A classic kids ‘love,’ but may never read
April 7, 2009
Pam Carlquist has taught Toni Morrison’s "Beloved" to her Advanced Placement students for six years running. As the College Board exam nears, she disperses Park City High School’s copies of the book and assigns the first 40 pages to be read for the next class.
Unlike with other works of fiction taught in class, such as "Hamlet," "Wuthering Heights" and "The Great Gatsby," Carlquist delivers "Beloved" with a little advice, if not a spoiler. The novel is tough reading for some, she exhorts. It grapples with rape, violence and slavery with brief but unforgettable descriptions of bestiality and lynching.
The story’s protagonist, Sethe, is a runaway slave who kills her baby to save it from the life she escaped.
When it was published in 1987, critics hailed "Beloved" as a literary tour de force.
It has since made the leap, in the minds of readers, into the realm of world-class letters. Toni Morrison took home the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. More recently, Oprah adapted the novel into a major motion picture and kept the lead role for herself. And, in 2005, critics and reviews named "Beloved" the best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years. The novel was grandfathered into Park City School District’s high school reading list last year along with all the other books currently on the syllabus.
Still, Carlquist remains one of the few teachers in Summit County to assign the book. She does so each year with "a little apprehension," she said, even after 36 years of teaching.
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If classics are often referenced, but rarely read, as the saying goes, "Beloved" seems to suffer from the opposite problem: It gives students a litany of salacious, if strategic, literary fodder.
Carlquist approaches the book with sensitivity. To students uncomfortable with the story’s themes, she offers alternatives, such as William Faulkner’s "As I Lay Dying" and readily responds to parents’ concerns. "We talk candidly about scenes and look at the overall picture, the terrible situation of slavery" where death was sometimes preferable to bondage, she explained.
One student opted out of reading "Beloved" this year because he found it "quite offensive," he wrote in a note to Carlquist.
Another three students were "nervous" about reading the book, but decided they were game after class discussion.
Student response to the book is usually positive and about half Carlquist’s students write about the novel on essays in the A.P. exam, a glowing endorsement in its own right. "It’s a response of surprise, the majority pleased surprise," Carlquist said of her students. "It’s a kind of freedom for them because the book is so modern."
Roger Arsht, who also teaches the advanced literature and composition course at PCHS, doesn’t teach "Beloved," but not because of its content. He’s simply not passionate about the book. "Virtually any book at the AP level could be construed or found objectionable depending upon a student’s or their family’s perspective on a religious or controversial issue," he wrote in an email to The Park Record. "Authors push boundaries; they always have and they always will. That is one of the reasons, not the only one, that people read fine fiction. Students want to explore their world and learn about alternative viewpoints even if they don’t agree with what the author has written. We all need to give our students more credit. They know how to partition what they believe from what the author is writing," he concluded.
Arsht doesn’t plan on teaching the novel next year, either, when Carlquist retires. For the first time in nearly a decade, "Beloved" may become like many others classics: a book few high school student read.