Frank Bonham Essay - Critical Essays

Bonham, Frank


Frank Bonham 1914–

American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and screenwriter. Most of Bonham's young adult novels are concerned with minority youths and the problems they face. His books, which examine the lives of young blacks, Chicanos, Indians, and Japanese-Americans, are realistic accounts of modern life based on first-hand observation and his experiences in volunteer social work. In Dogtown, the prototypical West Coast ghetto that recurs in his work, Bonham has mapped out an area that is as well defined and intimately known as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Bonham's work is insightful and compassionate, but he doesn't mouth platitudes or depict the harsh lives of his characters simply to elicit sympathy. Rather, he writes directly for underprivileged young adults, trying to involve them in literature by depicting life as they know it. As he says, "Durango Street was probably welcomed, not because it was an exceptional book, but because it filled a need. It is a book in which many Negro teenagers can see themselves." This concern for his reader is evident in all of his work, from the tough realism of Durango Street to his later, more fanciful books such as The Missing Persons League. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)

When Rufus Henry was released on parole from the reformatory, his social case worker found him a job and told him that he must not join a gang. Within two days Negro Rufus left his job and became a member of the Moors…. As the Moors, who shortly came under Rufus' leadership, slug it out with the [rival gang, the] Gassers, the author tastefully but honestly makes it clear just how dangerous these battles are [in Durango Street]. While the organization of gangs is undoubtedly more complex than the all-important matter of life or death, the frank recognition of this factor and of how serious life is for the teenager make this book welcome. Although it is with Rufus and his associates that readers will sympathize, the book is actually supposed to be about Special Service for Groups, an organization which sends group leaders to try to reorient gangs and eventually break them up. The S.S.G. representative who managed to attach himself to the Moors is a shadowy sort of person, and it is never quite clear why Rufus respects him more than the other social workers. His success is somewhat ephemeral (as presumably is often the case in reality), and the book ends with one problem cooperatively and successfully surmounted but with the future still unknown. This is a forthright presentation of a social problem which teenagers want and deserve to know more about. (p. 689)

Virginia Kirkus' Service, July 15, 1965.


Projected in a style far closer to screen documentary than conventional narrative, "Durango Street" describes a summer in the life of Rufus Henry….

Mr. Bonham's opening chapters are by far his best…. [The] author creates a macabre montage that compels belief. Durango Street could be any sink of misery in any American city. The fact that Mr. Bonham has done his research in Los Angeles gives his book an added relevance.

Unfortunately, when this documentary runs out of camera angles, the author—as an honest reporter—has nowhere else to go. A youth counselor takes over, with highly doubtful results. A Negro pro football star appears as a totally unconvincing peacemaker. Rufus's halfhearted decision to go back to school is only a device to ring down the curtain. One closes this disturbing book with all the sensations of a tourist who has just been down nightmare alley in a prowl car—only to be whisked out again, at the moment when Rufus, like his doomed supporting cast, was about to assume a third dimension. Since Mr. Bonham was on the outside looking in, it is perhaps unrealistic to ask for more. (p. 20)

James McBride, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1965.

Zena Sutherland

[Durango Street is a] candid and powerful novel about teen-age gangs and the tortuous protocol of intramural gang fights…. The boys are neither overdrawn nor sugarcoated; the attitudes of parents, neighbors, and police are utterly convincing. Although most of the characters are Negro, this is not a story about Negroes, but a story about the breeding grounds of delinquency. (p. 27)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (copyright 1965 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), October, 1965.

Zena Sutherland

[Mystery in Little Tokyo is a] rather good middle-grades mystery story despite the somewhat contrived plot. The story is set in the Japanese section of Los Angeles, where Dan and Carol are visiting their grandparents. Danny … helps solve the mystery of the [disappearance of his grandfather's samurai sword] … and also helps end the feud between his grandfather and an elderly neighbor who had once been a good friend. The writing style is adequate, the characters are well-drawn, and the setting is very nicely developed; the author draws Little Tokyo as a solid neighborhood community with a rich tradition. (p. 70)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (copyright 1967 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), January, 1967.

Twins Tom and Andy Croft, who volunteered together, are separated by a snafu in England; [The Ghost Front] follows them through Germany and Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. Each comes to despise the military realities as, fresh from training …, they face the enemy … and look into themselves. The nitty-gritty of army life is bared while the movement of each boy is related …, and the modified realism (e.g. the language goes beyond "heck," but not often) makes sense: the soldiers sweat and retch, bleed and desert, but not in excessive detail. Battalions have varied compositions without the usual one-man/one-creed constituencies, but the problems of cultural clash do not arise; neither is there any questioning of war itself. Finally, there's the personal adjustment to separation from the other self: Andy must learn to think for himself, Tom to move without pushing another, even gently. The dual vision works effectively…. (p. 12)

Kirkus Service (copyright © 1968 Virginia Kirkus' Service, Inc.), January 1, 1968.

Leora Oglesby

[The Ghost Front is a] realistic novel, which might well appeal to reluctant readers all the way up to senior high, about the 106th Infantry Division…. The grim brutality of war is amply demonstrated as Mr. Bonham shows its effects on the 18-year-old twins Andy and Tom Croft…. As they change from innocent youths to gaunt, bearded, mudsoaked men, the chaos and senselessness of much that happens in war is vividly conveyed. (p. 88)

Leora Oglesby, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the February, 1968 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1968), February, 1968.

Nancy W. Faber

["The Ghost Front"] is furnished with the ritual trappings of the [war story] genre, from the tough-talking Sarge to the melting-pot platoon roster. Times have changed to the point where it is implied that soldiers have occasion to swear. Many characters are introduced only to die unpleasant deaths, without heroics. There are even some bum officers. More important, the enemy is given his due; usually faceless, he is nonetheless competent and not the sauerkraut-stuffed clown so humorously depicted on TV these days. (p. 20)

Nancy W. Faber, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 14, 1968.


(The entire section is 103 words.)

Paul Heins

It is not often that mystery and urban social problems are brought together [as they are in Mystery of the Fat Cat]…. Surprisingly, the mystery is solved by Buddy's mentally retarded brother Ralphie. [Bonham] has blended characters and plot so well that the reader thinks only incidentally of the boys as Negroes, although a powerful contrast is developed in the persons of Mr. Hannibal, the Boys Club director, who looks like an African delegate to the U.N.; and Shriker, the scheming Negro chauffeur…. A simple but uncondescending style and a judicious use of colloquialisms give immediacy to the problems of the underprivileged without undermining the basic plot. (pp. 426-27)


(The entire section is 125 words.)

Jane Manthorne

Only gradually does [Bonham in "Mystery of the Fat Cat" paint his] characters brown or the color of dark rosewood, revealing them as blacks or "beans" (Mexican-Americans). They emerge as realistic guys of the ghetto, ready in their boredom to shoot out street lights or roll winos. Their humor, a jaunty cynicism born of poverty, rings true: the cockroaches, they claim, stand in line at the snack bar; the rats are so fierce that they storm the gym wearing green berets. Particularly in his handling of encounters between citizens and cops and of alert boys with a mentally retarded youngster, Bonham shows slum people the way they are, with honest pragmatism and tough vitality. (p. 24)


(The entire section is 134 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[The characters'] unraveling of the mystery [in Mystery of the Fat Cat] is believable and exciting. The characters are lively, the dialogue natural, and the inclusion of a backward child as a sympathetic—and contributing—character adds to the book's appeal. (p. 23)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (copyright 1968 by The University of Chicago; all rights reserved), October, 1968.

(The entire section is 62 words.)

Ed Marciniak

[Bonham] has again mapped an adventurous trail through the nitty-gritty world of a Negro teenager living in "Dogtown," a poor, big-city neighborhood.

Following that trail is Charlie Matthews, a near-dropout from high school, seeking directions to his future vocation….

The Nitty Gritty follows his career struggle through a series of offbeat adventures which includes a boxing match in an oil-slicked ring, a raid into a rocky ravine for sackfuls of ladybugs, and an illegally sponsored cock fight. Breathing Man, a sedentary wizard who exchanges advice for hot dogs; Cowboy, leader of a rat pack, and the other characters who plop into Charlie's life are as real and tough as those...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

John Gillespie

In [The Nitty Gritty, Bonham] returns to Dogtown, a Negro ghetto that was [also] the locale of … Mystery of the Fat Cat. In a more serious vein than [that] book, Bonham tells of 17-year-old Charlie Matthews, who decides to escape his life of poverty by running away with itinerant, fast-talking Uncle Baron, whom Charlie hero-worships…. The plot is suspenseful, and the characters are well drawn. There are many amusing incidents, though the generally somber tone and serious confrontation with adult failure make this a novel of more limited appeal … than Mystery of the Fat Cat…. (pp. 64-5)

John Gillespie, in School Library Journal (reprinted from...

(The entire section is 123 words.)

Jane Manthorne

For Charlie Matthews of "The Nitty Gritty" the only way to be somebody is to get out of Dogtown. He decides to "buy in" with flashy, fast-talking Uncle Baron and take to the road, following the racing season from track to track. Charlie has really "gotta hustle" to get enough cash. His get-rich-quick schemes include dump picking, ladybug hunting, boxing and a final violent, blood-spattered scene unique in children's literature….

Faithful to the argot and atmosphere of the city, ["The Nitty Gritty" is a hard-hitting story] of ghetto people, some still striving for something better, some surrendering to poverty…. "The Nitty Gritty" is played out in a … casual, light-hearted mood. Parents drink...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[When] his father disappeared [in The Vagabundos], Eric Hansen was deeply disturbed and determined to follow the slim lead he had…. For a thousand miles he trails his father by wheel, boat, and foot; living the simple life of the Baja fishermen, the vagabundos, Eric finds a satisfaction and maturity he was never able to achieve in the luxurious atmosphere of a wealthy home. By the time he locates his father, he understands why Mr. Hansen has decided to stay on the peninsula and run a business. The contrast between the rigidity of the home setting and the freedom of the vagabundos' life is sharply effective, and, brightened by the striking people Eric meets, the book has the urgent mood of a...

(The entire section is 138 words.)

James Forman

Mr. Bonham lavishes too much attention on [the] psychiatric first chapters [of "The Vagabundos"]. Once over them, the reader can almost hear the author sigh with relief as he enters a land he knows and loves—Mexico. Adventures involving the natives, pirate gold, dug-out canoes, sharks and a lovely blonde enliven the tour south. When the pursuit ends, both Erics have found themselves….

The characters are adequate to carry a busy, offbeat story. What matters is Baja California, its flora, fauna and its people. The author makes one want to go there, splash about and become a vagabundo del mar. (p. 34)

James Forman, in The New York Times Book Review...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Zena Sutherland

Keeny was on parole, wanting to make it this time but driven by the ceaseless nagging at home, the latest stepfather (an Anglo!), the ugly squalor of the housing project, the pressure from other Chicanos…. [Viva Chicano] is powerful and almost depressing, its only weakness the long-sustained situation in which Keeny (and a girl) reverently cling to a cardboard display dummy, stolen from a theater, of the Mexican hero Zapata—which talks to them. It is not explained fully: the voice of conscience? (but the gang of boys hear it) drug-induced hallucination? schizophrenia? The parole officer offers the theory that it is "the dark side of your mind," that the many facts that the voice knows are facts that Keeny's...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

Diane Gersoni Stavn

[Frank Bonham is guilty of] misleading use of words and minimal objectivity [in his treatment of women]. In Bonham's 1956 title, The Loud, Resounding Sea, the most admirable female character is Delphine the Dolphin, with whom the young hero, Skip Turner, enjoys a marvelous rapport based on mutual trust, affection and respect. Skip's attitude toward pretty, blonde Leslie, with whom he works in a lab during the summer, is a lot less flattering: "Like most girls, she was about as practical as a chicken-wire fishbowl." Bonham does a fair enough job with Skip's mother; she's a hard-working schoolteacher, and the mainstay of her family because her husband, a skilled cook and restaurateur, has advanced wanderlust and...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)

Pamela Bragg

Frank Bonham's newest Dogtown story ["Cool Cat"] is a disappointment. Some familiar faces are back, along with some rather exaggerated new ones. Although the ghetto scene, with dope and pill-popping, is contemporary, the disjointed, shifting scenes are cumbersome and difficult to follow. (p. 53)

Pamela Bragg, in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the March 22, 1971, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission of the critic, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1971 by Xerox Corporation), March 22, 1971.

(The entire section is 75 words.)

Zena Sutherland

Some of the characters of Mystery of the Fat Cat appear again in [Cool Cat,] another story of ghetto youth: again, the acceptance by adolescents of a retarded child is one of the assets of the book, although a minor aspect. Several boys pool their money to buy an old truck so that they can do some hauling; they are persecuted by the Machete gang and reprisals follow. In and out of the action is the cool cat, Cal Brown, whose behavior has made the others suspicious. A pusher? But Cal turns out to be a narcotics agent, and he gets his man. There is no hint of this until the very end of the book, which—although it is well-written and grimly mirrors the ghetto scene—lacks direction or focus. (p. 152)...

(The entire section is 337 words.)

Feenie Ziner

To avoid [the dangers and pitfalls of ghetto life], Buddy needs exactly the right combination of suspicion and compassion, ambition and discretion….

For the reader unfamiliar with the everyday problems of black urban youth, ["Cool Cat"] can be an eye-opener. Although it relies rather heavily on turns of plot for excitement, "Cool Cat" offers a guided tour through a section of the Other America most young readers know too little about. (p. 8)

Feenie Ziner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 8, 1971.

(The entire section is 91 words.)

Dallas Shaffer

The plot [of Chief], which includes a few improbable twists, essentially revolves around what happens when old treaties reveal that [an Indian] band owns a portion of the city where Chief lives. Despite the slangy language, lower-class milieu and rough characters, the lack of in-depth characterization makes this novel not much closer to reality than more conventional middle-class fare. But, like most of Bonham's other books … it's a fast-paced, smoothly written, lively read. (p. 120)

Dallas Shaffer, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the November, 1971 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright ©...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

John W. Conner

The same volatile active narrative which holds an adolescent reader's interest in Durango Street is apparent in Chief. Again the story concerns an adolescent who is oppressed by an adult society but who does not have direct recourse because his problem is not considered important by a strong segment of adult society.

Sixteen-year-old Henry Crowfoot [or Chief, as he is called by his friends,] is the hereditary chief of a small band of eighty-seven Indians, most of whom reside on a reservation high in the hills above Harbor City…. Chief is the story of the fight to regain [Indian property rights and the court-appointed] derelict lawyer's successful fight to regain confidence in...

(The entire section is 183 words.)


Although Durango Street … has a black youth as its protagonist, it is less about black delinquents than it is about the slum neighborhood that breeds delinquency. Rufus is a paroled adolescent more suspicious of the social worker assigned to his case than he would be if Alex Robbins were white. While the patient, firm Robbins does have a realistically small effect on Rufus and his gang, the book is more interesting as a fictional study of gang behavior and protocol than as a story.

In The Nitty Gritty …, another black adolescent is torn between the indolent life of his favorite uncle and the benefits of continuing his education. Again, the story lacks impetus but in perceptive in...

(The entire section is 154 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[In The Friends of the Loony Lake Monster the] fanciful and the realistic are nicely blended in a tale with good characterization and a briskly-paced plot; it's a deft story with an active heroine who should receive the Fem. Lib. seal of approval, and it is also a plea for conservation. (p. 71)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1973 by the University of Chicago: all rights reserved), January, 1973.

(The entire section is 71 words.)

Harriet Morrison

Bonham combines fantasy, mystery, and adventure in [Hey, Big Spender, which is] set in a present-day West coast ghetto. Black, teenaged Cool is aware of the drug abuse, racial prejudice, poverty, and crime which surround him, but he is above it. Living with Aunt Jo, he helps her maintain a ramshackle foster home where love is more abundant than food. Cool is also employed by enfeebled, seemingly penniless "Breathing Man" to help him give $650,000 to the needy…. Despite [a slow start, the story] picks up and concludes strongly. Unfortunately, the realities of present-day ghettoes makes it hard to swallow Bonham's romantic picture of life in them. (p. 74)


(The entire section is 133 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[In Hey, Big Spender the] writing is casually smooth, dialogue excellent, and characterization vivid if not profound; unlike Bonham's other stories about the black citizens of Dogtown, this is less a biting study than an excursion into escape fiction despite the plight of some of Cool's cases. (p. 120)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1973 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), April, 1973.

(The entire section is 67 words.)

Marilyn R. Singer

Bonham is not at his best in [A Dream of Ghosts, a] contrived ghost story. An American family moves to France and into a 15th-Century castle inhabited by the ghosts of its original owners. Eleven-year-old Gwen, a computerized Nancy Drew, sets out to solve all the mysteries, with the questionable aid of her obnoxious younger brother. The characters are outdated stock figures adorned with a few contemporary props, and they often seem more unreal than the ghosts…. But none of that is important. What is supposed to matter is Gwen's realization that "you can't measure everything or put it under a microscope. You just have to keep trying …" Bonham introduces some fascinating supernatural material, but,...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

Gloria Levitas

["The Golden Bees of Tulami"] teeters—sometimes precariously—between imagination and reality. Bonham's didacticism seems more obvious in this book than in his previous stories of the Dogtown ghetto, and his ironic humor here serves less as commentary than background…. Bonham hopefully suggests that myths can help to nourish, even if they cannot ensure, a happy and more human future. (p. 10)

Gloria Levitas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 10, 1974.

The shallow plot of Mystery in Little Tokyo traces the disappearance and recovery of a trunkful of...

(The entire section is 842 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[In The Missing Persons League] Bonham depicts a society that has adjusted to pollution and its ignoring of conservation, to the policing of individual lives, and to the constant need for pills and palliatives. In this, the story is most convincing. It is rather less so in plot, for the ending is an intricate chase-and-evade sequence between the good guys and the bad guys. (p. 39)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1976 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), November, 1976.

(The entire section is 84 words.)

Stephen Krensky

Bonham squeezes considerable tension and suspense from the proceedings [in "The Missing Persons League"], but little else of note. His characters are never in focus except when occupying center stage; their background machinations—which contribute significantly to the plot—are left blurred, unresolved by the ending.

Most important, perhaps, the book is a muddled example of science-fiction. Notwithstanding a willing suspension of disbelief, I could not reconcile the indiscriminate hash Bonham has made of things to come. Pontiac Firebirds and "nailhead transmitters" simply do not mix. Too many of the touchstones in speech, clothing and technology are contemporary; they don't blend into the evolved...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[The Rascals from Haskell's Gym is a] story about girl gymnasts [which] seems constructed to emphasize the increasingly popular sport, since the plot is contrived and the sub-plot tangential. Adequately written, save for technical terms that are unexplained, the book focuses on the enmity between two gymnastic schools; the protagonist, Sissy, is worried about her own performance … and about beating the "Haskell's Raskell's" in a team competition. She's also worried about whether or not her father will be able to hold a piece of property that the hostile Mr. Haskell wants. There's a nice father-daughter relationship, but the rest of the story is labored. (p. 42)


(The entire section is 124 words.)

John T. Gillespie

Through Chief's eyes [in the novel Chief], the reader is able to experience the struggle of the exploited modern-day Indian in finding a rightful and just place in society. The Indians' plight is realistically portrayed without sermonizing or condescending, although many of the characters express a natural bitterness and disillusionment with the values of present-day America. Many of the characters, particularly boozy Uncle Horse and the enterprising hero, are very well drawn. (p. 53)

John T. Gillespie, in his More Juniorplots: A Guide for Teachers and Librarians (copyright © 1977 by John Gillespie; reprinted by permission of the R. R. Bowker Company), Bowker,...

(The entire section is 100 words.)

Denise M. Wilms

It's clear from the outset [of Devilhorn] that Tom Fox is a resourceful, determined sort. The split from his shallow, temperamental father and brassy new stepmother is painless. The 93 goats he has in tow in the forested Oregon countryside promise to insure a hand-to-mouth existence to start with, maybe something better if plans for herding and cheesemaking work out…. The story, set in 1939, is absorbing despite several instances of contrived plotting. Details of goat-tending and cheesemaking so thoroughly woven through prove unexpectedly interesting, and Tom's levelheaded, independent nature is appealing. A flawed but worthwhile, enjoyable read. (p. 1676)

Denise M....

(The entire section is 117 words.)