Ruined Young

When I was a kid we were forced to read a lot of depressing books. I knew which ones were going to be a problem way beforehand, but reading and writing book reports on those tearjerker novels were rites of passage—or a form of hazing, depending on your view.

Nothing, nothing was worse than the animal stories. I hated that young adult crap of the day, though there was less of it back then. Why couldn’t I just pick titles off my parents’ bookshelves like I had been doing since first grade? They had all the basics, from the classics to the modernists to the beatniks. One of the first books I ever remember reading was the utterly delicious play Bad Seed.

Why make a kid read The Yearling? Or Old Yeller? Or Where the Red Fern Grows? I still don’t know. I didn’t learn any lessons from these books except that adults suck and life sucks. The books weren’t inspiring to me in any way. They were disturbing and horrible, and to some neurotic kid who’s stupid over animals they may as well have been pornography. Wait, there was pornography on the shelves in my house. My father had Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of O, and plenty of Henry Miller. Nobody ever told us that any of the books were off-limits. Maybe we didn’t actually read the racy stuff in front of my parents, but we sure as hell read it on the sly.

But even the most violent, smutty adult fiction I devoured as a kid didn’t affect me like the animal stories. There is no animal story that isn’t a tearjerker, they don’t work that way. The truth is I’m a basket case long before the ending so I can barely concentrate, because each word leads closer to abuse and/or death. I recently read a scene in a Joseph Wambaugh novel where an ashamed, alcoholic cop is preparing to commit suicide. His dog knows. He puts cottage cheese in the dog’s bowl as a final act of love and then walks outside and shoots himself while the dog howls in agony, not touching the food. I was howling myself by then and I admit I threw the book. So if I get that mental over a scene in a book at this age, imagine the 10-year-old version with a damp, snotty copy of The Yearling in her hands.

As I grew up my fear of animal stories deepened. If there was the slightest suspicion of animal abuse I wouldn’t read it. I never read Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Call of the Wild—all very popular books when I was growing up. People have told me many times what I’m missing.

I can’t watch Incredible Journey or Eight Below or Marley & Me or the Horse Whisperer. People say, “oh I cry every time I see that movie!” Huh? You mean you watched it more than once?

I know I’m hopeless and no one feels the weight more than I do, but everyone has some baggage we just can’t unload, this is in a suitcase of mine.

14 responses to “Ruined Young

  1. As a child I became inconsolable if I read any book where a cat died, and even now an animal death will often make me stop reading. I gave up on Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children — apparently one of the great neglected classics, and a book I’d been enjoying up to that point — because there is a scene where a girl drowns her neighbour’s cat, at the neighbour’s request. And yet human deaths in fiction generally don’t bother me. Go figure.

  2. I clearly visualize that book on the shelf as a kid. But even as a baby misfit the title turned me off—see, I wouldn’t have liked it anyway.

    It’s a curse and it’s limiting but the impact of it doesn’t seem to lessen over years. My entire assessment of Russian literature is “constant oxen beating.”

    Bring on the serial killers, just don’t make their victims animals or even a family pet who gets caught in the crossfire. Even if the pet lives, I have to worry about what’s going to happen to it.

    Ridiculous to be so fragile but there you have it. Good to have some validation, thanks.

  3. My three girls have expressed the same concerns over those animal books. Every one of them is drab, and as my youngest said, “just plain stupid”. I’ve never read them. I had the good fortune to be lazy back in my compulsory school days. I do remember one book, Death Be Not Proud. It was about a boy who had cancer or some other terminal disease and basically all he wanted to do was learn advanced math. I got the sorrow aspect of his impending death but thought the teachers wanted us to read it to ‘motivate’ us into believing advanced math was an actual life or death issue. Enjoyed the book, but still failed algebra, again, and again…

  4. You mean they’re STILL making kids read those books?

    “Just plain stupid”….smart kid.

  5. Oh Deb you are definitely not alone in your inability to read books like that. I still can’t do it, anything that has an animal hurt or killed is something I can’t cope with. Even the “no animals have been harmed in the making of” warnings mean nothing, nothing! I will still blubber like a fool for hours if not days afterward. I admire your love for animals and I believe the fact that you feel so deeply for them even when it’s “just a book” shows how sensitive you are to them, a rare thing in this world it seems. I’ve said before, animal lovers are good people!

  6. The books radiate evil. They sit there in classrooms over the years waiting to suck.

    How about when people say “it’s only a movie.”

    I hate the way animals are so expendable in books and movies. You know from scene one if the character has a pet that something terrible is in store. Unless the pet saves the character, what’s the point?

  7. I never read The Yearling or Old Yeller myself (teachers read them to us, captive at our desks), but I admit to reading Black Beauty and other Walter Farley novels, because I couldn’t get enough of horses and knew I’d never have one. But I read one great book over and over, until I’d memorized parts and knew how to make a fish hook out of a twig, thorn and tree bark… Jean Craighead George’s novel My Side of the Mountain. At age 12 I even had my dad drive me to the village in the Catskills near which the boy in the story supposedly lives. He hollows out a huge tree and lives off the land, with a peregrine falcon as his only companion. Granted, the boy is a carnivore, but he has to work for it and uses every bit of what he can catch. I learned to see nature so much better from this novel. George is still at it— take a look. http://www.jeancraigheadgeorge.com/

  8. LOL, that really is cruel treatment in captivity. Sounds like you got an education from a naturalist and a dad to humor it…what joy! And look how its lasted a lifetime. Thanks for writing.

  9. I have always had deep sentiments for animals. I read those novels you mentioned when I was a child and wept like you. I avoid those works today. Wouldn’t read them again. When I travel on the interstate, I often keep my eyes straight ahead or else I will see things in pastures I revile. Frederick the Great requested that he be buried beside his dogs. He eventually was. I’ve seen his grave and beside him are several flat tombstones of his hounds. The day I saw the castle and his grave, the weather was rainy and foggy and looked like the picture you snapped of monsoon in Arizona. My companions are very dear to me and I would not abandon them. I have a hard time ahead of me in that Lilly, my oldest mare, is degenerating as the result of normal aging and I must tend to her as she stiffens and gets bowlegged with a loss of weight.

    There is a kinship with animals in the deepest sense. Those that ignore that friendship are missing one of the greatest gifts of being alive and that is having the dog wag his tail at your entrance, the cat purring against your leg, the horses nickering at your coming and the birds singing you a melody when you open the door. There’s a network of sentient beings about us and they boost us when we are sad and protect us from harm, caring not whether we are pretty or ugly, black or white, poor or rich.

    My horses have rushed passed me in the pasture to put themselves between me and feral dogs. When the world is too much, my dogs come to my side and place a paw upon my leg. My cat follows me into the pasture for goodness knows what? But he’s with me and I’ll watch out for the hawks and owls so they don’t scoop him up.

    So, why shouldn’t we want to be buried beside our relatives? Like Frederick? And weep at their pain? Of course we will as they howl with our grief and growl dark shadows into light.

    Thank you, Debra, for an inspiring post.

  10. Hey Jack welcome back! I know what you mean about “don’t look.” There is a ranch on Rt. 80 where a VERY old lady has horses, miniature horses, donkeys, and an assortment of big birds, etc. They are fenced in and breed freely in what a lot of people consider to be an uncontrolled and abusive way (and incestuous? does that apply here?) We have tried to help the old lady but she is difficult. People who love horses worry about her and her horses and what is to become of them.

    Watching beloved members of our family age and become frail is one of the saddest things we go through as caretakers/friends of animals. I can just see you out there amid your loving family with all their quirky personalities—nothing can compare to that connection.

    Sometimes I contemplate what I would do if I knew we were going to die. If something happened to us, who would care for them? I would turn in my grave if I saw one of my family members under the “care” of the “humane officer” at the local pound. Better to have them beside me.

    This undoubtedly is one of your favorite poems too, from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman…it’s stuck on my fridge and I read it often…every line of this beautiful passage expresses exactly what we know. If only humans could be as pure and just, our world would improve in minutes.

    I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
    self-contain’d,
    I stand and look at them long and long.

    They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
    They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
    They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
    Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
    owning things,
    Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
    years ago,
    Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

  11. No one made me, I read all of those books, cause I read everything at age 10. Ya wanna bawl, read Rainbow Bridge.

    • I would never have read those books if they didn’t make me.

      I can never read Rainbow Bridge again, ever. Once was enough. I have many pets waiting for me, you probably do too. And I don’t even believe in heaven. But when I bury a pet I put their tags on and their favorite toys in and sometimes a letter. Why do I do this if I don’t believe in heaven.

  12. I love animal stories, I just keep in mind going in that I will be bawling by the end. The latest for me was “One Good Dog.” Happy ending, but I bawled anyhow.

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