Banned Book Reviews: Forever, Rabbit Run, The Awakening, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Forever, by Judy Blume.

Prominent on any list of banned and challenged books is Judy Blume’s Forever. It’s a great title, but Judy Blume could just as well have named it My First Fuck. Considering that Blume’s audience is made up of pre-teen and early-teen girls, it’s easy to understand why so many parents have demanded this one be taken out of libraries. I frankly would have been extremely uncomfortable with the thought of my own daughter reading this when she was in middle school.

But if you accept the fact that kids are gonna do it, then Judy Blume’s protagonist, Katherine, is the ideal guide and mentor. Katherine is nothing if not methodical: she gathers advice from friends, relatives, and her own parents; she studies up on STDs and VD; she visits a Planned Parenthood clinic on her own and gets a prescription for birth control pills; she doesn’t let her boyfriend force her into anything until she’s ready; she makes him wear a condom.

All that preparation pays off: Katherine enjoys her sexual experiences and does not suffer for having them. That right there, that lack of righteous biblical retribution, is enough to get the book banned. But there’s more: Judy Blume says sex can be fun, and that’s enough to justify burning her at the stake in many communities.

The book suffers a bit from all the practical advice Judy Blume has crammed into it: parts of Forever read like a vagina owners’ manual, and at times you feel as if you’re studying for a test rather than reading a novel.

I hope my own daughter read Forever when she was a teenager. But I wouldn’t have wanted to know she was reading it at the time.

Rabbit, Run, by John Updike

I read somewhere that Updike wrote Rabbit, Run, at least partially in response to Kerouac’s On the Road. If he did, Rabbit, Run is On the Road’s evil twin.

Maybe the fact that I read Kerouac as a teenager, whereas I didn’t read Updike until late middle age, accounts for the difference. When I was 15, On the Road filled me with a sense of free-falling exhilaration. As a 60-something adult, Rabbit, Run had me reaching for the nearest bottle of pills, depressed to the point of suicide. But stick with me — this doesn’t mean Rabbit, Run isn’t a brilliant, important book.

The characters in On the Road are running, but not from responsibility — they don’t have any. Harry Angstrom, the “Rabbit” of the title, does have responsibilities, and he’s running from them. He’s an immoral craven, a coward, the very definition of an anti-hero. And yet you can’t help liking him, just a little.

I grew up in a military family, moving every three years to different parts of the USA and Europe. I loved the promise of new horizons and couldn’t wait to go to college, grow up, and see what the future may bring. Rabbit saw all the future he was ever likely to see the moment he opened his infant eyes, stifling and inescapable. He grows up in a small Pennsylvania town, goes to high school there and is a bit of a basketball hero, and now lives and works within blocks of everything he’s ever known. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, who’s nearing the end of her second pregnancy and has become a sexually unresponsive alcoholic. He’s uneducated, has a crap job, isn’t going anywhere, and is utterly stuck. Given my background, right there I’m ready to slit my wrists! Is it any wonder Rabbit runs?

When Rabbit runs from one squalid situation to another, he ruins lives. He tries to straighten out, but his despair keeps overwhelming him and off he runs, ruining lives again, over and over. As the book closes, he’s on the run yet again. Harry Angstrom, though the word didn’t exist then, is a sociopath, a user of people, a loner who deep down doesn’t really believe other people exist in the same sense that he himself exists. But he is a sociopath you can at least partially understand, and that is where Updike proves himself a master.

I read Rabbit, Run as part of my personal banned books project. As with the other banned books I’m reading, I try to find out why each individual book was controversial. Updike wrote Rabbit, Run in the late 1950s; it was first published in 1960. In those days, sex was not a subject for open discussion. Lady Chatterly’s Lover was still banned in most communities in the USA, the birth control pill did not exist, Vatican II had not yet occurred, girls who got knocked up in high school simply went away to who knows where. So what does Updike decide to write about? Ah, you guessed it.

John Updike is famous for his unashamed, fearless exploration of sexual relationships between men and women. Even today, his writing retains the power to make readers squirm. Secret pimples and warts, smells, secretions, wet spots, the most intimate secret desires, the involuntary noises we make as we come — all this is grist for Updike’s mill. Can you imagine how shocking his writing must have been in 1960? Indeed, upon it’s publication Rabbit, Run was widely banned in the Americas and Europe, and as late as 1986 parents in Medicine Bow, Wyoming demanded its removal from a high school reading list. With the resurgence of right-wing Christianism in the USA, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it is being challenged all over again.

Rabbit, Run is many things — depressing, embarrassing, thought-provoking — but above all, it is real. Many books are banned for trivial, bluenosed reasons. This one was banned because it tells powerful truths.

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

I don’t like Edna Pontellier, Kate Chopin’s heroine. She doesn’t care about her children and she treats her husband like crap.  She can’t even be bothered to learn the name of the nanny who takes care of the children she can’t be bothered with (throughout the book, the nanny is referred to only as “the quadroon”). She is the exemplar of selfish indulged idleness. She plays at flirtation, but the slightest hint of animal desire between men and women sends her running in revulsion. She strikes out on her own, at least as much as a society woman in the 1890s could, scandalously entertaining men at her house without chaperones. But I’m damned if I can find the slightest indication that she ever does more than plant a smooch on her young paramour, far less take him to bed. When she drowns herself on the last page, she’s as confused as she was in the beginning of the book, unable to articulate what it is she really wants. Oops, sorry about the spoiler there.

The Awakening is a novel about a “liberated” woman and was thus automatically controversial in 1899, when Kate Chopin wrote it. The book was banned and Kate was shunned — actually banished from the literary society of which she had been a prominent member — and I’m told she never wrote another novel. Women, fictional or otherwise, simply didn’t liberate themselves in those days.

Ah, but now we live in what we are told are post-feminist times. So I was shocked, shocked to learn that this 110-year-old book is still being challenged by parents’ groups today? Believe it — here’s the link:

Apparently many would-be censors believe that Edna did in fact do the dirty deed with her boyfriend, and even had that most forbidden and liberating of all experiences, an orgasm. Kate Chopin isn’t around any more so we can’t ask her if that’s what really happened, but I’ll tell you what, when you read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (a novel written almost 50 years before The Awakening), there isn’t any doubt or ambiguity about what Emma Bovary did to secure her liberation. I think that if Kate Chopin had meant to indicate that actual boffage had occurred, she would have made it at least as clear as Flaubert did.

Well, no matter what Edna Pontellier did or didn’t do back in 1899, sex — more precisely, the promise of sex — is at least hinted at in The Awakening. And in the USA, that’s enough to get the folks in Kansas riled up — 110 years later!

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Now that I’ve researched, read, and reviewed a number of banned and challenged books, it’s clear to me that sexuality, particularly the notion that young women might have sexual feelings, is all it takes to bring out the book burners.

And there’s plenty of sex in Maya Angelou’s childhood memoir, starting with her rape, at the age of nine, by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, then continuing with her description of her mother’s life as a prostitute, her adventures in Mexico while her father visits a whorehouse, her teen-aged fear of being a lesbian, and her first self-initiated sexual encounter and subsequent pregnancy at the age of sixteen.

But sex is not all that’s wrong in Kansas: Maya Angelou pokes fun at her grandmother’s old-fashioned Arkansas Christianity and morality; she glorifies inner-city black lawlessness and crime; she lives in a junkyard for a month with other homeless children; she’s scornful of white people. Worst of all from the censors’ view, I suspect, is that she does not accept her place: she’s smart, determined, and uppity.

As far as Maya Angelou’s writing, I have to say that while she had me in thrall through the first two-thirds of her book, she lost me during the last third when she changed her writing style: the liveliness, humor, and astute observations of character that pulled me through Maya’s earlier life suddenly disappear and her memoir becomes compressed, rushed, and vague. Huge and important things happen late in the book: her brother runs away from home; she becomes the first black streetcar employee in San Francisco; she decides to prove she is not a “pervert” (her own word) by asking a neighbor boy to have sex with her; she becomes pregnant and has a child . . . but Maya covers all this in a hurry, almost as if she’s writing about someone else. I don’t understand why Maya’s writing changed at this point in her narrative, and this makes me like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings a little less than I want to.

Still, it’s an important, ground-breaking book, and there are three very good reasons to read it: one, to tweak the censors’ noses; two, to learn something of what it is to be a black girl in America; three, to hear the voice of a strong black woman who is not, for a change, Oprah!

Read more banned book reviews and posts.

© 2010 – 2022, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


One thought on “Banned Book Reviews: Forever, Rabbit Run, The Awakening, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

  • Paul,
    Where do you find the time to read all these? I am impressed. Should the muse move you, I would be interested in your take on my favorite author, Wallace Stegner, specifically “Crossing to Safety,” or “Angle of Repose.”

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