Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: The 18th Emergency by Betsy Byars (1973)

Benjie (also called Mouse) likes to draw labels on things, and one day he labels a poster of a caveman at school with class bully Marv Hammerman's name, and Hammerman sees him do it.  Though Mouse and his friend, Ezzie, have spent a lot of time thinking up plans for handling emergencies - quicksand and boa constrictors, tarantula bites and falls from cliffs, charging bulls and hungry lions - Benjie is woefully unprepared for the wrath of Marv Hammerman, which is about to descend on him in full force. Benjie is desperate to escape being beaten up at first, but as he begins to see things from Hammerman's point of view, he realizes that he must accept the consequences of his actions, come what may.

I found this book very interesting, mostly because I think most of what happens in it would be handled very differently in a contemporary setting. For one thing, with so many zero tolerance policies for bullying in public schools now, there is no way Benjie would have gotten away with his graffiti without adults getting involved. At the very least, teachers would be searching for the student who had defaced school property. I am also skeptical that many kids solve their problems with physical fighting in this way. Any fight I ever witnessed in school was always a spur-of-the-moment thing, brought on by uncontrolled emotions and quickly broken up by adults. I never knew of anyone to "meet at the flagpole after school" to settle their problems, as though fighting were a matter of honor. 

I am also unclear as to whether Byars condones physical fighting among boys. The book, my edition of which was marketed as part of the Just For Boys series from Weekly Reader, seems to suggest that the right thing for Benjie to do is to allow Hammerman to beat him up, but it's hard for me to imagine why that would be the author's only message. Compared to Byars's other books, which frequently have open-ended or only partially resolved conclusions, this one seemed more tied up at the end, but the resolution felt odd to me, because it felt like Benjie learned the wrong lesson. Perhaps the idea is that the reader is left to critique Benjie's actions and to decide whether getting beaten up truly should have made him feel better, but I'm not sure a kid would read anything into it beyond the seeming glorification of fighting. Not that I think a single book is enough to promote physical violence, but there was a strange "boys will be boys" vibe to this book that felt very outdated. 

This is not my favorite Betsy Byars book, as it lacks the subtlety of some of her other books. Still, the characters come across strongly, and I think there is a lot for young boys to relate to, even if Benjie is not always an ideal role model. I bought this book at a used book sale so I'll probably hang onto it for a while, but I'm reserving judgment on whether to share it with my kids, or whether they will even be interested. 

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