Books can be keys to fostering imagination and new ideas, and some people hate that. Americus, by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill, dramatizes the conflict that occurs when a lonely boy’s favorite fantasy series is targeted for censorship in his small Oklahoma town. There’s even an heroic librarian, to charm those of us who love books and their keepers.
Neil and his best friend Danny are mesmerized by the series “Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, the Huntress Witch”, reading every volume as soon as they can borrow them from the library. Danny fits in better with the town than Neil does, since Danny’s got a large family to insulate him. Neil’s single mother is too busy trying to keep them alive to spend much time with him, and he’s your classic loner: shy, resentful, picked-on, ready to escape.
Reading fantasy and science fiction provides that escape, reminders that there’s more to the world than their football- and Jesus-focused school. Apathea, in particular, is the story of someone destined for greatness, a loner who has to endure immense trials for a significant purpose and who will eventually receive great power. No wonder these boys find such comfort in the tales, and many readers will sympathize with Danny and Neil. With Neil, especially, I want to reach into the story and scoop him away to college and adulthood somewhere else, with people who share his interests and values.
The art supports the rich fantasy world. The short Apathea sequences, illustrating what the boys are reading, are the only ones fully toned in grey shades. The “real world” is a densely populated black-and-white one, with panels often crowded by annoying people and other distractions. Looking at Neil, it’s easy to see why he’s the target of abuse; he’s small and grumpy. It’s not that he brings it on himself, but it becomes a vicious cycle. He expects it, so he cringes, so he looks like a target, and Hill captures that body language skillfully. By keeping the world flat and open, although the other kids are given individual appearances by the artist, they fade together into a mass, symbolizing a “silent majority” that winds up oppressive.
The battle is joined when Danny’s religious mother discovers his reading. She knows that anything to do with witches will lead your soul directly to Hell’s lake of fire, where you will burn for all eternity (and the way she rattles this off in everyday conversation is a true picture of a certain type of believer). So Mom rushes down to the library to confront the librarian. Her protests of how the series wins awards don’t matter to the angry parent, who is convinced something she finds unsafe for her child shouldn’t be available to anyone.
Why Danny, knowing his family believes this way, would think that a book with “witch” in the title would be a good thing to read openly at home is obliquely tackled over a dinner-table conversation in which Mom, the most fundamentalist of the family, calls libraries Communist atheists and Danny says, “I don’t see why if I believe in God and everything, I can’t read what I want.” In contrast, Mom clearly believes that her kids growing up and beginning to express their own opinions is a sign of blasphemy. She’s a living picture of why so many creative, intellectual young adults don’t have good relationships with their parents. Her idea of “tough love” welcomes her kids’ hatred of her; her stubbornness is wrapped in the cloak of unquestioning self-righteousness.
The situation in Americus spirals into a town-wide debate, from letters to the newspaper editor to board meetings to remove the disputed series from the library. It’s easy to hate book-burners, but while the portrait of Danny’s mother is extreme — I don’t know many people who would start ripping pages of a library book out in front of the circulation desk — it clearly comes from knowledge of the type and the attitude. Unfortunately, knowing what you’re fighting isn’t a characteristic of the censors.
Throughout, there’s an undercurrent of suspicion of the educated. Those who read books are perceived to be thinking themselves superior to those who don’t. The only book they need is the Bible, they claim (not realizing that being able to read the Bible themselves in a translation for the common people required the kind of fight Neil and his friends are waging). Throughout, they’re arguing against something they aren’t even familiar with, and when their ignorance is pointed out to them, it just makes them meaner. (That refusal to educate themselves is a common attribute of the type. I’ve seen some reviewers say that the characters proposing censorship are unrealistic; they’re lucky that they’ve never met people just like this. I will never forget being struck wordless by a conversation with a woman at church who was keeping her child from reading A Wrinkle in Time (which is full of Christian allegory) because “there was a unicorn on the cover”. It wasn’t even a unicorn, it was a winged horse.)
But at least Neil finds hope in various ways, whether it’s meeting more diverse people as he enters high school or helping the librarian fight the forces of evil. Overall, this is an inspiring read, especially for the put-upon (or the formerly put-upon) who want to believe that things will get better and there’s value to intellectual pursuits. I appreciated the reminder not to take the freedom we have for granted.