Chris Crutcher's Battle Cry
When I picked up The Sledding Hill, I knew that young adult author Chris Crutcher had been the target of several book banning organizations in the past. His title Whale Talk in particular has been challenged repeatedly primarily due to its “adult” language. Crutcher has become a very eloquent defender of First Amendment rights and developed a certain amount of notoriety that has transcended his own work. He firmly believes students should fight against censorship, especially when it comes to young adult literature, and on his website he offers numerous tools for teen readers to use. It is not necessary to know all of this about Crutcher before reading Sledding but it does help put the book into perspective. Because while The Sledding Hill is about many different things in the life of high school freshman Eddie Proffit, it is mostly a story of how and why censorship happens. In fact, this book is Chris Crutcher’s response to all those who have tried to silence him; it is his battle cry, and I flat out loved it.
I am not giving anything away to reveal that Eddie’s best friend Billy Bartholomew dies in the novel’s opening chapter. (The dust jacket tells you that in the first three sentences.) Eddie is hit hard by what turns out to be a series of tragedies and finds himself at a loss as to why horrible things happen to good people and also why his friend seems to be haunting him. He finds some solace in Warren Peece, a book assigned in his English class, a book however that is instantly challenged. Several of the students take this hard because as Eddie tells Billy later, “What’s really crap is that the book was making me feel less lonely and they want to take it away…The guys who want this book out of here think it’s a sin if somebody thinks a ‘bad’ word, or considers a ‘bad’ idea. They don’t care if the characters seem like friends to people who don’t have any.”
This cuts to the base of Crutcher’s repeated argument against censorship; that books matter to the young people who read them just as they are written – and without adult interference. Crutcher realizes that any argument has two sides however and provides a remarkably balanced view in Sledding. As he explained to me in a recent email exchange, “As much as these people [censorship supporters] piss me off with their narrow-mindedness, I know they are afraid and that at some level they think they are protecting kids with their actions.” He even included students who support censorship in Sledding and gave the group “Youth for Christ” a very eloquent and dedicated spokesperson in the form of high school senior Dan Moeltke. “Adults believe we don’t think for ourselves, that we’re morally immature,” says Dan at one point. “This group – and he sweeps his hand to indicate those around him – knows this is the perfect time to prove them wrong. We all know the best way to keep your mind pure is to keep evil thoughts out. Warren Peece is evil, plain and simple. The language is disrespectful and obscene; the Christians in the book are portrayed as mean-spirited and controlling. There’s a gay character at the center of everything. The book, in its entirety, is simply a lie. We’re going to come out swinging against it.”
Clearly, Dan is no fool, and what he believes so strongly in the book is exactly what Crutcher has been fighting against.
On a lot of levels, The Sledding Hill operates almost as a literary puzzle box. At first it is a book about life and loss and coping with tragedy. But then, as Eddie finds a way to cope it becomes a book not only about fighting for what you believe in, but for accepting that everyone is allowed to believe in something differently. Ultimately, of course, it is about censorship and why some well meaning people see it as a solution while others, quite clearly, do not.
Eddie and several of his classmates find themselves facing off against God and country as they prepare to defend Warren Peece and keep the book in their school. The narrative takes a bit of a surreal turn as it is revealed that Chris Crutcher is the author of Warren Peece and when Crutcher shows up to defend his work at the School Board meeting it is clear the actual author has allowed reality and fiction to completely overlap in the writing of this particular book. Crutcher admits though that he placed himself in the story more for fun than anything else. “Mostly I did it because of the wrap-around gag/question of who wrote the book…Crutcher or Billy. I was playing,” he writes. It’s still a wicked cool hook for the storyline and something else to keep the readers guessing about what Crutcher will do next.
In the real world, Crutcher does not believe that the threat of censorship has affected any of his writing, with the exception of his decision to write The Sledding Hill in the first place. “You can’t think ‘audience’ while writing a story or it will likely take away from the story itself,” he says. “Whale Talk has been roundly challenged since it was published. Had I worried about that it would have been a completely different story, and watered down. I like it, and my other stories, the way they are.”
Ultimately, it seems that writing Sledding was a chance for Crutcher to address the issue of good and bad in life and literature. He allowed the deceased character of Billy Bartholomew to narrate the story as a way to explore the good/bad issue. “…even though it’s certainly fantasy,” he writes, “…it got a certain Zen point across, that it’s hard to tell the good things from the bad things while they’re happening; and it’s hard to tell the good people from the bad people when you use too narrow a measuring stick.” Crutcher does not have any one dimensional characters in his book, and while readers might disagree with some of their actions, the author goes out of his way in the narrative to explain what motivates some people to seek censorship of classroom materials. “…the truth is,” writes Crutcher, “that no one is all bad or good…we are what we are and that has a lot to do with our histories. But,” he points out, “because I am charitable to them [proponents of censorship] doesn’t stop me from opposing them aggressively.”
Ultimately it is not Chris Crutcher who stands up before the school board, but student Montana West. Crutcher reveals a bit about himself in the ending, as Eddie realizes that even the author has his own insecurities. “He’s scared, too,” says Billy, “But he’s not scared to tell his stories. That’s probably the only place he’s not scared.” Montana is not afraid however, not in the final moment, in her triumphant moment. “Take it,” she says. “We’ll find it and read it and we’ll post a list at the city library of every book you ban and read every one of them. We’ll carry them, front cover out, all over campus, and we’ll talk about them, loud, with one another.” And maybe that is why Crutcher is brave enough to keep writing, because he knows there are kids out there like the ones he wrote into his book, and knowing that gives him courage enough to accomplish anything.
As for me, I don’t like living in a climate of fear and I don’t understand how so much of our country and our culture have chosen to embrace it. Hell, I don’t understand how people can stand on one street corner in my town with signs that say “Support Our Troops” while others can stand twenty feet away from them with signs that say “Peace” and somehow, these groups are opposing each other. Everyday it feels more and more like we are all in our own terror driven version of Wonderland; I’m sure the ghost of Joe McCarthy is dancing somewhere, vindicated at last and waiting for statues to be raised in his honor. We are all afraid of everything, even the fact that gay kids exist or that teenagers know how to cuss. The Sledding Hill is a thought provoking book written in a time that demands we all take a few moments in our daily lives and think not only about ourselves, but about everyone else around us. I think Chris Crutcher might just be trying to change the world with his stories and even though I’m probably a naïve fool, I can’t help but hope that somehow, he will succeed.
The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher