Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1191
Among Conroy's more important themes in this novel are racism and the accompanying prejudice, religion, education, family, isolation, and maturation. Conroy the character, usually called Pat, embarks upon a two-fold quest. The first is that of achieving his own destiny, one about which he has most definite ideas. The second...
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Among Conroy's more important themes in this novel are racism and the accompanying prejudice, religion, education, family, isolation, and maturation. Conroy the character, usually called Pat, embarks upon a two-fold quest. The first is that of achieving his own destiny, one about which he has most definite ideas. The second is the liberation of the black island children, and by extension, of their families, from the white-instituted illiteracy which binds them to their past as surely as the chains of slavery did their forefathers. The prejudice he must fight to reach his goals comes in several different forms. The school superintendent, Dr. Henry Piedmont, represents the white establishment in its purest and most deadly form. While outwardly showing an interest in Conroy and his various projects at the island school, he will not allow challenge to his established administrative procedures. Black education differs from white education, and such differences must not be challenged. Good or bad, the system remains sacrosanct.
More insidious is the prejudice of the blacks themselves. While Pat eventually gains the trust of the children and their families, he remains powerless to correct the self-silencing they exhibit. Theirs is an inheritance of well-versed subservience to the whites. They have learned not to question or criticize white policy if they want to be left alone to structure their black society as they please. As Conroy states, "The people of the island have changed very little since the Emancipation Proclamation." The children have been taught by one of their own, Mrs. Brown, a black school teacher, that they are ignorant, even retarded. She tells Pat upon first meeting him, "These people don't want to better themselves."
The white couple who "oversee" the island, the Stones, offer the perfect example of stereotypical Southern prejudice. Mr. Stone stands ready to shoot any "niggers" or "long hair liberals" who threaten the island's security. He exhibits the curious dichotomy of willingness to aid Conroy as a fellow white, but a complete lack of sympathy toward Conroy's attempts to help the island's black inhabitants.
Conroy fills in his background for the reader, stating, "I was getting tired of my own innocence." He tells of teaching in 1968 at the Beaufort High School in 1968 when Martin Luther King was murdered. Several black girls approach him, demanding that Conroy apologize to them for King's death. Hearing the young blacks asking why whites cannot treat them "right" and "love us like Jesus taught," followed by threats to burn the city, Pat is seized by "the shadow that hovered over me, white guilt." He feels his teaching at the island school, a position which no other white teacher will consider, might serve to relieve him of that shadow.
As the story, and his relationship with the school children, develops, Pat discovers he must lose the selfish side of his mission, that of his expectations. While he had come to the island to conquer ignorance, seeing himself as a great white educator, ready to lead the children to intellectual victory, his plans must change. Upon arrival at the school, he discovers that in his class of eighteen sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, four cannot recite the alphabet, some can not even count on their fingers, none know what country they live in, who the President of the United States is, or what the name of the ocean is which surrounds their island. Pat must accept that education may be found in places other than books. He begins to share music with the children and makes a game of geography. Eventually the students leave the island with him to participate in their first round of Halloween trick or treating, and ultimately on a bus trip to Washington D.C. While Pat's relationship with the children flourishes, that with the white establishment suffers.
As in much of Southern writing, the theme of religion, and religious hypocrisy, returns again and again to Conroy's novels. This novel is no exception. Conroy deftly shapes the religious hypocrisy of the whites in relation to the more honest spiritual experiences of the blacks. Pat finds himself challenged by the necessity to cope with island superstition. While supremely religious and following the precepts of Christian teaching, the black islanders also believe in ghosts and witch doctors. The author uses this groundless, yet honest, superstition of the blacks to parallel the dishonest religion of the local whites, who forbid blacks to enter their churches. The most highly Christian whites of Beaufort are also the most prejudiced. One white couple, Zeke and Ida Skimberry, who help Pat in his boat trips back and forth to the island, stand apart from the other town inhabitants in their attitudes toward blacks. They had been active members in the local Baptist church until its members voted to close it down if "a nigger ever tried to attend a service." Zeke and Ida never went back to that church. Yet even this couple, as close to open minded as most of the lifelong Southerners in this novel ever come, retain prejudices. At one point, Ida calls a specialist in Savannah to check her son for his gland problems. She then informs the narrator that she has just done a terrible thing; she believes she may have made an appointment with her son to see a "nigger doctor"; she suspects his race because of the way his voice sounded over the phone. Struggling over the proper way to cancel the appointment, she wonders if she could not just call the doctor back, tell him she means no harm, but that "I just feel that a person should go to his own kind." Pat understands her attitude, because he was raised with the same attitudes himself. Conroy's oft used theme of hypocrisy finds expression through the Skimberrys. But as often happens in this novel, the hypocrisy reflects upon Pat's own problems in being honest with himself.
Pat marries part way through the novel, involving his wife and her daughters in his relationships with the children. Barbara Conroy whole-heartedly supports his efforts. His marriage causes Pat to move off the island, where he had been living during the week, returning to Beaufort only on weekends, in order to be with his family full time. Pat and Barbara end up hosting several of the island children in their own home during their freshman year at the high school in Beaufort, a move which angers many of their white neighbors.
At the end of the first school year, the powers-that-be attempt to have Pat fired. Ostensibly due to the cost of paying for Pat's gasoline to power his boat on his island commutes, his dismissal remains the direct result of his having made those who run the school system feel threatened. While he wins an early battle against the system, he eventually loses to the power structure of the local school administration. At first devastated by not being allowed to be with the children any longer, Pat eventually realizes a vital era in his maturation has come to a close. Conroy concludes the novel with a chapter allowing his reflection upon his experience and how he has gained by it.