BENJAMIN DeMOTT

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

[The] defects that mar most problem political [books for juveniles] are of two kinds—excessive detachment (inability to feel the exciting, promising newness of politics to youth) and excessive righteousness (lack of responsiveness to the humanity, however ignorant, of the benighted opposition). And neither of this season's interesting political juveniles—Nat Hentoff's "In the Country of Ourselves" and Maia Wojciechowska's "The Rotten Years"—is free of one or the other of those defects. (p. 3)

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[The] impression left by ["In the Country of Ourselves"] as a whole—namely that politics is boring—is under-nourishing and false.

A nearly opposite failing scars Maia Wojciechowska's "The Rotten Years." The book's heroine, Elsie Jones, is a high school history teacher, a worshiper of Bobby Kennedy and Lecomte du Noüy, a thoroughly passionate activist. Mrs. Jones secures her principal's permission to conduct a 30-day experiment in intensive moral education with one class. ("During that month," she tells her students, "you can become potential saviors of mankind … addicted for life to the search for truth.") The experiment enrages the community, the teacher herself is burned to death in a fire set by the demented mother of one of her students, and the event is perceived as martyrdom. The strength of the book—it's less negligible than the story in summary can suggest—is the author's fine enthusiasm for great moral and political undertakings. "The Rotten Years" doesn't stand back from "causes" and commitment: it embraces them with a quickness and force that's the best kind of answer to the question, Does injustice matter?

But, as counsel against self-righteousness, the book is ineffective, and its refusal of its imaginative obligations to the community it means to "save" is a serious shortcoming. Miss Wojciechowska continually sets youth and community in confrontation: "From 3:30 to 5:30 PM today I'd like you to be downtown smiling at people. You may stand on street corners, go inside supermarkets and other stores, hang around bus stops, walk the streets smiling at people…. [Later] we shall write a news paper story about your experiences downtown."

Now and then she invites her students to work their way through to knowledge of why elders think and feel as they do. But the martyrdom of Mrs. Jones, together with the paucity of concrete attempts to reach for understanding of other men's fears and anxieties, becomes at the end a powerful incitement to youthful self-pity. (Can the suspicion and hatred felt for Elsie Jones by the demented parent be decently judged without a comment on the suffering of those who have nothing between themselves and total loneliness, no defense except rage against the seductive exotic ways of snobbish college-bred teachers seemingly bent on stealing their kids?) Miss Wojciechowska is remarkable for her willingness to chide the young for pettiness—as when she complains about a boy who would "speak about a chore demanded by his father with as much resentment as when he talked about the injustice of poverty." And her summons to earnestness of mind and social awareness is bracing. But if it's superficial to reduce political positions and commitments to personal traits, it's equally so to reduce political conflict to wars of saints and knaves. "The Rotten Years," like "In the Country of Ourselves," is a less than perfect problem book. (pp. 3, 22)

Benjamin DeMott, in his review of "The Rotten Years," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1971, pp. 3, 22.

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