to cast for them.  Coincidentally, the evening Rose and I finished the book, I recieved e mails from two of my students.  We were scheduled to perform at our school's Grandparents Day event the next morning.  They wanted to let me know that the class had been talking, and they were prepared to do the show whether I was in school the next day or not.  While I realize this is not the stuff that best selling novels are made of, it filled me with the same sense of pride and satisfaction that Cotton felt as his troops went on without him.  They were ready; They were committed.

Rose and I enjoyed our sick days as much as one can enjoy sick days, and sharing this book was a big part of that.  No doubt she didn't see all the subtleties I saw;After, I was reading it for probably the fifteenth time.  But I was blessed to introduce her to these misfit characters, and their adventurous tale of deliverance and healing.

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