Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Battle Over a Book ...

The inspiration for this post comes from Burr, over at
El Llanero, who was discussing what he called, 'The best two novels of the Llano Estacado' ... Elmer Kelton's "The Time It Never Rained" and Rudolfo Anaya's "Bless Me, Ultima"

There is much, in both books, that brings West Texas and Eastern New Mexico to life ... the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the passionate and the indifferent, the sensitive and the brutal ... all delivered in well-crafted prose, with colorful characters and compelling imagery.

Both writers are now recognized as masters of their craft, and that recognition is well-deserved.

But there is one difference between the two ... while Mr. Kelton's works have found, pretty much, universal acceptance, the same can't be said for Anaya in general, and "Bless Me, Ultima" in particular.

It brings to mind a ruckus we had in Fort Stockton a few years back, when a small-but-vocal group came forward and pressed the school board there to place some restrictions on "Ultima" ... though there were also calls for complete removal of the book from local shelves. There were concerns about the profanity some characters used when they got drunk, and got violent. Critics also believed the book glorified witchcraft, and was nothing less than a 'how-to' manual for impressionable young minds. These were the 'official' reasons, offered openly for publication, and we reported them in the local newspaper. There were also other reasons, of an uglier nature, that were offered by one segment of the critics ... but not for publication, and they were not reported.

To the credit of the Fort Stockton community, opposition to the book never reached the point it did in smaller, socially-conservative communities in New Mexico and Colorado, where the books were removed, and destroyed. Instead, the Fort Stockton ISD Board of Trustees instructed a panel of educators to review the book and make recommendations. Meanwhile, an assistant superintendent of the school district was given an added duty, a temp job, of making sure copies of the book remained on the shelves until the panel reached its decision.

In the meantime, the local newspaper gave plenty of coverage to the debate, and to arguments for and against the book's removal ... not surprising, really, for a small town weekly to give space to something that had people talking. But what did surprise readers were the sidebars that appeared with those reports ... excerpts from the books, discussions of what a curandera really is, and exclusive interviews with the author himself, Rudy Anaya, who was following the story from his home in Albuquerque. There was even an editorial from the paper's managing editor, a nasty liberal-media-type of the worst order, calling upon the school district to keep some place for the book on the shelves.

You see, everybody in Fort Stockton knew I was a dang Yankee from back-east ... but they didn't know that, on the way from Pennsylvania to West Texas, I stopped in Albuquerque, and studied English literature and creative writing with Rudolfo Anaya, a professor at the University of New Mexico.

In the end, the panel recommended keeping the book on the shelves ... though not unconditionally. It could not be assigned as required reading, for example, but as one of a list of books from which students could choose in completing their assignment. It was also recommended that the book be kept at the high school, only, where students of that age might be able to better cope with the instances of profanity.

That same rascal at the newspaper wrote another editorial, praising the panel's recommendations as a means of balancing educators' missions with parents' concerns.

Praise was also heard from Anaya, who said he understood why parents might be concerned, sharing his own concerns as a grandfather teaching his grandchildren to read. Later, at a conference in New Mexico, he had a chance to meet personally with a number of educators from Fort Stockton.

All in all, the incident reaffirmed my decision to make my home in West Texas, and to ply my craft as a journalist here. West Texas is a special place, and those who make their home here are, for the most part, special as well.

"Bless Me Ultima" was #75 on the American Library Associations list of
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. Those books in Fort Stockton could have ended up on a bonfire, as they had elsewhere ... but they didn't ...

Sometimes, you take a stand ...


Eric said...

Another great behind-the-scenes look...thanks for sharing it.

Paul Harvey doesn't have a monopoly on interesting "the rest of the story" reports!

Jeff said...

Eric, you're very kind. But, as you well know, Fort Stockton can generate more great stories, per-capita, than just about any small town in the country. Thanks for stopping in.

Eric said...

Unfortunately, with family still there and a fair amount of readership from FS, there's very little of it I can share. That's why we're counting on you! ;-)

Pancho said...

If it was almost banned in Ft. Stockton, I'd better get a copy quickly!

In reading the list you linked, it is amazing to me to still see, in this day and age, some of the books listed near the top. i.e. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Jeff said...

Wallace, I recall something Molly Ivins once said about books functioning as a kind of mirror ... we look into (read) the mirror, and we don't like the image that is reflected back at us ... a derogatory word, a deed or an attitude that resembles us too closely for comfort. The solution, Ivins goes on, is that we blame the mirror, pull it off the shelf, destroy it. Such might be the case, for some critics, when it comes to a book like "To Kill a Mockingbird," which has long been a favorite of mine.

I've been thinking of getting a "Read a Banned Book" graphic/link from the ALA for my blog.