(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bless the Beasts and Children is one of Glendon Swarthout’s most successful novels, though it is often thought of as a book for adolescents as well as about adolescents. The novel tells the story of a group of boys who turn from sniveling, cowardly behavior to heroic action in order to rescue a herd of buffalo. Terribly troubled, the boys have been “made strange” or “paranoid” by their parents, who are representative of an American culture that shapes its citizens according to cultural ideals of wealth and power for men and beauty for women, ideals that conflict with society’s professed values.

As the novel opens, Cotton and his group have obviously suffered major traumas that have thrown them into regressive patterns of behavior. Even Cotton, the most nearly normal of the group, is disturbed by a terrible nightmare. He dreams that he and his group are animals penned together and released, only to face the gunfire of a line of humans who stand in front of a line of vehicles. As the shots reach their targets, several of the boys, imaged in the dream as animals, fall heavily and yield brilliant red blood. Cotton, snorting and battering object after object, is maddened by his frustration and fear. At the climax of the dream, Cotton recognizes the face of the human firing at him, and the boy’s heart is shattered because the face is that of his mother. The imagined death pulls Cotton from the nightmare, and he finds himself bathed in sweat and recalling an episode in which the boys’ counselor had forced them to witness the slaughter of a herd of buffalo. The boys, who had identified with the animals, were horrified by the event. When Cotton discovers that one of his group, Lally 2, has disappeared, he wakes the others, and they all know where Lally 2 went. Moreover, they know they have to join him, to somehow find their way back to the scene of the “crime” that had so outraged and frightened them. The rest of the novel follows the boys on a fantastic mission to save a group of animals and themselves from destruction.

As the story progresses, exposition about the boys and their past behaviors accompanies the action, thus making credible the growth to...

(The entire section is 897 words.)