Education

Bad news for good books: Mrs. Grundy rides again

Julianne Labreche October 2 1978
Education

Bad news for good books: Mrs. Grundy rides again

Julianne Labreche October 2 1978

Bad news for good books: Mrs. Grundy rides again

Education

HIT LIST (Books banned or currently under attack in Canadian public schools)

BOOK Surfacing The Diviners A Jest of God The Catcher in the Itye Of Mice and Men Son of a Snaller Hero The Mountain and Lives of Girls and Wtn Why Shoot the Teacher Who Ha; Go Da\fti]jpthe Life of tisovich Lew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Rabbit, Run

AUTHOR Richler Buckler Ali ice Munro Max Braithwaite W. O. Mitchell Anonymous Joseph Heller Alexander Solzhenitsyn Ken Kesey Jbhn Updike

Playwright, poet and teacher Henry Beissel has seen it all before. Last month’s Huron County school board banning of Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners; the recent campaign by eight federal MPs to arouse taxpayer support for cutting West Coast poet Bill Bissett off Canada Council grants for writing “pornography”; the petitions currently circulating the Maritimes to rout modern novels out of the classroom—all these symptoms sound too familiar to Beissel, a veteran of censorship battles since the 1963 relaxation of the Alberta Censors Act he won to allow Tom Jones into provincial movie theatres. “I get tired of seeing the same old arguments brought up again with the names changed, trying to undo what we’ve already won,” says Beissel, newly appointed chairman of the Book and Periodical Development Council’s new national task force on censorship. The task force has been set up to cope with nationwide censorship battles outcropping from what Beissel describes as “the Fascist tendencies in North America right now. Some people feel, perhaps sparked by the insecurities of the economy, that the pendulum of good taste has swung too wide.” And so writers, publishers and educators are drawing the lines again to fight, as a Globe and Mail headline put it, the battle of “The Good Book versus good books.”

Milton evangelist Ken Campbell is one of the keys to the current swing to the book-banning mood. His organization, Renaissance Canada (founded in 1974 on the proceeds of a first mortgage undertaken after Campbell discovered his 15-year-old daughter reading John Updike’s Rabbit,Run as homework) has attracted 1,000 members in seven provinces. Though Campbell fought his own Halton County school board head on— 40 books have since been struck from reading lists—Renaissance tactics are usually more indirect. As they did with the Huron County Catholic Women’s

League, which lobbied successfully against The Diviners, Renaissance members approach a religious group that already has credibility within a community to fire the group’s own crusade. Campbell’s targets are many, but when asked which authors he’d advise children to read, he mentions two—Anita Bryant and himself. His two books, A Live Coal from the Altar and Tempest in a Teapot, "an exposure of a sex and security scandal at the heart of public life,” aren’t selling well to schools, says Campbell, because of the “current permissiveness.”

The present rebirth of censorship seems to be flourishing best in the Maritimes. In the Annapolis Valley, a Christian-minded businessman, Gerald Doherty—distributing sexually explicit sections of five novels including The Mountain and the Valley by Nova Scotian Ernest Buckler—has won the support of a fair number of worried parents as well as that of George Moody, the local Tory candidate. Also circulating a roughly Xeroxed warning to parents is Rev. Gerald Morgan, of Calvary Temple, Saint John, New Brunswick. Morgan quotes Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Malcolm Muggeridge and Ann Landers — emphasized with italics, capitals and exclamation marks—to support his views. (From Muggeridge, writing on the fall of the Roman Empire: “The moral shape that lies behind all other shapes was breaking up. . .”) Morgan believes that the use of modern novels in the schoolroom is contributing to the decline of moral order: he cites the rising rates of teen suicide, drug use and vandalism as direct results. And he’s not above fudging the facts to hit parents where their fears are. His newsletter warns against 18 books but only four of them are actually on the New Brunswick school curriculum. And according to Minister of Education Charles Gallagher (who received a 10,000-signature petition in midJuly on the strength of Morgan’s “warning”) those four are “optional reading.”

Since her books most often top the hit lists, Margaret Laurence is particularly eloquent at expressing how hard it is for an author—whose defence is the whole book—to fight back: “The attacks have been made by people who don’t read books. They’ve picked up on certain passages in my books and then say they’re too dirty to read completely.” When the issue of censorship in the schools first flared again in June, the Writer’s Union (which represents all the threatened Canadian authors) set up a committee headed by Toronto broadcaster and writer June Callwood to organize support for embattled English teachers and authors. And they hired a lawyer— Marian Hebb of Toronto—to try and fight the bannings in court. But so far the legal approach hasn’t worked. Says Hebb, “The censor groups are very good at skirting the law—everything they’ve said so far seems to come into the area of fair comment.” So the union has decided to begin counter-pamphleteering. By November, they plan to circulate a 32-page booklet to schools suggesting ways to oppose censorship, from prepared theological arguments to commonsense advice such as having a good case prepared for each modern novel on a curriculum just in case.

Colin Lowndes, the high-school English teacher who organized the defence for The Diviners in Huron County, is perfecting what perhaps will be the most effective strategy in this guerrilla war: “I can go underground. I can read books and put them on courses faster than they can get them off. There are a hell of a lot of good books, you know.” He also believes the teen-agers he teaches have the strength of mind to choose what’s best for themselves. Making her way home after watching the community of Clinton tear itself apart over whether it should protect its children from sex as depicted by Margaret Laurence, Sandra McLeod, a grade 13 student at South Huron District High School, said, “In many ways these people still think of me as a child. I get so tired of hearing how all these people are going to make up their minds for me.”

Julianne Labreche