According to Swarthout, what defines manhood? How does his definition of manhood differ from that of the Box Canyon Boys Camp? How does the novel trace the coming-of-age struggles of the Bedwetters?
The Box Canyon Boys Camp defines masculinity quite differently from the author's interpretation of the term. According to the camp and its social rules, the Bedwetters do not fit the definition of men because they lack athletic skill and the cruel, cutthroat competitive spirit of many of the other campers. Swarthout, however, defines manhood in more emotional and psychological terms. He values integrity in all thoughts and actions. Believing in the strength of convictions, Swarthout asserts that a real man would place more importance on his personal set of morals than on popular opinion. Therefore, he respects the man who overcomes this sense of isolation and keeps the greater issue in mind. The author demonstrates very clearly to the reader this value through his advocacy of the Bedwetters' mission, which proved successful despite all odds and despite the boys' unpopularity. In addition, communication skills and a positive attitude, both of which the Bedwetters develop during the course of the novel, assist them in their journey and hint at their growing maturity. Lastly, Swarthout places enormous emphasis on compassion as a desirable masculine trait. In fact, this call for compassion provides one of the main themes of the work. To Swarthout, physical strength, social popularity, and performing well in competitive situations contribute only secondarily to the definition of a man, while these psychological traits occupy the most important part of the definition. Indeed at times boys become overly zealous in these efforts, indulge in cruelty, and become what Swarthout would consider cowardly and the opposite of a man.
What similarities exist between the buffaloes and the boys in terms of their respective roles in society? How do they relate to one another?
The buffaloes and the Bedwetters both represent the powerless in our society. The buffaloes that live on the preserve grow fat on the government's rations, but never truly experience freedom or self-sufficiency. In fact, they essentially never have the opportunity to live as animals do, in the wilderness. Tame, well fed, and bored, they remain in the preserve for their entire lives, until they become the victims of the annual buffalo shooting. In the same way, the Bedwetters have come from affluent families in which they need not worry about material needs but nonetheless suffer from desperate emotional needs. Throughout the book Swarthout draws comparisons between boy and beast, who relate to one another as a result of their shared situation. In this way the mission to rescue the buffalo becomes as well a mission toward self- preservation.
How does the author use popular culture to portray both the climate of the nation at that time he published the novel? How does it shape the Bedwetters' behavior and ideals?
Popular culture appears throughout the novel, in the form of Western movies, the latest radio hits, idiomatic expressions, and television programs; Westerns in particular have profound impact on the Bedwetters' behavior. They emulate the heroes of these films, and adopt their fashions, mannerisms, and expressions. In addition, the Vietnam War has made a significant impression on the group, and particularly on Cotton, who had watched quite a bit of footage of the war back at home. The general atmosphere around the country at that time had been one of turmoil, transition, and a questioning of established norms and authoritative figures and institutions. The boys absorbed this sentiment, and experienced these phenomena in their personal lives as well. Cynicism arose out of the expired or frustrated ideals of the 1960s. This novel reflects this disillusionment, while somehow simultaneously maintaining an acute sense of morality and hope.
What religious imagery does Swarthout employ in Bless the Beasts and Children? Do you believe he intended to portray Cotton as a Christ figure? Why or why not?
What role does a sense of place play in this novel? How does this story illustrate themes and values of the American West?
How is Box Canyon Boys Camp a microcosm of the larger society? How are misfits penalized at the camp and in society?
What symbolic role does the buffalo play in the American psyche?
Explain how the Bedwetters' sense of teamwork and togetherness changes throughout the course of the novel. What does each boy contribute to the collective effort of the mission?