Bless the Beasts and Children
The Bedwetters arrive at the buffalo preserve, spotting the killing ground beyond, where Cotton had dreamed of their own deaths. Goodenow slips and falls, vomiting on his hands and knees. The other boys fail to understand the cause of Goodenow's sickness, and he cannot tell them as he is too ill. As daylight filters down through the clouds, the boys realize in a horrible flash that they have been stepping in, slipping on, and touching, pools of blood.
The Bedwetters recall their trip to the buffalo preserve during the previous day. On the way home from an overnight they had stopped at the preserve to see the buffalo. They had approached the killing ground to see many visitors and spectators lined up on the fence of the field. Sensing the suspense in the air, the boys had watched a woman aimed at the buffalo and shot, missing initially but after a few rounds succeeding in killing the bull. The spectators had cheered and rooted the marksmen on with an almost sick enthusiasm and sense of festivity. A doctor in his sixties and a fourteen-year-old boy shot the other two bulls, who died horrible, undignified deaths. The boys had unwittingly stumbled upon the second day of the Arizona Game and Fish Department's annual three-day "hunt," in which shooters entered a lottery for the privilege of killing the buffalo. Unskilled shooters often missed vital organs, causing the buffalo excruciating pain as they repeatedly missed, striking horns, eyes, and limbs instead.
The day after their visit to the buffalo preserve, the boys remained sickened by the memory of the killings. They had wondered about the buffalo that would be killed the following day. Upon their return to the camp, they remained sullen and silent, unable to keep the company of their fellow campers. Goodenow had gotten sick after dinner that night, and Cotton had had his nightmare about the killings that night as well.
Swarthout powerfully uses light and darkness throughout the novel to invest events with symbolic significance. For example, the light that filters through a cloud allows the Bedwetters to realize in horror that they have been standing in and slipping on pools of blood from previous slaughters. The light illuminates the truth and awakens the boys from their innocence, leaving them shocked and disgusted. The epigraph at the beginning of the novel also implies this connection between awakening, light, and truth, as opposed to slumber, darkness, and ignorance. Little Boy Blue sleeps without knowledge of the outside world and its cruelty.
In Chapter 10, in a moment in which the group has become particularly distressed, Goodenow proposes that they meet for "bump time." Swarthout writes, "[H]e told Cotton about a thing they had done in the special school he'd gone to in Shaker Heights. "Bumping," it was called. When everybody was about to crash and burn and needed help, fast, the teacher would have them huddle and close eyes and hug each other and touch each other for a minute, and it really worked." Swarthout developed this idea from his psychological research and from the popular transactional therapies of the 1960s, which employed this method as a means of solidarity and openness. Interestingly enough, Swarthout draws a further comparison between the buffalo and the boys by describing this practice; buffalo also act in a similar way for increased safety and togetherness.
Chapter 11, the most graphic and disturbing scene in the novel, depicts in shocking detail the annual buffalo killing. This passage in particular, as well as the corresponding scene from the film based on the novel, sparked a nationwide controversy about this tradition. Swarthout in large part takes issue with the method of the killings, perhaps more so than the killings themselves, criticizing the shooters for their inaccuracy, which often resulted in severe injury and pain long before the buffalo's actual death. The reader also senses Swarthout's love and reverence for the sheer physical beauty of the buffalo. In describing the indignities the animals suffered, the author also notes the lack of ceremoniousness with which the carcasses where butchered and dissembled immediately after the kill.
Swarthout's emphasis on the buffalo as a national symbol, particularly toward the end of chapter eleven, speaks to the cruelty of which man has proven his capability. The powerless in our society, "the beasts and children," too often become the brunt of abuse and the victims of problematic societal trends. Swarthout postulates that perhaps "We cannot bear the goodness of God," and hence idiotically feel the need to destroy it.
The Bedwetters' sickened reactions to the killings in chapter twelve peak their curiosity about the fate of the remaining buffaloes on the preserve. Valuing humanity, sympathy, and generosity of spirit, not only as desirable personality traits but also as central to the definition of a man, Swarthout vividly describes their shocked state of mind after the killings. Cotton's dream and Goodenow's upset stomach highlight their inability to repress the memory. Wheaties, on the other hand, rejoices in the killings, and eats his dinner without hesitation or repulsion. This difference places Wheaties and the Bedwetters in dramatic opposition to one another. While Wheaties enjoys more popularity among the campers and a greater allegiance with mainstream society, the misfits demonstrate the compassion, strength, and determination that Swarthout admires. One of the main concepts of the novel, in fact, deals with the heroic potential of those whom society considers simply ordinary.
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