The following is my “speech” for Banned Books Week. The
Rock Island Public Library and the Midwest Writing Center join for a yearly public
reading and I did more than sit in the audience this year.
Cold Blood for Banned
I’ve come to
Banned Book readings because they are so important. I have often wished to
participate, but what book to choose. I’ve found lists of banned books and have
been pleased that many titles are familiar to me as ones I’ve read. But not so pleased
because there are so many more left to explore.
This year I
went online, perused the first list, and what did I find? Dr. Seuss! Really?! Someone
in Toronto complained about the violence in Hop on Pop.
the arrival of my first grandchild. She is sooo going to have this book. My youngest
son will have to deal with any ensuing mayhem. So, yes, a tiny little part of
grandparenting is … shall we say—payback. Just kidding—he was the “good one”.
Okay, I’m buying
this book but it’s not the one I want to talk about tonight.
of the Flies was
assigned reading by my high school English teacher. I should explain that this
guy was in the army, the World War II army, and got his college education
through the GI bill. He liked to say the regular college students started out
[down] here. While the returning veterans started out [up] here. So, Mr. Schakel
knew his stuff.
I read the
book, wrote my report, and he called me up to his desk. It was after class and
he patiently explained to me how I missed the whole point of the book. I
don’t remember his words, but the sinking feeling—yeah, I remember that.
I missed Hop
on Pop the first time around.
I failed my
reading assignment with Lord of the Flies.
the book I do want to talk about: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote—whose
research was assisted by the one and only Harper Lee, but I didn’t know any of that
at the time. I was a somewhat isolated teenager in small-town Iowa. The
important thing here is that I, as a teenager, chose
to read this; to enter the world of Perry Smith & Richard Hickock, the
Clutter family, the criminal investigation, the confessions, and the trial.
This was an eye-opening experience for me.
This opened the door to all kinds of
HOW could it have happened?
WHAT can a person, an individual, do?
familiar? We are still asking those questions. And that’s okay.
We must not
lose the chance to connect with the kinds of books that stir our passions, our
fears, that push us past our boundaries, the books that make us tackle the difficult
That is why
I chose In Cold Blood for tonight.
one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had
ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the
highway, and like the yellow train streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama,
in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there. The
inhabitants of the village, numbering two hundred and seventy, were satisfied
that this should be so, quite content to exist inside ordinary life—to work, to
hunt, to watch television, to attend school socials, choir practice, meetings
of the 4-H Club. But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November a
Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb
noises—on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling
tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles. At the time not a
soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them—four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended
six human lives. But afterward the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently
unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy
re-creating them over and again—those somber explosions that stimulated fires
of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other
strangely, and as strangers.”
1965, first printing, page five.
The fact is that while I can read about
true crime, or in this case a “Non-fiction Novel”, when it came time to write
my own book I went with the safer, less violent, cozy route—that included a
nice, friendly dog. To answer the question of Why?—that was my choice.