Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin
queerbychoice

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The Bone-Headed Author of The Bone People

Have you ever read a novel that you considered immoral? I ask because I've just finished reading Keri Hulme's novel The Bone People, which won the Booker Prize (the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize except that instead of being for the best American literature, it's for the best literature written in English by a citizen of the UK, the Commonwealth, Eire, Pakistan or South Africa) and the Pegasus Prize (for the best literature from "countries whose literature too rarely receives international recognition" - in this case, New Zealand). The prizes are certainly justified: this is an exquisitely written novel, and those of you whose first priority in choosing books to read is to seek out ones whose sentences and paragraphs read like nonstop poetry will definitely not want to miss it.

But despite the flawlessness of its prose style, this book made me very uncomfortable. It's about a little boy named Simon, approximately 6 or 7 years old, who's being extremely violently abused. Little is known about Simon's birth family, because at the age of approximately 3, he was the only survivor of a shipwreck and his identity could not be tracked down. But he had scars on his body that suggested abuse, and he displayed a disturbing familiarity with heroin. And he never spoke . . . not due to any physical problem, but rather because some past emotional trauma convinced him that something horrible would happen if he ever spoke. Even accidentally making any sound with his mouth terrifies him so much that he starts vomiting from sheer fright. On top of all this, when a man named Joe Gillayley took over the job of raising him after the shipwreck, it wasn't long before Joe started beating Simon to within inches of death.

The novel opens with approximately 6-year-old Simon (no one knows his exact age) sneaking into the house of a neighbor woman named Kerewin Holmes (whose name, which is also sometimes shortened to "Kere," bears a more than coincidental resemblance to the author's, Keri Hulme). Kerewin catches him sneaking around and wants to send him home, but the weather is terrible and Simon has injured his foot on the way there and it's too far for him to walk home under those conditions. She finds the phone number of his foster father, Joe, on a chain around Simon's neck, and calls it, but Joe isn't home. She ends up letting Simon stay the night, even though she doesn't like children and refers to Simon, in her head, as "the brat" and "it." She treats him fairly decently though, and one gets the initial impression - or at least I did - that despite maintaining a deliberately ornery, heartless image of herself in her own mind, she's secretly a perfectly nice person. And indeed, despite her supposed dislike of Simon, she gets so attached to him by the time he leaves her house the next morning that, with only a little urging from Simon and Joe, she soon becomes such a close friend of the family that she's practically a member of it. (This is helped along somewhat by the fact that Kerewin and Joe are both part Maori, and speak the Maori language, as does Simon by now, although Simon is of all-European ancestry. The author is also Maori and sprinkles Maori phrases throughout the book.)

Anyway, Kerewin gradually sees more and more signs of how badly Joe treats Simon. One of the first things Joe says to Kerewin when he meets her for the first time, bringing Simon to return a chess piece Simon had stolen from her during his overnight stay, is: "I was going to give him a hiding, because that seems to be the only way to get across the message, that he's not to go roaming off to other people's houses and burgle them or whatever . . . and he produces the chessman. Sort of like a truce-flag? . . . [But] not to save himself the beating so much as to say something about you, you know?" Later in that same conversation, Joe asks Kerewin whether Simon behaved himself. When she says he did, Joe says to Simon, ominously, "Lucky you," before amending it to, "Good for you." And before they go home from that very first visit, Joe catches Simon trying to steal a ring from Kerewin:
Joe bandaged [Simon's] foot, and didn't say anything more until he finished and the child stood. Then he hit him hard across the calf of his leg. The sound cracked across the room and Kerewin looked up sharply.
Kerewin makes excuses for Simon's behavior, suggesting that Simon only intended to "borrow" the ring, in an apparent effort to discourage Joe from punishing him so severely for the specific current incidents; but Kerewin doesn't say anything to Joe to suggest that he should not be hitting Simon ever, no matter whether Simon meant to steal or not. However, this comes across as somewhat forgivable on the grounds that she's only just met Joe, and has no way of knowing what effect such a comment might have on him.

Her misgivings seem to mount a bit further when Simon shows up at her door badly injured one day, shortly after Joe has told her on the phone that he "had to play heavy father" because Simon hadn't wanted to go to school that morning: "His eyelids are swollen, buddhalike, and purple. His lower lip is split, and blood has dried blackly in the corners of his mouth. Bruises across the highboned cheeks, and already they're dark." But Simon insists that Joe is not the person who caused the injuries. She calls Joe and asks him whether his idea of "playing heavy father" included whacking Simon in the face; but Joe says no, he only hit Simon "where you normally hit children," and Kerewin accepts this as behavior she doesn't need to voice any objection to. She also observes, on subsequent visits, that Simon sometimes takes to walking like a marionette, stiff-jointed and slow. Stupidly, she thinks he's playing a game. It doesn't occur to her that he walks that way because he's injured.

But the point where I really started wondering what the hell was wrong in Kerewin's head was the point when she tried to give Simon a bath and discovered the scars of years and years of beatings hidden under his clothes:
And by the look of the scars on him, it's all been going on for a long long time. Man, I wouldn't bash a dog in the fashion you've hurt your son.

I'd shoot it, if the beast was incorrigible or a killer, but never lacerate it like that.

Aue, Joe.

From the nape of his neck to his thighs, and all over the calves of his legs, he is cut and wealed. There are places on his shoulder blades where the . . . whatever you used, you shit . . . has bitten through to the underlying bone. There are sort of blood blisters that reach round his ribs onto his chest.

And an area nearly the size of my hand, that's a large part of the child's back damn it, that's infected. It's raw and swollen and leaking infected lymph.

That was the first sign I had that something was wrong. Despite his soaked clothes, his T-shirt stuck to his skin.

He didn't make a sound. All his crying was over.

And he wouldn't meet my eyes.

Somehow, Joe, e hoa, dear friend, you've managed to make him ashamed of what you've done.
Despite all this righteous horror, she doesn't report the abuse to anybody. Instead, she considers her options like this:
I could tell Joe, but not tell anyone else.
Who else to tell anyway? The fuzz? The welfare? That means the experts get to wade in, but how does the section in the Crimes Act go? Something about assault on a child, carries a sentence maximum five years, child removed from environment detrimental to physical or mental health and wellbeing . . . sheeit and apricocks, that's no answer.
But just telling Joe won't do any good . . . I'd have to look out for the child, and that means getting heavy. Getting involved.

She shivered. . . . So what the hell can I do?
EXCUSE ME?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! Reread that description of his injuries now, and tell me again how the hell anybody can conclude that a kid this badly abused shouldn't be removed from the person who's beating him up this badly?!?!?!?! This was the point at which I started wanting to only carry this book around with two fingers holding it by the corner for fear of having any further contact than necessary with its evilness.

The ridiculously stupid option that Kerewin ends up deciding on is to suggest that she accompany Joe and Simon on a camping trip so she can keep an eye on Joe at all times. There are two glaring problems with this supposed solution, which I will address in a moment. First, let me note that during this camping trip, Kerewin and Joe try to get Simon to go hiking with them when he's not in the mood for it, and they manage to annoy him enough that he picks up a snail (the Maori word for snail is pupu) and throws it at Kerewin. It misses her, but only narrowly. Kerewin reacts to this by revealing her own propensity to commit child abuse. "Careful," she says, and all the laughter is gone. "Don't do that again, urchin. I'm just badmannered enough to throw something heavier back." And a moment later, when Joe starts threatening to "kick him all the way back home" from the campsite, Kerewin reveals to Joe her knowledge of the extent of his abusiveness - by laughing it off with shockingly little concern:
"Ah come on, fella. It's not worth the fuss. He wants to play silly buggers and get soaked, it's on his head. On the other hand, you might just warn him at some private and convenient time, that I don't take kindly to having things thrown at me. Even by the gentle Gillayley himself. If that pupu had hit me, I would have hit him back. Even considering I know how much he gets whacked and all."

The air is still, waiting on the wind.

"Pardon?" says Joe.

"You know, and I know, that's a very difficult child to bring up. The word from me is go easy. Very easy. With kid gloves so to speak, instead of thumbscrews or whatever it is that you've been using so merrily to date."

"What?" says Joe.

He hadn't expected it to come up like this, be dealt with like this, not in his wildest moments. A calm, almost jocular - not threat, not piece of advice. It is something of both. . . . [But] Joe plants his fists on his hips.

"I don't need you to tell me what to do, Kerewin. I don't need you to tell me how to bring up my son," his voice rises. He thinks, hears the same words from a year back, I don't need you to tell me what to do Piri, I don't need you to tell me. . . .

Kerewin blinks. She folds her arms.

"So I'm not telling you. I am merely offering a suggestion on how to keep the peace round here. This is a pleasant peaceful kind of place . . ."
Um, I really don't think that this is the sort of occasion that calls for "merely offering a suggestion" and refraining from telling him what to do. Not only that, but I also don't think it's the sort of occasion that calls for merely telling him what to do and refraining from taking the kid away and not trusting Joe to do anything at all anymore.

Anyway, this conversation culminates in Joe doing exactly what you'd expect him to do to a woman stupid enough to react to finding out that he's a violent abuser by inviting him along on a camping trip with no one but her and a 6-year-old to fend him off: he decides to beat her up. This is the first of the two glaring problems with the camping trip strategy of protecting Simon: no one in their right mind who wasn't over six feet tall and a professional wrestler would ever isolate themselves in the wilderness with a guy this violent. Actually, though, Joe doesn't initially decide to beat her up; his first reaction is to go take out his fury on her by beating Simon up. Kerewin dashes between them and diverts a punch Joe had aimed at Simon's ear:
If that clout had connected with your shell-like ear me sweet chy-ild though, it woulda broken de temporal bone
and de mastoid process
and de styloid process, ho hum.
Joe then begins aiming his bone-breaking blows at Kerewin instead. The unbelievable thing is that Kerewin promptly beats Joe to a pulp and emerges from the fight 100% unscathed, not a single bruise or scratch on her. The author attempts to explain this by noting that Kerewin and Joe are the same height, and that Kerewin once studied aikido in Japan for a year, long ago, although she dropped out of it without ever having been a very good student. This might actually have been sufficient to convince me that Kerewin might be able to come out even in a fight with Joe, or eke out a narrow victory in which they both ended up pretty badly injured. But completely unscathed? When she hadn't even been at the top of her aikido class? No, really, this is a bit much to expect me to believe. And it's particularly much for Kerewin to feel safe just counting on when she decides to go on the camping trip in the first place.

The second glaring problem with the camping trip strategy is that sooner or later, the camping trip has to end. Once it ends, Kerewin cannot possibly be around to protect Simon from Joe 24/7. She doesn't live with them. (Well, Joe would very much like her to move in with them - he's attracted to her - but she's not interested.) The author tries to get around this problem of them living in separate houses by having Joe swear - he declares he's swearing this on Simon's head, of all things - never again to hit Simon, unless Kerewin gives him permission first. From now on, whenever he feels like hitting Simon, he will telephone Kerewin and ask for her permission to do so. And this promise is, apparently, good enough. Because we all know just how reliable abusers' promises to reform are! And because anyone in their right mind ever would give permission for not just anyone, but someone she's already witnessed aiming a punch that she herself observed would have broken Simon's skull if she hadn't deflected it, to go ahead and feel free to hit this child "just this once"!

The author actually expects us to believe that Joe is making a very sincere effort to reform. Sure, Kerewin still catches him yelling at Simon and behaving in ways that she fears might have escalated to violence if she hadn't intervened first; but whenever she intervenes, he assures her that he was not going to hit Simon, because he had promised her that he wouldn't do so without her permission, and he was going to keep the promise. And from all appearances, he does keep the promise.

Then one day, a whole string of bad luck happens. Simon randomly discovers the corpse of an elderly neighbor he's somewhat acquainted with. Upset by the sight, he goes to Kerewin's house, but he doesn't have a chance to tell her about it because she's just then discovered that he's stolen her special jeweled heirloom knife that's her most treasured possession. She angrily demands it back. He's too upset by the sight of the corpse to be feeling cooperative, so he denies having stolen it and tries to hit her. She hits him back a lot harder. He tries to hit her again but she's too quick at dodging him, so he quickly kicks in the front of her treasured heirloom guitar instead, before she has a chance to realize that's what he's planning to do next. Now shaking with anger, she orders Simon to get out of her house and never come back. This upsets Simon further, so upon leaving her house, Simon picks up a piece of brick and runs down the street smashing 30 shop windows in a row, all the way down the street, until a policeman catches him. The policeman brings him home to Joe and tells Joe to expect to be sued for the cost of all the broken windows. Joe gets extremely angry (this part is realistic) and telephones Kerewin to ask Kerewin's permission to hit Simon (this part is not realistic - I've never heard of an abuser who keeps his promises so obediently). Kerewin, still furious over the stolen knife and broken guitar, demands to speak to Simon and then screams at Simon, over the phone:
"Are you listening, bloody Gillayley? Do you know what I think of you?"

Her voice is strange. It rasps; it grates; it abrades. She can't touch him physically so she is beating him with her voice. What she says drums through his head, resounding in waves as though his head were hollow, and the words bound back from one side to smash against the other.

She has finished having anything to do with him.
She hates him.
She loathes every particle of his being.
Did he know what that guitar meant to her?
Did he know what her knife meant to her?
Did he know what he had wrecked?
She hopes his father knocks him sillier than he is now.
She has every sympathy for his father.
She didn't realise what a vicious little reptile he had to endure.
He choked.
Joe took the phone out of his hands almost gently. He smiled a tight leanlipped smile.
"I think he got the message, e hoa."
Simon can't even reply to a word she says over the phone to apologize or defend himself, because he's mute and only communicates via nods and hand signals. Joe gets back on the phone and Kerewin apparently repeats to Joe that she never wants to see Simon ever again, which by extension means that she will never see Joe ever again, which means that all Joe's hopes for romancing her are ruined. Then, having given him even more reason than he already had to be enraged at Simon, she gives him permission to hit Simon. She gives this permission to a man whom she had personally witnessed aiming blows at Simon's head that she herself knew would have cracked Simon's skull open if she hadn't been there to deflect them herself.

So what happens? Joe gets out his belt and starts whacking Simon with it. Simon gets out a sliver of broken window he'd been hiding in his palm and slashes Joe's stomach with it. Joe screams and throws Simon into a doorframe has hard as he can, fracturing Simon's skull, causing massive brain damage, and then Joe goes right on beating him until he breaks Simon's nose and jaw and just about everything else too, until Simon loses consciousness and Joe collapses from exhaustion.

At this point I began to wonder whether I might have misinterpreted the novel's message. Now that Kerewin's failure to report the abuse and have Simon taken away from Joe had resulted in Simon's skull being fractured, it seemed possible that the novel's purpose was to condemn Kerewin's failure to report it. However, Kerewin and Joe both seemed to be portrayed awfully sympathetically for people guilty of such violent abuse. Sure, abusers have feelings too and all, but these two seemed to have rather more good points than I felt was quite necessary. (Most people, both adults and children, apparently dislike Simon on sight just because of his muteness. Kerewin and Joe are the only exceptions who choose to befriend or adopt him anyway.) Also, there is the obvious resemblance between the names of the character Kerewin Holmes and the author Keri Hulme. Would you give a character who went around beating up six-year-olds and encouraging their adoptive fathers to crack their skulls a name so obviously derived from your own? Personally, when I base a character on myself, I don't have that character do anything that's that drastically different from anything I can even imagine myself ever doing.

Anyway, these brief doubts were soon resolved, because the end of the novel confirmed beyond all possible doubt that the purpose of this novel is, indeed, to argue that children should never be removed from the custody of men who chronically beat them half to death, crack their skulls, and inflict permanent brain damage on them. By the end of the book, the author makes it clear that her own position is exactly summarized by what Kerewin tells Joe when Joe worries that he's going to lose custody of Simon:
"Look at it through their eyes: you no longer have a wife, and you've hurt him badly, in the past as well as this time. As far as they're concerned, he's not looked after properly, he plays truant, and he's a vandal . . . they'll think people who don't know him will make a better job of bringing him up. They think."

Her voice is as level and uninflected as though she's discussing shell nomenclature or how to make mead.

"The pity of it all is that they're wrong . . . I've been fascinated by you two these past months. You've got, you had genuine love between you. You've given him a solid base of love to grow from, for all the hardship you've put him through. You've been mother and father and home to him. And probably tomorrow they'll read you a smug little homily, castigating you for ill-treatment and neglect. And they'll congratulate themselves quite publicly for rescuing the poor urchin from this callous ogre, this nightmare of a parent . . . you got your lawyer clued up on all the background? The real background, the one that counts? Being both parents to him, helping him over his bad dreams, picking him up from all round the countryside, going along to school to find out what the matter is this time . . . it all shows you cared deeply. In a negative way, so does the fact that you beat him. At least, you worried enough about what you considered was his wrongdoing to try to correct it."
And the author's position is also exactly summarized by what Dr. Sinclair Fayden, the only doctor in the hospital who wants to send Simon back to Joe, says in this conversation with Simon after Simon emerges from his coma with permanent hearing loss and brain damage:
"[T]he other doctors and nurses think they're doing you a big favour sending you away [from Joe and Kerewin]. They haven't asked you about it, but they know they know best. So off you go to a Hohepa home," watching the child frown. . . . "I been talking to a lot of people, your teachers, the old lady Marama Taunui when she was here . . . She was very upset when she learned how you were hurt, but she was more upset that they've separated you. She kept saying, 'But Joe loves his boy, this was just an accident.' It don't look that way to other people though. Not to the police or the doctors . . . but they only get to hear the bad parts. I've been hearing all about the good parts. There were a lot of good parts, right?"

The fingers [Simon's] fan out and close and spread again and again and again.

Sinclair giggles.

"I get the message . . . millions. Simon, shift over would you, honey? This old chair's hard as a navvy's arse and it's cutting right through me. Thanks. . . . I think you'll do better all ways back home with your own folk. There'll be enough of them looking out for you now everything's come bang into the open. I don't think nobody'll let it happen again. And to make that sure, I aim to find out whether this Kerewin'll take responsibility for you, while Joe gets access."
An accident? No, look: if there were no history of Joe previously aiming punches at Simon's head that would have cracked his skull if Kerewin hadn't deflected them, and if the one time when Joe did crack Simon's skull, he did so in a single reflex motion the instant Simon slashed his stomach with the sliver of windowpane, and if Joe then stopped the instant afterwards and rushed Simon horrifiedly to the hospital rather than going right on breaking his nose and his jaw and beating him until Simon lost consciousness and Joe collapsed of exhaustion . . . . then maybe it could be considered to have possibly been an "accident." But the way it happened? NO WAY IN HELL.

Simon is very, very, very miserable indeed when he finds out that the powers that be do not intend to let him return home to Joe. And you know, if the point of this novel were simply to say that abused children who are taken away from their parents often do miss their parents, I would have no problem acknowledging that. But I don't think that means they're better off being returned to people who crack their skulls open. I think they need to be introduced to the pleasures of not being beaten to a pulp on a regular basis anymore, and that once they are, they will gradually come to recognize how preferable their new nonviolent homes are. This does not happen with Simon. When Simon finds out that he's not going to be allowed to see Joe anymore, he stops communicating. He "does exactly what you tell him to do as though he hadn't heard you, unless you tell him to answer. Then he doesn't hear you." He rocks back and forth all day, ignoring everyone, until Dr. Sinclair Fayden asks him if he misses Joe and Kerewin. Then he's suddenly completely alert and eager, so much so that "it's like someone threw a switch. He's a different child altogether." Dr. Sinclair Fayden advises Simon to behave as badly as possible in his new homes in order to make the authorities understand that he's not happy there and wants to go back to Joe. This is how an employee of an institute for abused children describes what happens when Simon is sent to a foster home:
"This child insists on carrying as much of his past around with him as he can lay hold of, at all times. . . . He was sent to Masterton from Christchurch hospital in October. He ran away the second day after he arrived. He didn't get very far on that occasion - he has difficulty in walking distances - but one week afterwards, he was picked up twenty miles out of town. He'd apparently hitched a ride. During the next three weeks, he set fire to a garden shed, provoked several fights with other members of the Hohepa household, destroyed quite an amount of their play equipment, and absconded a total of seven times. On the last occasion, he was picked up on the Picton ferry, and nobody knows how he got that far, or how he got on it. . . . He's been here a month, yes, arrived November the fifth. He was wearing the shirt and jeans and jacket and gear you've seen him in. As always, we removed those and gave him one of our uniforms. He didn't protest at first. But the following day, he simply took off all the new clothes, and refused to wear them. We explained, we cajoled, we even threatened - to no avail. We thought, he needs a little time to settle in, and after that he'll accept the uniform quite happily when he sees he is differently dressed from everyone else. He is quite happy to be differently dressed from everyone else, however. He still refuses to wear any clothes other than the ones he arrived in. When they're being washed, he wears nothing. And if they look a little scruffy," peering at the man opposite him, "it's because they're apparently the clothes he was admitted to hospital in, or was given there, and he's been wearing them ever since. We attempted to trim his hair. He tried and nearly succeeded, in stabbing Brother Anthony with the scissors, and when held, screamed himself rapidly into hysteria. We haven't tried to cut his hair again."

"Aw, but good heavens, what's a bit of an uproar when -"

Brother Keenan interrupts,

"You haven't seen or heard him scream." He adds drily, "It's quite a performance."

He scans the file pages. "Now, what's next? O yes. November 11th: disappeared. Brought back by the police from Christchurch railway station. November 12th: disappeared. Picked up by the local policeman at Otira from the Coast railway car. November 25th: disappeared. Returned from Whangaroa railway station, once again by the police. We were reduced to threatening him with corporal punishment the second time. The third time, he was strapped. He laughed. It upset Brother Antony, rather."

"A bit harder, and he wouldn't have laughed."

Brother Keenan presses his fingers together again. Sacred Heart of Jesus, teach me compassion for all Thy people. He says after a moment,

"It is very difficult to have to hit a child at all. To hit a child who is literally covered in scars from previous whippings is distasteful in the extreme. That kind of punishment doesn't seem to bother him, however. As far as we know, no punishment bothers him. There isn't very much you can threaten or entice a child with, who is impervious to peer group pressure, who simply refuses to write lines, who regards being detained in a solitary bedroom as pleasant relaxation, and who thinks any of the special treats we have to offer, very boring. Therefore, their curtailment is quite, quite immaterial."

"Mmmm, yeah. . . ."

"We could, I suppose, if we merely wanted to make him conform to our standards, be brutal to him. Take away his small treasures, insist he do as he's told, and order things in such a manner that he's obliged to. Starve him, or beat him, or something disgusting like that," says Brother Keenan wearily. "But we are here to help him. He simply doesn't want to be helped by us. He ignores the psychologist. I understand he actually goes to sleep during school classes. He will not participate in any game or recreation. He has cold-shouldered all attempts by boys and staff to make friends with him. He has no interest in church activities. He has no interest in anything whatsoever, except returning to his home."
Eventually, on one of Simon's runaway attempts, he succeeds in finding Joe and Kerewin. They take him with them to live elsewhere, happily ever after . . . the mostly-deaf brain-damaged child and his two violent lunatic parents. Happily ever after . . . that's what the author does everything she can to encourage us to believe.
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