IN NAT HENTOFF's new novel, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book Nora Banes little anticipates the furor that will result when she assigns Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to her high school American history class. First a black student and his eloquent father protest the flagrant use of the word "nigger" throughout the novel. Then a teen-aged feminist complains that all the women in the book are portrayed as "yo-yos." Finally the whole community is thrown into an uproar when the Parents for Moral Schools label Huckleberry Finn unfit for school consumption, because it uses atrocious grammar, promotes disrespect for authority, condones thievery and lying, and depicts Huck and Jim as naked on the raft.
At first glance, all this might seem to be just a civil libertarian's paranoid nightmare. After all, Huckleberry Finn has been read by boys and girls for nearly a century without seriously undermining American democracy. But Hentoff's George Mason High School is based on Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax County, Virginia, where last spring the human relations committee tried to bar Huckleberry Finn from the classroom. George Mason High School could also be located in Montgomery County, Maryland; Davenport, Iowa; Warrington, Pennsylvania; and Houston, Texas.
Huckleberry Finn is not the only book currently in danger. As Hentoff suggests in The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, no work of literature is immune from such criticism in the present political climate. Every special interest group, whether liberal or conservative, is now calling for the suppression of certain books for young readers. Hugh Lofting's The Story of Doctor Dolittle is racist. Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books are offensive to American Indians. Feminists find "Cinderella" sexist. Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, Robert Newton Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die, and Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen are all dirty books. Perhaps the heavyweight champ of controversial children's book authors is Judy Blume, whose very name on a title page seems to be all that is needed to call a meeting of the local school board to review its library's buying policy.
The complaints vary from the silly (Ruth Krauss' The Carrot Seed "promotes disrespect for parental authority") to the absurd (Anne Frank's Diary of A Young Girl "perpetuates the myth that the Holocaust occurred"). One might just laugh at these statements except that they have actually caused the removal of books from libraries and school curriculums across the country. There have even been sporadic public book burnings reported. Publishers, too, have been carefully following these actions: While some editors agree with Mark Twain that even bad publicity can increase a book's sales, others who rely on library dollars are reluctant to sign contracts for possibly controversial books.
There have even been attempts to rewrite history. When the San Francisco Public Library recently banned Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers was compelled to revise her 1934 classic. Although she claimed that there was nothing racist in the original, she did discreetly change the Chinese, American Indians, Eskimos, and Africans to pandas, dolphins, polar bears, and macaws in the prophetically titled chapter, "Bad Tuesday." It has also been reported that the former chairman of the human relations committee at the Mark Twain Intermediate School is rewriting Huckleberry Finn to make it ethnically acceptable.
In his novel, Hentoff carefully shows how a local complaint grows into a national controversy. What he argues is that the banning of a book, any book, is a threat to every individual's freedom. Throughout the novel, Hentoff skillfully introduces the subtle issues that censorship by its nature must raise. Particularly fine is the debate between the Citizens' League for Preservation of American Values and the American Civil Liberties Union; each position is presented without condescension. Particularly moving is the noble defense Steve Turney, a black student, makes for his right to decide for himself whether or not Huckleberry Finn is racist.
At times The Day They Came to Arrest the Book falters like Uncle Tom's Cabin: The characters do not always seem to have private lives beyond the issues they express. Also Mike Moore, the principal, is such a jerk that he hardly seems a worthy adversary for the librarians, teachers and students who support Huckleberry Finn. The conclusion is not fully convincing: Twain's book may stay, because it is proven that there are more offensive incidents in the Bible than there are in Huckleberry Finn. It is likely that many children will not understand or even care about all the complex issues raised by The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, but perhaps some will pass it on to their parents.