Nat(han Irving) Hentoff Kirkus Reviews - Essay

Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Day They Came to Arrest the Book is a] fictionalized airing of the book censorship issue, set in a high school with a weak, oily principal, a strong and principled English teacher, and a new librarian…. Hentoff avoids the predictable alliances by making the complainant a black parent who objects to the use of "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn. Before the book issue emerges, Hentoff sets the stage with a guest debate, for an American history class, between an articulate conservative and an equally articulate if less smooth young ACLU lawyer. Later the conservative sides with the black father, as does Kate, an aggressive feminist student who objects to Mark Twain's treatment of women. They are joined by the usual guardians of morality shocked by Huck and Jim's nudity and the message that "a child ought to decide for himself what's right and wrong." Hentoff allows both sides persuasive arguments at the school board hearing that results in the book being restricted but not removed altogether, and again at the second meeting where a black student testifies to his ability to "tell when the word nigger is directed at me." This time the review committee reconsiders and lifts the restrictions. What the anti-censorship forces learn is that it's best to bring such conflicts into the open. There are other twists to this conflict: the principal schemes behind the scenes in the interest of his own career; the school paper editor backs down on an editorial attacking the principal, but later publishes a more damning interview. Hentoff, however, stages no inner agonizing, sticks in no personal subplots, and doesn't bother to pass off the various mouthpieces as characters or personalities. Even more than his other novels, this issue "novel" is all issue, without pretense or apology. As such it's accessibly well-reasoned, timely once more despite the ancient heritage of all the arguments, and probably better off without the extracurricular padding.

A review of "The Day They Came to Arrest the Book," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1982 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. L, No. 18, September 15, 1982, p. 1060.