Presenting the winners of lit. contest 2015
7 years ago Triangle 0
The following are the winners and their entires for this year’s Literary Contest, which attracted over 40 individual entries.
A grip like Colorado
A stare like steel
He rode for miles, branded cattle, fell in love…
A sawmill, a cabin,
sawdust for insulation
Wild strawberries and a tattered book of Promises
A smile that lived through the depression
a cowboy’s humor, an untamed passion
Always busy as the chickadees in spring
He rototilled and planted, with eleven children on his mind
Her strong hands at home,
washing, baking soft cinnamon rolls
She had clubbed feet,
but he held her hand
and loved her through every painful step
Like that first year
in the drafty farm house
“A good year to make things work,” she always said.
They struggled through crop failure,
a baby was born and died
but their door was never locked
Her love made him stronger
His life lasted longer
“Nothing feels the same without her…”
Ah, but she is part of me…
So I sing Oh Danny Boy and he says softly,
“You have a beautiful, true voice.”
I cannot ask the question, like Ma?
My little hand in his, “Pa, are you in any pain?”
“No, not much”
“Just Add Salt” by Kaylee Cogan
It all begins in spring,
with seeds, water, and dirt.
Then young green stems and leaves,
which, by fall, are plump as auntie’s pregnant belly.
We use a knife to loose
the leafy bulbs
from their thick root.
Cabbages are hauled to
the small and humble kitchen.
The shredder, sharp blades
and a wooden-cracked frame,
is washed and ready
We shred, shred, shred,
and fill the plastic tub.
“Just add salt!” mom will sing.
The boys do the churning.
Crunch and squeak:
The sounds of rough, hard hands
turning fresh cabbage (and salt!)
in the bucket.
We grab a handful
and eat the crunching,
salty shreds before packing
mason jars with kraut
on the wizened kitchen table.
“Gulkana” by Kaylee Cogan
I recall a little black box
a dull static in my ear
and sleeping by rivers
in a fishing tent,
with wood smoke as my blanket
and campfire glow
as my pillow.
I spent those weeks
to the sound of sunsets
after paddling for many winding miles
I loved fishing line
how the two collide-
are one and the same-
when I dream
under glass sky
and lace clouds.
I woke to the pitch-black
smell of coffee,
clovers, and wet grass;
a river drowning out
of an A.M. radio.
“Chatanika” by Kaylee Cogan
Feeling mud and grass between my toes,
I heard the river, always frosted with foam;
its lyrics, like a butterfly landing
on my outstretched hand.
The water between my fingers, green and blue,
the paint peeling, weathered sandpaper,
the trees we carved our dreams into
and the smell of rain…
I tasted dew on wild rose-petals
in late July and early August.
I picked sour-sweet berries
Why did I want to grow up?
Time greets me as an old friend.
I will always return
to the place where I belong.
“Fox” by Kaylee Cogan
We sit inside
to hide from the ice-box-arctic
that is our home
and avoid the night,
until my brother spots
the red-brown flash,
the beady eyes,
the rhythmic dance
and fierce gaze
of the fox outside our frost-veiled window.
A vixen moves
among the wild wood!
A creature with a face like the great wolf
and a muzzle, thin and keen.
Her coat, a rusted-autumn hue,
warms her when the sun is sleeping;
brings a sonnet’s brilliance
to this dim world; this land, grey-white.
White, like the two pallid faces,
pressed against the windowpane.
She prances amidst
the waltzing shadows.
An unbroken frolic
under the pines…
I drag my hand through a pool of collected memory. Drops of forgotten moments, of long-lost friends, of dark nights catch on the tips of my fingers, then fall away before I can snatch them up again.
I stare into the mirror over my bathroom sink. The color in me has faded; all greys and blues, instead of the vibrant pinks and yellows I remember. My skin is creased and folded. In the lines I can read sixty years of history: bills to pay, children to raise, jobs to find, a spouse to bury…
I grip the edges of the sink. The strength in my hands ebbs quickly and I feel myself wobbling.
Even my voice is gone, and when I speak, it cracks and wavers. The voice in my head still echoes youthful and strong.
They tell me Alzheimer’s is killing my mind- that’s it’s slowly dragging my memories away and murdering them, one by one. I would tell you these sterile, white walls they’ve put me behind are the real killer.
I stare into the mirror, attempting to recall the reflection of thirty years ago. A face flashes through my mind and I snatch at it, briefly grasping the edge, filling myself for a moment with the color and vibrancy that was a part of me-
It’s gone. Grey stares back at me.
I hobble into my bedroom. The pictures are tacked onto the white walls, snapshots of moments I can no longer recall without aid. A stack of at least a hundred more sit on the nightstand by my bed, spanning fifty years.
Every day, I attempt to put more photos on the wall in the order they occurred. It helps me remember and keeps me sane.
I take a photo from the top of the stack- grey and creased, like my reflection. A tousle-haired child of about twelve stands in front of a rundown farmhouse, one hand resting on the head of a spotted dog. The flat grasslands in the background show my beginnings; the farmhouse shows the place where I feared I would ultimately end. That same child flashes through my memory, now seventeen years old and slipping out of a second story window, bag in hand.
I never returned.
I pin the picture where the timeline begins, near the door. My mother’s face, my father’s hands, my brother’s tombstone… All appear and are gone again.
My hand shakily reaches for the stack again. There I am as a young adult, standing in the middle of a crowded city street, glowering at the camera with a cigarette dangling between my lips. It is the portrait of youth and recklessness, from the slouch of my shoulders to the holes in my jeans and jacket.
A sensation grips my gut- pain, pain I can remember with sudden and frightening clarity. Hunger pains. I had no money and no food. That cigarette probably came off the sidewalk.
The city is Chicago… I am poor and starving. I must be twenty-two, and it must be the end of the decade, when war was pulling men out of their homes and jobs and killing them in a faraway jungle.
I tack it onto the wall. The gap between my twelve year old self and Chicago is significant… I must work on that later. For now, the next picture in the stack must go up.
I lift it gingerly from the nightstand and squint down at it. The achromatic face staring back at me is not familiar: a woman with bobbed hair and a strand of pearls, standing next to a Ford pickup. She is giving the camera a smile that says she wishes nothing more than to leave; her hand is on the door handle, and she has a small suitcase by her feet. The pumps she’s wearing are the kind you wear to a funeral- stiff, dark, and conservative.
I have no idea who she is.
I place the photo gingerly on my pillow, as if I’m afraid of disturbing the woman within. She will have to wait until I find her floating in the deep waters of my memory. On to the next picture.
The face of the person I loved meets my eyes- a clear, hazel gaze, lips twisted in a perfect smirk, a slight dimple in one cheek, an eyebrow arched in sarcasm. Age cannot blur what I was born seeking; this face has been impressed in my memory since before my soul was given a body.
Not to say our walk was perfect. The stars melted quickly from our eyes. Debt, death, and disillusion walked with us for most of our marriage. At times, we drifted apart, sometimes for years. Grief caused me to open up and seek help, while my other half sought solitude and attempted to heal in quiet.
The hand I wanted most was not always there when I reached for it. But at the end, when I woke up one night to realize I was the only one in the room still breathing, that hand was in mine, still warm.
The old, familiar ache lodges in my chest and I close my eyes for a moment. The pain is almost sweet, ripened by the time we spent together and matured by what we went through.
This memory is clearer than my own reflection. I shuffle to the bathroom and tape the picture to the mirror, then make my way back to the nightstand for another round in the ring.
The next picture I pick up shows a woman in her late teens or early twenties. She’s dressed in clothing so hideous it must be trendy for the times, and she’s showing the camera a sheet of paper, the pride it gives her evident in her huge smile.
This is my oldest, my daughter, on the day she received her acceptance letter to an Ivy League school I can no longer remember. She worked so hard, and deserved every bit of recognition she received. She graduated with honors and went on to become a leading figure in-
Her occupation has slipped my mind. I need to ask her the next time she visits. In the meantime, the picture goes on the wall, a few spaces before my twentieth wedding anniversary. I only know this because of the photo stamp in the bottom right corner.
Another photo shows a group of people I don’t remember gathered around me as I blow out a cluster of candles on a birthday cake. I look fairly middle-aged, so maybe one of my fiftieth celebrations. I place it somewhere in the middle of the timeline and move on.
I go through five more pictures, all vague snapshots of times in my life that seemed important in the moment. A new car, a day on the beach, a fancy dinner…
No wonder my mind has left these behind. I lay them to the side to be examined later and slide another Kodak moment off the top of the stack, a blurry snapshot of a boy with a chipped front tooth. The defect doesn’t taint his otherwise perfect smile. It stretches from ear to ear, accented by an Orion’s belt of freckles across the bridge of his snub nose. He’s standing on a sidewalk in a suburb, a blue bicycle at his feet. For some reason, the bike is more familiar to me than the face. I remember finding it in the road one evening…
The blue paint is scratched, and I feel anger welling up in my chest. I paid for that bike, after all. And now look at it.
I close my eyes. Scratched paint, a bent handlebar… and in the dim evening light, something else… Something lying a little ways down the street…
I am wheeling the bike into my garage and weeping. I am too old to be crying this hard. My knees hit the concrete and I rest my head on the seat and mourn something precious.
My brow furrows with concentration as I reach deeper. My heart beats faster, as if my body is rebelling against the strain of remembering.
The bike never leaves the garage again. My spouse covers it with a sheet and when we sell the house, the bike stays in the garage. I go to say goodbye to it before we drive away for the last time.
The sheet comes off in a cloud of dust and cobwebs, and as it does, my mind suddenly floods with light and I collapse onto the bed.
My son. My son has died. I found his body at the end of the street.
I weep as I wept thirty years ago, when the hearse carried us away from the gravesite. My second child, ten years old, snuffed out by a Chevy pickup as twilight fell over our quiet neighborhood.
For once, my memory seems incapable of failing. Every detail pierces me with perfect clarity: my daughter’s cry when she comes to find me that night, my loved one’s silence as I weep uncontrollably on the day of his burial, my youngest child going to his brother’s room and sleeping with the teddy bear he left behind so it wouldn’t be lonely its first night alone…
My hands shake as I cover my face and cry. This is too much. Too much. I must stop, I must let the memories fade. I will take them all off the walls-
And that’s when I hear his voice. Clear as if he was sitting on the bed next to me. His last words to me before that fateful bike ride.
“I love you- don’t forget.”
The tears feel hot enough to carve canyons into my already marked face.
Don’t forget. Don’t forget.
The waves crashing through my mind dredge up memories that flash before my vision in Technicolor. My first dog dying, my father’s raised voice, the pink slip on my desk, the doctor soberly informing me of the Alzheimer’s…
A childish voice echoes across the storm.
I must carry these memories. He deserves it. My loved ones deserve it. Whatever time I have left, I must remember. All of these memories, even the ones that cut me to the core, make me what I am. My fear of forgetting stems from a fear of losing myself.
My voice breaks the silence between the white walls. It’s a promise to these pictures, a promise to the self I see represented in each snapshot and to the loved ones who shared such precious moments with me, a promise to my cracked reflection-
The waves calm. The roaring ceases, and the memories recede like the tide. The water ripples, then is still.
I drag my hand through a pool of collected memory. Drops of forgotten moments, of long-loved family members, of tearful nights, catch on the tips of my fingers and threaten to fall away.
But I will not forget.
On March 2nd, 2012, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Anna Theresser Caswell of Claxton, Tennessee. In the comfort of her home, she related to me the details of the desegregation of Clinton High School. How did she know so much about this particular event in history? She was there. As she welcomed me into her home, we struck up a casual conversation at first before moving on to discussing the happenings surrounding the desegregation. She told her story with a calmness and sense of humor that was somewhat surprising and that disguised her true strength in the face of adverse circumstances. It was such a privilege to get to meet her and to get to know her – if only for a few hours. I am very eager and pleased to be able to share her story with others.
Anna Theresser Caswell was born in 1942 in Fayetteville, Tennessee, near Lincoln County about ten miles from Nashville. Her mother was Bernice Beatty. She has three siblings: William Gist, Valerie Beatty, and Francis Hill (“The Clinton Twelve”). Ms. Caswell lived in Fayetteville until she was thirteen. Fayetteville was a very small town that was about the size of Clinton, perhaps a little larger. She was raised by her grandmother and explained that her mother had moved to Clinton in order to work. In the summer, Ms. Caswell would go to Clinton for a vacation with her mother.
When asked if she knew anything about the Civil Rights Movement, she replied, “No, that just wasn’t anything that was talked about, you know. In fact, if you talked about stuff like that way back when I was little, that was […] only really a problem when a person spoke out. You just went to school – you was supposed to go to a school – you went to school and you never thought about going anywhere else to school; that’s just what you did. That’s the way you learned to live.” On the topic of desegregation, Ms. Caswell declared that “we didn’t talk about it in the forties, fifties.” In 1954, the Supreme Court proclaimed that segregation in public schooling was unconstitutional and Clinton High School was the first public high school to be desegregated in the South (“School Bombing […]”).
When Ms. Caswell was old enough to attend Clinton High school, she acknowledged that she did not really give it much thought. She stated that she moved to the Claxton community in Clinton over Christmas break of 1955, and that school started back up again after New Year’s. She was in grammar school when she first moved to Clinton and by the fall of that same year, she started her first year of high school. She said that there was no conversation about starting at a new school: “I never gave it any thought because they said school will start on Monday and you’ll be going to school with the kids in Clinton – catch the school bus. When people say, ‘Well, couldn’t you say you didn’t want to go?’ No, you couldn’t say you didn’t want to go because your mom says you’ll be going to school so you go to school.” The first year that Clinton High School was desegregated was the year Ms. Caswell started attending. Of the other eleven African American students who were also being integrated into the school, Ms. Caswell knew very little. She had not met them previously, except for Alvah McSwain, because she had only been living in Clinton for a short period of time at that stage. She mentioned that the only others with whom she was somewhat familiar were the freshman; the rest had been attending Austin High School before then. Of the freshman, the ones she knew the most were Alvah McSwain and Maurice Soles, although he did not live in Clinton at the time. Therefore, the only student she knew very well was Alvah McSwain with whom she became good friends when she first moved to Clinton and they were still in elementary school. With regard to how the teachers there treated her, Ms. Caswell explained, “Well, the teachers were alright. The teachers were alright. All my teachers were alright, you know. You have to remember, the teachers were just as afraid as we were. The principal ended up leaving after a year. Some of the students […] everybody was afraid. So I can say that I don’t think I had any friends, but I can say that the whole time I had two students that were friendly with me. But I don’t think I had any friends. And then the people that I did know – there were eight hundred people in the school – you didn’t see them very often, either.” She carried her lunch to school and often ate with the teachers during lunch because that was the only place she really felt safe. She admitted that she felt lonely. She added, “And then at one time, before it got real real bad, Alvah and I would – her mother worked at the county jail that was at downtown at that time – […] and we would walk to the jail just to get away from the school.” She revealed that the last time they went down to the jail, Alvah’s mother told them not to come back. They did not understand why, but they did not ask questions and instead did as they were told and went back to the school. Later that same day, Ms. Caswell was escorted out of a study hall, out the back door of the school to two waiting police cars and was instructed to get inside one of the cars. The police drove her down a back alley away from the school. One of the policemen then directed her attention down the street. There was a crowd of about five hundred people waiting for the twelve African American students to leave the high school. “I thought, ‘Gosh, twelve little students can make five hundred people come out. Boy, that’s something,’” Ms. Caswell recollected to me, the awe and seriousness evident in her voice. Despite this, she said that she did not have time to feel scared. She was driven to Foley Hill where the majority of the African American families resided, and waited until the school bus came to pick her up and take her back home. This was not to be the last of the upsetting events that took place at Clinton High School. She maintained that she did not experience as much fear as the children who actually lived in Clinton experienced. She continued, “They went through hell. They had to fear for their lives at home. One time, they all went to the church to stay. The women and children were staying at the Baptist Church basement. The men would lay around in the grass and watch their homes – protect their children.” She added that those whose mothers worked in private homes were sometimes allowed to stay in the homes of the families who employed their mothers. However, those with larger families, such as the McSwains, had no alternative option such as this. After that first semester, the McSwain family, weary of the conditions and abuses in Clinton, moved to California, and Ms. Caswell was left without her good friend. There were twelve African American students who were assimilated into Clinton High School at the beginning, but they kept dropping out for different reasons.
Although the building was unremarkable according to Ms. Caswell, the events that occurred at Clinton High School were anything but. She was harassed while attending and stated that, “You got a lot of that.” She mentioned some of the milder mischief that transpired such as lockers being glued shut and snakes being put in shoes. She also attested to other students purposefully scaring her and the other African American students, and added, “I did a lot of jumping.” Ms. Caswell said she took all of the mistreatment in stride but remarked that she was scared all the same. She then mentioned how at one point, her own children said they would not have stood for such treatment from their peers. Ms. Caswell simply stated, “You did whatever the times called for. You just have to endure it.” She continued on, telling of how some people try to dismiss the events that happened at Clinton and to say that it was not as bad as it has been made out to be. Her response? “They weren’t in the situation.” She acknowledged the fact that she was fearful while at school but not once she arrived back home, unlike her Foley Hill counterparts who lived in near constant fear. Ms. Caswell recalled one time when she had to miss school for an extended period of time because the school bus could not reach her house due to construction. One classmate offered to let Ms. Caswell walk to a different bus stop so that she could ride with the other students instead. She declined the offer, and said, “Can you imagine riding the bus with them? They don’t want to go to school with you so you know riding the bus was not going to be good.” She stated further that no one from the school called or cared that she had been absent. At this stage of our conversation, Ms. Caswell remarked, “I can see that there’s been a whole lot of changes as the years go on, but we still have a long way to go. We’ve got to realize that education is for everybody […]. I don’t think color should ever be involved in it […]; I wasn’t raised that way. My grandmother never ever talked about stuff like that.” When speaking of the grandmother who raised her, Ms. Caswell stated that her grandmother had a lot of fight in her and it would seem that Ms. Caswell inherited that trait – fight, tempered with kindness and wisdom. She added that she had strong people in her life during this particularly trying time.
Ms. Caswell explained that she would go straight home after school because none of the African American students were allowed to participate in or attend any school functions such as ball games and pep rallies. She once asked if she might attend one of these events. The reply was discouraging. She was told that she could attend if she wished to but that she would not be protected. She remarked that this was as good as telling her that she could not go. Other people in the community – white families – knew that the African American students were not able to do the things that most high school students enjoy. For this reason, they took it upon themselves to take the members of the Clinton Twelve out for fun activities so that they could have some diversions from the scene in Clinton. These people from the community who would pick them up, sometimes bringing their whole families along themselves, did not even know the Clinton Twelve personally. Ms. Caswell noted that it was never the same group of people who took them on such outings. On one such occasion, when Ms. Caswell was thirteen, the Clinton Twelve were taken to meet Rosa Parks at Highlander Park educational facility near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ms. Caswell said that when she met Rosa Parks, she did not realize the significance of the moment. There were others who were also kind and helped too, such as the Knoxville College – a traditionally black liberal arts college – which helped tutor them if they needed assistance with their studies. The African American students were not allowed to take advantage of any tutoring opportunities at Clinton High School. The people who reached out to the Clinton Twelve, however, were generally not even from Clinton. The members of the Clinton Twelve’s own community would often not provide help or comfort to them – a sobering thought. Those who lived in Clinton who did try to help were, at times, ostracized themselves.
With the introduction of more students into Clinton High School, things seemed to be looking up. That all changed, however, with the bombing of the school on October 5th, 1958 (“School Bombing […]”). Thankfully, no one was hurt. Ms. Caswell stated that she, along with other students, did not think students would be required to attend school the following morning; however, it was announced that they would need to be at the school, in spite of the recent turn of events. She remembered the first thing she heard upon stepping off of the school bus the next morning: “Damn, them niggers came back again.” Ms. Caswell also told of how the military jeeps and tanks that were present in Clinton at that time due to rising tensions among the community would do their part to try to protect her by circling around her while she waited for her school bus so that no one would bother or harm her. Ms. Caswell added that on one morning, there were only two people – grade school children – on the bus besides her due to the other African American families being too fearful to send their children to school. Again, Ms. Caswell explained that it was much more terrifying for those students who lived in the nearby area to attend the high school than it was for her to attend. She related the details of an event that took place at this time when dynamite was placed in people’s trash cans as a cruel intimidation tactic. Fortunately, no one was physically injured. Ms. Caswell lamented the fact that her mother just did not understand how bad things were and told of how she had had surgery on one of her legs at one point and how her attempts to persuade her mother that going to school while partially handicapped – if only temporarily – would not be a good idea. She joked that convincing her mother to let her stay home from school was the only thing she ever swayed her mother to do. She remembered trying to explain the situation to her mother by saying, “Momma, there’s no telling what they’ll do to me.”
The subject of Reverend Paul Turner’s beating was mentioned during our conversation. Reverend Turner, minister of the First Baptist Church in Clinton – a white church – did his part to help the African American students when he walked ten of the twelve students to school on December 4th, 1956. On his return, he was badly beaten by members of the community. His next sermon, preached the following Sunday, put in plain words that “there are no color lines at the cross” (“The Role […]”). Ms. Caswell then related the story of the day, years later, when she attended his church. Different church choirs, both black and white, came to sing together. She described hearing them sing as being beautiful and stated further that it sounded as if the choirs had been singing together all the time. She continued, “And you look up in that choir and you see, you know, the Baptist choir – all white – and you think when all this was going on, they wouldn’t have been in the same choir box! No matter if it had been at church. And now we’re all worshiping together. We’re all serving the same Lord and now we’re all worshiping together. Now, you know, that’s something. That is truly something.”
Ms. Caswell did not graduate from Clinton High School, but instead began attending the Austin night school in Tennessee. She told of how she filled out numerous job applications upon first moving to Oak Ridge after she was through attending school. She was finally hired, in part, due to her aunt who took one of Ms. Caswell’s applications to someone seeking to hire employees, and Ms. Caswell soon got an interview and was subsequently hired at the K-25 plant, a former World War II facility of the Manhattan Project, about one year later when she was in her late twenties (Munger). She worked for Martin Marietta Energy Systems Inc. for twenty-nine years (“The Clinton Twelve”). She also worked at Shoney’s, along with her three boys, on and off if she needed extra money. She was employed at the World’s Fair for a period of time and sometimes worked with her children there. Working together was not the only thing she had in common with her children – she, along with them, started working at a young age. She noted that her personality had changed by this point, and that even though there were still prejudiced people around her, she was going to stand her ground. She stated, “If I was right, then I was going to be right.”
Ms. Caswell had three children of her own, all boys: Ricky Caswell, Darryl Caswell, and Kevin Caswell. All three currently reside in Tennessee. She was also a foster mother to many others once her own children were grown. She has ten grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.
Years after the Clinton Twelve graduated and moved to different parts of the country, a forum was held for all of the former students to voice their thoughts on the topic. Ms. Caswell remarked, “About five years ago, when all this come back up again, we did not know how the other one felt about anything! And they had a round table discussion – the Green McAdoo Cultural Center – and everybody was giving their thoughts and it was just amazing to see how everybody felt about what was going on because we didn’t know…we’d never talked to each other. Now that I’ve gotten older, I can talk about it, since it was brought up. But if no one would have ever brought it up again, I wouldn’t have ever talked about it.” She revealed that when the whole thing was over and done with, she forgot about it and never talked about it until just recently – not even with her own children. Two years ago, Ms. Caswell was invited to New Orleans for the National Education Association, or NEA, exposition. NEA invited one person from the Clinton Twelve to receive an award for the Clinton Twelve’s experiences; they also gave an award for the Green McAdoo museum. The Green McAdoo museum is the previous location of the segregated Clinton Colored School. It was renovated into a museum to memorialize the lives of the people of the local African American community. Ms. Caswell was chosen to receive the award for the Clinton Twelve. “That was a very, very, very good experience for me,” she asserted. It was there at the NEA exposition that she reconnected with a member of the Clinton Twelve who she had not known very well while they were still attending Clinton High School. Almost sixty years later, she and Jo Ann Allen (now Boyce) became friends and learned for the first time how each other felt about their mutual experiences at Clinton. She was invited to the NEA event because of the work of teachers at the Clinton middle school. These teachers entered in the names of the Clinton Twelve and their story at the Green McAdoo Cultural Center. Three members of the Clinton Twelve – Jo Ann Allen and Ms. Caswell, included – were invited to the National Education Association’s exposition a year later. While still on the subject of the NEA exposition, Ms. Caswell urged me to go if I should ever get the chance to do so. While there, Ms. Caswell was requested to give a speech, and although she did accomplish this, she emphasized that “our story was just a drop in the bucket compared to some.”
Her final words on the subject of her involvement in the events that took place at Clinton High School offered sage judgments. Ms. Caswell conceded that she is glad her experience at Clinton is over and happy that things are better now than they were back then. She thinks of her time there as a learning experience, but one that she tried to forget because of the bad feelings and memories involved. She quietly affirmed, “It was a bad thing, and so you just didn’t want to think about it.” One thing she took away from it was the fact that she is thankful that things have improved for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and she is happy in the knowledge that they do not have to go through the things that she went through in her youth. She now believes that some good did come out of the ordeal, even though she could only see the bad while it was happening. She admitted that she would not have said the same when she was young.
Ms. Caswell did leave me with beautiful advice about life, and I had no choice but to listen because although what she said was interesting, it was also powerful, too, and full of meaning. Her words to me were: “Stay in school. It’s very important. Very, very, very, important to stay in school. Get all the education that you can get, because no matter what color you are, if you got your education, people can’t put you down. But you’ve got to still be a strong person, but people can’t put you down. I think of a lot of the things that I didn’t get to do for one reason or another, but then I think about the things that I did get to do, and I think about the things that I was able to allow my children to do that I didn’t get to do […] so no matter how bad things are sometimes, something good comes out of it.”
It takes an already wise person to be able to perceive a changing world and to be able to not only acknowledge those changes but also to learn from those changes as well. Ms. Caswell has managed to do both with apparent ease. I admire her bravery and resilient spirit during trying times and I respect her greatly. Regardless of the difficult times she endured when she was young, Ms. Caswell has a friendly and kindhearted personality. She was exceedingly welcoming during my visit with her, and she has a zest for life that is hard to miss.
Although dystopian novels are not a new idea, when Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games, exploded onto the young adult scene in 2008, a sudden influx of dystopian novels flooded young adult shelves. The word ‘dystopia’ opposes utopian thought and warns against the consequences of an out-of-control utopian society (Booker). The authors of these stories create dark, violent, and disturbing worlds, with corrupt or nonexistent governments and far too many rules and regulations. These are tales of survival; of fighting for change against physical and mental torture to the main character and the ones they love. These books are undeniably dark and disturbing. However, the rate at which teenagers are devouring them is incredible. Along with The Hunger Games, books such as Divergent by Veronica Roth, Matched by Ally Condie, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner quickly became New York Times bestsellers. Why is the dystopian genre so popular, especially among young adults? Is the appeal in the heart-pumping, blood-spattering sentences, or is there a deeper, more inspiring aspect to these gruesome stories?
The Hunger Games, like any other bestselling book, was not strictly received with praise. In fact, there was a fair amount of controversy surrounding the book’s premise. Even the mere thought of reading about kids fighting each other to the death for other’s entertainment was horrifying for some adult individuals – not to mention their own children’s exposure to it. Delving deeper into the dystopian genre brings up a myriad of other mature issues – heavy violence, ultimate quests for power, emotional and physical torture, suicide to escape authority or circumstances, and perversion of religion. Does the influx of novels with increasingly dark themes signify the fact that teens’ tastes are getting darker (Sarner)? Do these themes ultimately have a negative effect on an impressionable age range?
Fans of this genre often have a much different opinion. They claim these stories make people think – that these twisted worlds are echoing of what could become of our own realities. Yet, in the end, there is light. A seemingly insignificant character takes a step, then another toward change and inspires others to do the same. If these foreboding warnings are what could become of our world, surely we, no matter how weak or insignificant others perceive us to be, can make a change as well. These novels are a different method of escapism, with a different kind of hero, and a thrilling story all in one. The grotesque nature of these stories is simply a darker reality – one that needs to be stopped before it’s actually realized.
What makes these novels so dark? On the surface, the amount of bloodshed is definitely a factor. Because the majority of these books are marketed to teenagers, a lot of the violent acts are committed by teenage characters as well. Many chapters contain blood, bullet wounds, and characters stabbing one another. But there is another aspect of violence, one that runs much deeper – psychological torture. Since technology is almost always extraordinarily advanced in these novels, there is no shortage of ways characters can be mentally tortured. It is not unusual for characters to be placed into a situation where their choices will determine the fate of a loved one. Other times, they are lied to about their family and friend’s well-being, the state of their society, or even how their own actions have impacted a certain aspect of the war. The lines become so blurred, it is impossible to tell who is fighting for or against them. One book in particular, Divergent, delves into the psychological aspect of torture. All the characters at one point or another are injected with a liquid that essentially picks up on their deepest fears and causes them to hallucinate. The character’s reaction is sent to a computer to be observed by the people running the simulation. Though this exercise is meant to help the characters defeat their fears by continually facing them, they are often left hysterical.
Looking past the psychological and mental issues, however, leads to the core of what makes these stories truly bleak. Each author takes specific human qualities or aspects of technology, and bases the premise of their story and the motives of the most of the characters on those factors. Common factors range from love, safety, courage, beauty, knowledge, and entertainment. While not bad things in and of themselves, the government system in these novels has completely perverted the quality. Dystopian novels depict what can happen when an entire group of people is obsessed with retaining, demolishing, or improving these traits or ideas. Love becomes something to be feared. Courage becomes cruelty. Knowledge becomes a quest for power. Safety becomes something so comfortable, it becomes blind trust.
An even more disturbing element is found in the novel Delirium, by Laruen Oliver. The members of society are taught that love is dangerous and drives people to madness. It is what they are told over and over, mainly from a special government handbook. The book contains words of warning against the power of love. Many of these are actually Bible stories twisted for the government’s purposes, so that love, instead of sin, is the cause of evil in the world. Perhaps what makes this so frightening is the realization that this kind of persecution and twisting of Christian faith could very well happen someday. In fact, all of this – the slaughtering of mere kids, psychological dissonance, and complete government control – is not hard to imagine happening in our world today.
Despite the overwhelming chaos, the endings of dystopian novels usually contain some kind of light. The society isn’t fixed, but it is mending. Countless people have died, but many more lives are protected. Though it is not a traditional happy ending, the characters are in a much better place than when the book started. The drastic changes that take place from beginning to end are sparked by the actions of the main character. These characters are not typical heroes, either. They are not particularly strong, significant, or even nice. At the beginning, many characters are either extremely hardened or weak. In the first case, they have had to be. It is a survival technique. In a fallen society, with incredible amounts of manipulation flying throughout the streets every day, the characters have had to adopt a cold exterior to protect themselves and the ones they love. In the latter case, they have simply been controlled, fooled into thinking that the world they live in is, in fact, safe. They have been afraid to do, speak, or even think anything that might suggest otherwise. In a less survival-oriented book, these characters might not be so sympathetic, or even likable. But when viewed through the context of the harsh circumstances, their personalities are a little more understandable. What most of the main characters in all dystopian novels have in common, however, is the fact that they are insignificant in the beginning of the novel. It is not until they are forced to make a choice – and they make an unexpected one – that events fall into place, they realize the truth about their society, and keep making choices to inspire change. Sometimes the choice is made to protect their family. Other times, it is because of falling in love. Sometimes, the character’s actions stem from simply realizing who they really are and who they need to be, yet being forced to conform to the government’s expectations.
Readers can heavily identify with these characters. The characters are not perfect. They make costly mistakes to the detriment of themselves and others. But they do make a difference. Dystopian novels paint vivid pictures of weak, cynical, or completely broken characters setting off a chain of events that not only changes things for them, but also for the people around them. This is a different method of escapism – readers do not necessarily love spending time in the fallen, twisted society of dystopian novels, but they love identifying with characters who overcome the circumstances.
The circumstances the characters are in are far from ideal. On the surface the societies appear smoothly controlled, safe, and balanced. Dissension, however, is thick. Often, main characters in dystopian novels have a certain point; a certain moment in which they realize that everything they have been told by the government concerning the society and everything within it is a lie. Usually this experience comes through watching the very people who are supposed to be keeping them safe physically harm other characters. Once this is realized, the main characters begin acting in a way to inspire others around them and bring change to their society.
Dystopian novels do not necessarily mirror the reality of society most people live in today, but there are a lot of parallels – enough parallels to come to the conclusion that if things in our world today do not change quickly, the worlds we read about now for entertainment could become our own. There is an underlying fear in today’s culture of this actually becoming a reality. The idea that the government could take complete control is not implausible. They could dictate every aspect of our lives. We could be forced to fight for our lives every day, or worse, watch our loved ones fight alone. These kinds of realizations make readers look at the stories a different way. Instead of a piece of entertainment, the book becomes a survival guide. Even more so, people view these books as a warning. Many people in our society today are asleep, going through life as if oppression is normal, just as many characters in dystopian novels. Dystopian novels use an interesting story to draw readers in and make a powerful, startling statement. By identifying with the characters, readers are forced to think about what they would do, should the same situation ever arise. Using this technique, the authors encourage readers to work toward preventative measures to ensure that the world as they know it does not become similar to the ones they are reading about. (Stillman 42) In his article Warnings Alternatives, and Action, Peter G. Stillman also states “…dystopias are not predictions of the inevitable but warnings of the possible, and they indicate what trends need to be countered in order to prevent that possibility” (Stillman, 35). Stillman also brings up the point that these stories challenge the reader to create better alternatives. Things do not have to stay in a state of chaos, disguised by comfort and control. Things can change, and we can be the ones to bring it about.
Beyond the fact that dystopian novels are a thrilling read, readers are forced to ask questions – questions they may be uncomfortable answering any other time. Beneath the gore and manipulation and quests for power lie two very relevant questions: Is it possible for our society to end up this way? What can be done to stop it? As readers catch a glimpse of tyrannical governments, murdered children, and horrendous, ignored cries for help, they also uncover another fact: The character that makes the most change often is weak, insignificant, and afraid. Opposing a cruel system is not easy. Fighting for freedom is not easy. Yet the characters overcome their fears, and they make a difference. If these novels are to be taken as a warning, they are also to be taken as a message: No one is fearless, impenetrable, or invincible. But that is not what is needed in this case. What is needed is a strong voice, determination, and, most of all, discontentedness for the way things are and a desire to bring about change.
A backdrop of rolling hills and a clear blue sky with the front of a cottage stage right. Downstage left there is a small, modern office desk with a well-used office chair behind. At opening, the entire stage is dark.
A door is heard opening and shutting offstage left. Spotlight on the desk. Beckett enters DSL and moves sits behind the desk. He sets a laptop on the desk and opens it.
NARRATOR: (Offstage) Once upon a time, there was a man named Beckett Byron Baxter. Now Beckett Byron Baxter was the third person in his family line to be named Beckett Byron, and the first person in his family who was named Beckett Byron to try and write novels. He always tried to write them right where you see him now… behind that desk, in that chair, and on that laptop. He has tried to write several novels behind that desk, and none of them have done very well. But now he has a new idea, and feels very confident in this, his latest attempt.
BECKETT (Apparently oblivious to the NARRATOR’S commentary): This is it. This time I’ll write a masterpiece… (begins typing) “Once upon a time, in a faraway land… [lights go up on the rest of the stage] there was a young man seeking his fortune.”
[Enter OLIVER through cottage door. OLIVER is a young man with shaggy hair and poorer, medieval-style garb. He has a knapsack slung over his shoulder]
OLIVER: (Back into the cottage): Alright mother, I’m off to seek my fortune!
NARRATOR: As you can see, poor Beckett Byron Baxter III is not very good at what he does. I do apologize for this beginning, ladies and gentlemen, but I assure you that the story does get better.
BECKETT (Still apparently oblivious): “And so Oliver began walking out into the wide world, a bounce in every step and a smile on his face. [As this is said, OLIVER does what is described, crossing to center stage and then miming walking forward] And as he walked, he took in all of the sights and sounds, such as the singing of the four different kinds of birds native to the area; the mocking bird, the swallow, the…”
[BECKETT continues to mime talking and writing while OLIVER continues to mime walking “with a bounce in his step” and to take in all of the “sights and sounds”]
NARRATOR: Oh dear… I’m afraid this is going to get much better any time soon. Here, let’s just skip to the good parts, shall we? [BECKETT and OLIVER begin to move in a “fast-foward” kind of way, miming the same actions as before but much faster. Suddenly, the lighting goes dark and OLIVER crosses to the cottage door] Oh! Wait, something happening! We need to take it back a little for context! [OLIVER freezes in place, then moves backwards to his previous position center] There! Now, let’s see what’s happening now, hm?
BECKETT: Suddenly, the sky darkened as dark stormclouds rolled overhead. The wind began to blow, and Oliver realized that he was about to get caught out in the storm and need to seek shelter!
OLIVER: I am about to get caught in this storm! I need shelter! [pause] Why did I say that. . .? [Cross to cottage]
BECKETT: [Confused, paused in writing] Why did. . . ? Hm. . . okay then. Anyways. [Resumes writing] “What Oliver didn’t know, though, was that this cottage was the home of a powerful witch! A nasty old woman, dressed in rags and covered with warts with fingernails like claws and–”
[Enters COSSETTE, a young, beautiful girl with long hair and dressed in a simple but well-kept dress]
OLIVER: You. . . somehow, you weren’t who I was expecting to open the door.
BECKETT: You know. . . actually, it might work better if the witch is actually younger.
[COSSETTE looks directly at BECKETT and smirks, then looks at OLIVER]
COSSETTE: Greetings, young traveller. How can I help you?
OLIVER: My lady, I seek shelter from the coming storm. As your cottage is the only thing nearby for [pause] I don’t even know how far around.
OLIVER: Yeah. . . it’s almost like I’m missing the entire walk here.
COSSETTE: Well did you walk here, or was it a scene break?
[There is dead silence on the stage. BECKETT stares at his laptop while OLIVER stares at COSSETTE.]
NARRATOR: Beckett Byron Baxter III was horribly confused. He had never intended for Cossette to be able to break the fourth wall like that! Something was terribly wrong. This book was not unfolding as he had planned at all, and even as he wrote it he wondered what on earth he was doing.
OLIVER: A. . . a scene break?
COSSETTE: No, you’re right, that wouldn’t make sense. He wouldn’t use a scene break, he likes his descriptions too much.
BECKETT: Hey! Now you hold on just one moment!
[COSSETTE and OLIVER freeze. COSSETTE appears excited, while OLIVER looks terrified.]
NARRATOR: It was in that moment that Beckett Byron Baxter realized something extraordinary. His novel was alive. And aware of the fact that it was a novel! Somehow, his character had become aware of his presence, his voice, and were responding to it! It was truly remarkable, and Beckett Bryon Baxter III was shocked.
BECKETT: I. . . I’m shocked!
NARRATOR: He didn’t know what to think.
BECKETT: I don’t know what to think!
NARRATOR: In fact, the more he thought about it, the more confused he became. His characters–
BECKETT: –Are alive!
[Everyone onstage freezes]
BECKETT: I don’t know where that thought came from.
[Everyone onstage exchanges glances at each other, then looks up]
NARRATOR: Well… ladies and gentlemen, it seems this has gotten well out of hand. So I’m calling it an evening before they realize you’re out there. I do apologize, this isn’t what you all came for, but something seems to have gone awry…
OLIVER: Wait, there are people out there?!