James Welch didn’t publish the novel Fools Crow in 1986 to ingratiate himself with Christian religious leaders. And he didn’t expect his award-winning novel about a young man called White Man’s Dog coming of age in the Blackfeet tribe in the late 1800s to become a regular feature of high school English classes around the state.
Nor does Welch take it personally when those same conservative religious leaders challenge the teaching of Fools Crow because of lines like this: “There is a white woman here who will make you squirt.” But he does have strong opinions about their skill as literary critics and the repercussions their challenges have in the classroom.
“People like that are not really great intellectuals, and to read a book would probably hurt them,” Welch says. “They’re probably only able to deal with excerpts. Yeah, the excerpts seem raunchy but in the story they fit very organically. [Challenges] have a chilling effect on teachers but I don’t mind at all.”
No one is currently challenging Fools Crow, but it’s next on the list for Cary Monaco, father of a freshman at Hamilton High School and pastor at the Big Sky Baptist Church. Monaco challenged I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a memoir by Maya Angelou, when it was assigned to his daughter’s class at the beginning of the school term as an example of a minority character overcoming adversity. Monaco plans to do the same for Fools Crow when his daughter reaches 11th grade, unless another parent does it first.
For Monaco, the literary value of any single book isn’t enough to keep it in the curriculum when there are other books that can accomplish the same learning goal. His daughter opted to read a biography of George Washington Carver, the former slave who became a renowned agricultural scientist.
And Monaco doesn’t think it’s inappropriate to judge a book he hasn’t read based on excerpts collected by a group called Parents Against Bad Books in Schools. The Angelou excerpts in question compare the appearance of an erect penis to a “brown ear of corn” and the feel of one to the “mushy and squirmy” insides of “a freshly killed chicken.”
“Schools practice censorship all the time,” Monaco says. “When the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated comes out, they don’t put it out, or they rip out those pages. This is just a matter of where you draw the line. [The passages] might incite some kids to carry about pedophilia on someone younger [and] to me it borders on sexual harassment.”
But Sallie Scott, owner of a children’s bookstore called The Learning Tree and a 34-year veteran of teaching high school English, says the excerpts in question are precisely why she read the book in tandem with her daughter when she was 12-years-old.
“We alternated chapters,” Scott says. “It was so important to me that she be exposed to Maya Angelou’s stories. They are violent and graphic but she’s trying to show that children can have an amazing resiliency even when they come from a horrific background.”
The scene in question occurs when a young Angelou is raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Scott explains. Angelou doesn’t tell her mother about the assault but she can’t keep it concealed at the hospital. And when the mother tells her brothers what happened, they seek revenge against the mother’s boyfriend.
“[Angelou] felt that her uncles not only avenged her tragedy but vindi-cated her personally,” Scott says. “It’s a case of justice where you want to scream, Yes! People who want to censor books never read them. It drives me crazy.”
Heather Bruce, a UM professor who specializes in English curricula, says Angelou’s book is appropriate for freshman because teenagers need a safe place to discuss sexual issues and explore their options for dealing with violence.
“Teachers encounter kids who have been abused in one way or another all the time,” Bruce says. “Students who have reported abuse have found a great deal of healing and release in the fact that other people have experienced this, that it wasn’t their fault, and that they are not the only one.”
Public participation in educational decisions is important, Bruce says, but often these challenges develop into a pattern of religious parents bullying teachers about books written by women and minority authors.
“Every teacher has a rationale for every book they choose,” Bruce says. “You make reasoned decisions. You don’t choose controversial works intentionally without thinking it through. And when you get questioned you begin to doubt your experience and your ability to make decisions.”
Hamilton freshmen have long since finished Angelou’s book and the lesson on overcoming adversity, which district superintendent Duane Lyons sent to a curriculum committee for review. But he’s already previewed Fools Crow and pronounced it appropriate for juniors in anticipation of a Monaco-inspired challenge now, or in two years.
Even if Monaco is successful in his bid to pull Angelou’s book from classrooms, more people in the Bitterroot Valley have read it this fall than ever before. Since the beginning of the school term, Lyons has loaned nearly two dozen copies to interested adults and Russ Lawrence, owner of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, has sold 30 copies as compared to only three last year.
As for the excerpt from Welch’s book about the “white woman here who will make you squirt,” it’s from a scene in which several Indians hijack a settler’s wagon for its whiskey and find a wallet full of money and photographs. A more provocative scene occurs when White Man’s Dog discovers a woman he has just had sex with in the dark confines of a teepee is covered with smallpox sores. But you’ll have to buy the book to read about it.