Now that the dust has settled after the banning and un-banning of Ted Dawe’s novel, Into The River, it might be a good time to reflect a little on what the fuss was all about. I might never have read it, if not for its detractors and defenders; once the ban on sale was lifted, I decided I should even though the book was not aimed at mature adults, but the YA market – teenagers, in other words.
Coming to the end of it, I did wonder just what it was that had so exercised the minds of its critics- or indeed if their minds were truly on the job of literary judgment, rather than policing morality. I don’t reject the idea of censorship classifications per se, but this seemed to me a case of gross over-reaction.
Zeroing in on the two sex scenes in the book (heterosexual encounters), the implied sexual relationship between a schoolboy and a teacher that hovers in the background, along with the use of drugs (mainly marijuana and alcohol) did not say a great deal about the real intent of the storytelling. These were things any teenager could read about in a newspaper, see reported on television and in some cases, be involved in at the weekend. In other words, a familiar world.
The real intent of the author, from my reading was to show what it was like for somebody who was different, from a marginalised background, to leave his safe rural nest, then be dropped into a den of bullies in a city boarding school for boys.
Some have made a lot of the fact that the protagonist, Te Arepa was Māori and of the theme of racism underlying his experience, but I didn’t find that aspect of Dawe’s characterisation so central, or even convincing. What came through was the dreadful sub-cultures that can exist in elite schools which still behave as if the twentieth century never happened: Tom Brown’s Schooldays and every clone of that book ever since.
Dawe’s experience as a teacher comes through here and his ability enter that world and represent the minds of boys-into-men. Does sex happen at this age? Of course it does. Should fiction written for teenage readers ignore this? I can’t see why, no more than it should ignore the other realities we have to face from twelve to twenty. Were the few sex scenes gratuitous? Not for me. Can we protect teenagers against erotic literature, even if the sex is there just to titillate? Probably not.There is worse out there at the click of a mouse. Some might even say, “Thank goodness for books boys might want to read”.
Dawes is pretty damn good on cars and racing too, something for petrolheads to enjoy as Te Arepa aka Devon (he gets a new name at the school) goes through another rite of passage, learning to drive and to indulge in risk-taking behaviour that doesn’t just involve his body and one other.
The book – if its banners only knew – is in the long and well tried tradition of the Bildungsroman, the novel of formation, the coming of age genre epitomised in such books as The Catcher in The Rye. We all go through these changes and Dawe tracks them ably enough. I read far worse in my early teens: The Scourge of The Swastika and Knights of Bushido, adult histories of war crimes. I learned of genocide and mass rapes, unspeakable cruelties; nobody protected me from those truths about the world I was growing into.
My non-fiction books were “worse” in the sense that they alerted me to the depths of human depravity and I have never been able to expunge the images and the stories from my mind. If I had read Ted Dawe’s book at the age of fifteen, I think I would have forgotten it long ago; but at the time, it would have been comforting to have learned that there were other “different” boys in the world somewhere, getting a hazing most days and learning to hide who they really were.
Yes, I would have found the two sex scenes horny, but corrupted by them – no. For good or ill, my family had formed me long before that. I was allowed to read anything I could and I did so. I formed my own tastes and learned discrimination. My parents trusted me that far and I salute them. It was all about the journey into self-awareness and self-knowledge, the slow and tricky formation of identity and a socialisation that does not kill the spirit.
I think that is what Into The River is all about; its benefits to a teen audience – a chance to see themselves in a book – far outweigh any imagined corrupting influence. Teenagers will take drugs and have sex, in and out of literature. I just wish that the people who wanted to stop this book reaching teens would remember what their own growing years were like and try a little to identify with Te Arepa/Devon and his band of brothers.