Swarthout demonstrates our society's tendency to abuse and neglect the powerless by juxtaposing the buffaloes and the Bedwetters. While this novel speaks to the powerlessness of animals and children, specifically, it also refers to a broader trend to abuse power, whether through physical, economic, racial, or sexual advantage.
The government had robbed the buffaloes of the life they naturally lead. Well fed, lazy, and tame, they have never experienced freedom or self-sufficiency, remaining in the preserve for their entire lives, until they become the victims of the annual buffalo shooting. Much in the same way, the disturbed teenage boys that comprise the Bedwetters' cabin have come from affluent families in which they need not worry about material needs but nonetheless suffer from desperate emotional needs. Most of their parents have failed to pay individual attention to their children, and have "warehoused" them at the camp in hopes that they will become tougher in the process. 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 the Bedwetters' personal mission toward self-preservation.
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 this value very clearly to the reader 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.
By the end of the novel, Swarthout has established the Bedwetters as heroes and moral models. He has established the theme of the ordinary hero; he believes in the potential of the individual to determine his own fate and to make his own moral and personal judgments. He also believes in the potential for individual growth; each character in the novel has deeply explored his sense of self as well as his sense of morality. Despite their status as unpopular misfits, Swarthout considers them far more heroic than he does the Apaches at the Box Canyon Boys Camp, for example. This theme of the ordinary hero arose as a direct response to both William Golding's Lord of the Flies and to the prevalent national disillusionment during this period in United States history. As Swarthout wrote, "The idea is, if you isolate boys with the right combination of circumstances, they will do great things. So much is now anti-hero. This is a 'yes' book."
Since its publication, critics and religious figures have often cited Bless the Beasts and Children as a work rich in religious imagery. Cotton bears many similarities to Jesus Christ, including his initials, and the Bedwetters have adopted the role of the Disciples. Despite others' scorn and jeers, Cotton remained faithful to his misfit Bedwetters. At the end of this book John Cotton sacrificed his life for the boys just as Jesus Christ did for his disciples. In addition, Cotton gave whiskey to his boys only shortly before his death, much as Jesus partook of the Last Supper with his disciples.
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. In addition, a certain 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.
Swarthout vividly describes not only the physical traits of the land but also the general atmosphere and emotional effect of this land. The mystique of the American West, especially for these boys who have come from around the United States, represents a powerful force. Committing many pages to descriptions of the land, Swarthout invests the reader with an acute sense of place.
This novel contains many bittersweet moments. Even Cotton's death at the conclusion of the novel both exhilarates and saddens the Bedwetters. While the characters often amuse the readers with their eccentricities and their banter, they also negotiate incredibly difficult issues. Without the comedic aspect of the work, the novel might have appeared overly self-righteous or self-conscious. Swarthout strikes a balance between these comedic and tragic elements to entertain, yet inform, the reader.
Each character wears, and cherishes, some type of headgear reflective of his personality. For example, Lally one and Lally two wore matching cowboy hats; Cotton, whose aspirations included becoming a general, wore a military hat; Shecker wore a backwards golf hat signed by Arnold Palmer; Teft wore an Africa Corps hat; and Goodenow wore a Hopi headband. They also each possess a radio, on which they rely for a relief from the solitude and for comfort in falling asleep, and a flashlight, to avoid the frightening darkness. However, as a symbol of their maturity as well as their commitment to the release of the buffaloes, they sacrifice these amenities to successfully startle the buffalo out of the pens.
Box Canyon Boys Camp represents the society at large, as well as its problems and trends. As Swarthout criticizes the camp's cruel spirit of competition, its misconstrued Western values, and its definition of masculinity, he simultaneously criticizes the broader society for these trends.
The symbol of the buffalo provides a narrative both of the history of the American West and of the Bedwetters' struggles. In addition, Swarthout employs the buffalo to illustrate the cruelty man demonstrates toward the weak and powerless.
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