In Bless the Beasts and Children, Box Canyon Boys Camp becomes a microcosm for American society; a process of “natural selection of age and cruelty and regionalism and kindred interest” divides the boys of the camp into a ranked tribal structure. The boys strive to outdo one another and to usurp the places of those higher in the social order, either by excelling in the weekly competition or by stealing the totem of another tribe. Each tribe has its special totem: the Apaches, a mounted buffalo head; the Sioux, the head of a mountain lion; the Comanches, the head of a black bear, and so on, down to the tribe of the lowest social order, designated the Bedwetters, whose totem of shame is an enameled chamber pot. The Apaches is the tribe of winners, of the biggest, toughest, and most competent boys. Swarthout writes, “Incentive was thus inherent in the system, as it was in the American way of life.”
Because of their prowess in weekly competition, these boys retain their rank and the special privileges that go with it. The camp staff and the indifferent or desperate parents of the boys believe that this competitive system will bring about the onset of masculine maturity. Within this specially created hothouse for the development of the American male, Swarthout selects the most unlikely and apparently the least likable group for an adventure that takes them from self-loathing and infantile rage to an awakening to the promise of their own lives.
When the Bedwetters watch the annual shooting of buffalo, conducted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department to thin the herd, they are horrified by the slaughter they witness. Swarthout is relentless in presenting a description of the helplessness of the semi-domesticated beasts and the gleeful joy the “shooters” take in bringing a hideous death to the confused and terrified animals. The incompetent marksmanship creates a bloody shambles that both shocks the reader and traumatizes the boys who watch in numbed horror.
Under the halting leadership of John Cotton, the oldest of the frequently pathetic boys in the Bedwetters, the group has begun to emerge from the private world of fear and...
(The entire section is 890 words.)