I have a friend who is an avid bird photographer. Tonight he posted a picture he took of a white-faced ibis, which I’m given to understand is a very rare sight in the northern latitudes.
The first time I heard of an ibis was in ninth grade. In my Honors English class, we read a short story called The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst. It’s about a boy who has a sickly younger brother nicknamed Doodle. One day a frail bird appeared. The boys’ father identified it as a tropical scarlet ibis, apparently blown off course from a recent storm. Doodle nurses the bird, but it dies, and he carefully buries it. Despite the fact that Doodle is weak, his brother teaches him how to run, jump and climb, and wants him to do more. But he gets frustrated that Doodle isn’t progressing quickly enough. To teach him a lesson, he leaves him behind during a rainstorm. After the storm, realizing that Doodle hasn’t caught up to him, he goes back and finds Doodle dead, with blood running from his mouth.
I didn’t see that coming. And I remember being caught completely offguard, and incredibly sad when I read it. What the hell kind of fucked up story is that? And what is it with sadistic English teachers who assign this crap, knowing that tragedy is lurking, but completely blindsiding students with it? I went through the same shit with The Bridge to Terabithia, The Lottery, Jacob Have I Loved, The Chocolate War, and Where the Red Fern Grows (Cameron is being subjected to this right now. He knows it’s sad, but I don’t know if he knows the extent of it.).
It’s not like I can’t handle tragedy. Shakespeare, Of Mice and Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all kinds of non-fiction, true crime, war history, and many other of my favorite books have an element of death as a key part of the plot, but there is something about stories intended for children with creepiness to them that bothers me. Give me the darkest non-watered down Grimm Fairy Tale, where the evil Queen wants to eat Snow White’s heart and liver, or Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is devoured by a wolf. Those are all kind of awesome. But when the death of disadvantaged or helpless children and animals is central to a book’s theme…ick. I’m convinced an author can’t win the Newberry Medal unless a main character dies.
Anyway, my point is that now when I hear or read the word “ibis,” the story of The Scarlet Ibis immediately comes to mind. I suppose the hallmark of good literature is that it stays with the reader. That story certainly has. Maybe it prepared me for the even darker German works I read in college. Trust me, no one can do dark and twisted like the Germans.
I’m rambling now. Don’t censor books, urge your kids to read anything and everything. Unless it’s The Bridge to Terabithia, because it’s like for fifth graders, and (spoiler alert) a kid drowns like halfway through when you least expect it, and who needs to be all depressed over a damn book?
© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2012