As its subtitle indicates, Gunther’s book is more a personal reminiscence than a traditional biography; Gunther takes a subjective approach in his writing, adopting the persona of a storyteller rather than of a historian. Thus, his tone is affectionate and perhaps overly idealistic sometimes—“Johnny was as sinless as a sunset,” he writes at one point—but his is the voice of a grieving parent, not an objective reporter of facts, and that voice is authentic.
A number of themes emerge from this story, the most obvious being the triumph of the human spirit in the face of catastrophe. Gunther claims that “this is the central pith and substance of what [I am trying] to write, as a mournful tribute not only to Johnny but to the power, the wealth, the unconquerable beauty of the human spirit, will, and soul.” Frances Gunther suggests another theme, more closely tied to the Donne poem: that death is simply a part of life and not the end of it, that it is not a bad thing but that it was too premature in Johnny’s case. Johnny himself identifies a third major theme in his diary. “Live while you live, then die and be done with,” he writes. “Take more pleasure in life for its own sake.” The idea that people should live life to the fullest while they can—known as carpe diem, Latin for “seize the day”—is a recurring theme in literature, perhaps never communicated so forcefully as in this story of a promising life cut short.
If the book suggests the value of courage, dignity, and a balanced and serene view of both life and death, then it also raises questions for which there are no ready answers. Young adult readers may ask...
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In his foreword, Gunther states his reason for writing Death Be Not Proud: to help and encourage those facing illness, especially sick children and their parents, by describing the courage and dignity with which Johnny endured his ordeal. Certainly Johnny’s calm, rational attitude toward his often rigorous therapy, his optimism and fortitude in the face of hopeless circumstances, and his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and devotion to academics are as inspiring as they are amazing. Yet the book contains messages for even the youngest, healthiest readers. Frances Gunther states one of the book’s most important lessons: “All the wonderful things in life are so simple that one is not aware of their wonder until they are beyond touch.”
Death Be Not Proud is different from most biographies in that its subject is not a famous person such as an actor, athlete, or political leader with a lifetime of accomplishments. Sadly, Johnny Gunther only became famous because of his untimely death—a fate shared by all too many young people who are never immortalized in writing. Ironically, given his rare fascination with and talent for science, particularly chemistry and physics, Johnny might have gone on to achieve fame as a scientist had he lived to adulthood. Nevertheless, Johnny’s story is extraordinary. Death Be Not Proud belongs to a subgenre of young adult biography that includes such well-known books as Eric (1974), by Doris Lund, and Brian Piccolo: A Short Season (1971), by Jeannie Morris. Like those books, Death Be Not Proud was made into a television film (in 1975), a testimony to its continuing appeal and its importance as a classic of young adult biography.