Sunday, November 25, 2007

Entry for June 7, 2007 - Just What IS "Moral," Anyway?

First, I have to sadly confess that I failed to keep my resolution. During May, I didn't read. Well, I read a lot of student papers and a lot of tests, but that's a lame excuse. The real reason is that I got so involved with a writing project I have going that I didn't do anything else (other than tossing food at my family three times a day and making sure they had at least one pair of clean underwear, lol). I'm disappointed in myself -- I thought I was on a real roll with this resolution. Ah, well.

But I think maybe I redeemed myself today. I had to kill a little time while my son was at basketball camp, so I went to the local library. I browsed the "teen" section looking for a particular book I want to find and read, and instead picked up The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman. I commandeered the comfy rocking chair in the little kid's section and I finished the book in an hour and a half (and still got back in time to see my son get "camper of the day"!).

When I got home, I perused a few online reviews for the book (I like to see what other people say) and I found one that bothered me. The writer of this review had given the book one star (out of 5), which is ok -- everybody has an opinion. But I thought the argument this person gave for the low rating missed the whole point of the novel. As a result, this entry is going to serve as a rebuttal to that misguided (from my viewpoint) review.

The review called the novel "vulgar" and "very inappropriate." It complained about cruelty to animals and a lack of "good, moral characters," citing specifically the scene when the midwife believes a baby is going to die before birth and so leaves the mother to go attend another birth -- and manage to be paid for both. The review ended by saying "this is a book that should be avoided" as young people try to establish healthy self-concepts and relationships.

I couldn't disagree more! I think that reviewer fails to understand the irony of this novel. Brat/Beetle/Alyce is the lowest of the low in human society, a nameless, homeless beggar, and yet she shows a compassion and humilty that make her stand in direct contrast to the hypocrisy of the "regular" folk. She doesn't overtly condemn them, and maybe that's what the reviewer doesn't like, but I think her observations allow us to condemn them instead, so that we are the ones making the moral decisions, not just listening to someone else preach them to us. A good example is what happens while Alyce is working at the inn. We find out that she is learning to work sawdust into the pie crust to make it stretch farther and other practices that Alyce accepts as part of the way things are, but that we know are cheating and just plain wrong. Cushman has made the moral judgments subtle, and I guess we have to have a base in good morals already to recognize that subtlety. Looks like to me it would make a great basis for discussion of moral behavior with young people who are at the point in life where they are establishing their own ethical parameters.

As for the charge of being "vulgar," I'm not entirely sure what the reviewer refers to -- I suppose he/she doesn't like the discussions of childbirth, maybe the opening scene when Beetle is sleeping in a pile of dung, maybe the language (I think I saw "piss" in there once - I don't remember if there was anything else that might have been objectionable). Guilty as charged. But -- what does "vulgar" mean? I checked my dictionary -- "vulgar" is "1)of or associated with the great masses of people as distinguished from the educated or cultivated classes; common; 2) deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement; 3) ill-bred, boorish, crude; 4) obscene or indecent; offensive, coarse or bawdy. (There are others, but these seemed most relevant.) I checked also the definition of "obscene" and found that it "strongly suggests lewdness or indecency, particularly in reference to accepted standards of morality." I can't think of anything in the book that could be considered lewd or as possibly inciting lust, so that can't be the intended meaning for "vulgar." I'm going to assume the reviewer is basing use of this term on the second and third definitions above. Yes, sleeping in a pile of dung is crude and deficient in delicacy. But Beetle is not Pollyanna -- Beetle is a product of a cruel society that would allow a young girl to grow up having to fend for herself and take warmth where she can find it. The childbirth scenes are filled with screaming and writhing and slippery babies, yes, but you know what? Childbirth hurts, and babies don't come out clean the way they do on TV. Actually, there's not a lot of graphic detail in those scenes -- most of the emphasis is on what the midwife tries to do in terms of potions and other remedies to ease the birth. People in the book take baths in the river; they get caught "cuddling" in the barn; men try to get Alyce to give them a kiss. Yeah, that's all vulgar -- but this is a book of the common people. And people do those things -- it's part of human nature (well, ok, I don't know the last time anyone I know took a bath in the river, ha ha). Personally, I appreciate that Cushman puts in the warts instead of giving medieval English society a bit of plastic surgery to make it more palpable to our more delicate and refined modern tastes (although we still have problems with adultery and sexual harassment!).

The reviewer said the book is not worth the paper it's printed on. He/she is entitled to that opinion. I think, however, there is much about ethics and morality that can be gleaned from the book. In fact, I think the entire book is about ethics!! I certainly don't think young people should avoid the book. Some of them may be able to pick up on the ethical/moral implications on their own, while some may need the guidance of an adult to see the issues, but either way, I think it can be an asset in helping their ethical reasoning mature.

Oh, and as a communication teacher, I have to say I really appreciated the part where she names herself and then refuses to let others label her anymore.

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