Friday, September 11, 2009

Exploring Social Injustice through Literature

Last year I was bent on teaching Jacob the classics. Moby Dick. Walden Pond. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Yaaawn...

Oh, Jacob read them all right – but they didn’t do anything to instill a love of reading in him. In the end, I’m not sure what he got from these books. He did learn a few things – and a lot of perseverance. And that literature can be really boring. But that’s not what I wanted to teach.

So this year, Jacob's senior year, I changed my approach. None of the books I selected are classics, not in the stood-the-test-of-time way or on the list of must-reads in the local high schools. In fact, when I pre-read some of the books that are on the local high school’s list of assigned literature, I was horrified! For example, I would never assign Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic, with its foul language, focus on sexual thoughts, and visits to brothels, not even if it does give insight to what a wounded Vietnam War veteran goes through. And it wasn’t even well written.

So this year I compiled my own list. I’ve read all these books, so I know what’s in them. I chose them because they touched my heart and taught me something new. And they weren't hard to read.

Yes, all these books have a theme. They aren’t uplifting, and although some have happy endings, what the subjects live through is heartrending. I’m hoping to arouse both awareness and empathy. So I’ve decided to call this course "Exploring Social Injustice through Literature."

Here is the book list:

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah is the autobiographical account of a 12-year-old boy who got separated from his family during a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and how, after struggling to survive on his own, he ends up abducted into the army. The book describes the atrocities of the war, mass slaughters, and how children are brainwashed and drugged to become killing machines. It's a very a disturbing and powerful book.

Sold by Patricia McCormick is a story of sexual slavery, a heart-breaking account of a 13-year-old Nepali girl, Lakshima, who is sold into prostitution by her stepfather and transported to a brothel in India. This difficult topic is handled sensitively. The book is written in free verse. It reads like poetry and hints at the horrors that Lakshima lives through in terse, but poignant language. Although the book is a work of fiction, it is based on true lives and depicts the horrors of forced child prostitution faced by an estimated 300,000 girls worldwide.

City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre - the book, NOT the movie! (The movie was made into a love story, but the original book most definitely is not.) Over 20 years ago, I read this moving true tale of a destitute peasant who ends up as a rickshaw driver living in a slum in Calcutta, a Polish priest who came to live with the poorest of the poor, and an American doctor who joins the priest to help in the slum. Scenes from this stirring book remain with me to this day - the intimate details of the daily lives of the poor, their desperation, and the self-sacrifice of those who try to help them. A detailed and gut-wrenching view of poverty.

Slave: My True Story by Mende Nazer is an autobiography of a village girl in Sudan who was kidnapped, raped, and transported north to the capital city of Khartoum and sold into slavery. Describes the conflict between the Arab north and the black south, and the Arabs' attitude towards the blacks. Mende was severely mistreated, humiliated, and abused until she finally escaped to freedom. Sadly, there are many more slaves like her all around the world today, hidden and suffering in silence.

Where Little Ones Cry: Tragic Stories from War-torn Liberia by Harvey Yoder is a collection of true short stories about different children and how they survived the civil war that recently tore apart Liberia in West Africa. Most stories are not that well-written, but the book is informative, describing the horrors of war from different people's perspectives. My favorite passage, which rings so true, is from a first-person story called "War!" as told by a Liberian woman:

I almost have to laugh now when I think of how war was presented in the history books. Generals and plans. Heroes and marches. Lots of trumpets blowing and people making speeches. Maps showing where armies marched and who controlled which countries. A few pictures of the destruction of buildings and cities.

That is not war. That is just what they tell you about war. War is much more than that. War is screams, death, and horror. War isn't real until it visits you personally...

Growing Up Empty: The Hunger Epidemic in America by Loretta Schwartz-Nobel is about hunger and poverty in America. I read it because of a comment on this blog. Some parts of the book are like a textbook, but the stories of the invisible poor around us are a real eye-opener. I will probably assign only a few select chapters. The stories of an upper middle class wife and mother reduced to poverty when her husband runs off with another woman (and all the money), and the description of the hardships of families in the armed forces were both a revelation to me.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza is firsthand account of hiding in a bathroom for 91 days to survive the 1994 genocide as frenzied Hutus slaughtered Tutsi "cockroaches." She writes how her faith in God helped her survive the genocide and forgive her enemies. All this was happening while Jacob was toddling around the house with his Playskool toys.

When Invisible Children Sing by Chi Cheng Huang is a memoir of a Harvard medical student who went to Bolivia to work with orphans in Bolivia and expanded his ministry to reach out to street children who live in squalor and inhale paint thinner to dull their appetites and senses. Describes the day-to-day life of these children, and what keeps them on the streets.

Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America by Mike Yankoski describes how he, an affluent college student, decided to test his faith and live with the homeless for seven months. It gives an insider's view of homelessness in America.

Jacob already read the books below, but if he hadn't, I'd include them as well:

Tears of My Soul by Hyun Hee Kim is the memoir of a woman who planted a bomb that blew up Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. She described growing up in North Korea, being indoctrinated by Communist thinking, then being recruited and trained as a covert-operations expert. Although the author was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for her terrorist crime, she was later pardoned. She described her deprogramming in South Korea and her redemption through Christianity. I couldn't put this book down and read it at one sitting.

A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer is a fascinating and horrifying autobiography of a child who was ostracized by his family and sadistically tortured by his alcoholic and (I believe demon-possesed) cruel mother. Hard to imagine that anyone would treat another human being like this, much less her own child. An inside look into child abuse and what the child is thinking.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung is a personal account of surviving the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia from 1970 to 1979 from the viewpoint of a young child. Since she started out as a middle class city girl but ended up a war refugee, it makes me wonder whether my life might not have a sudden and unexpected turn of events that could lead to completely unexpected results. Powerful descriptions of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Even though the subjects of these books are emotionally difficult, I think that Jacob will enjoy reading them. Hopefully, they'll touch his heart.


Contessa Kris said...

I like the list of books you've included in this course you're teaching your son. It will really give him an idea of what goes on in this world that most kids in America are oblivious to.

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dd37 said...

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Weird Unsocialized Mom said...

I still rank Born on the Fourth of July as the worst movie I have ever seen. I would have walked out if I hadn't been with a friend and felt guilty about leaving her. I can't imagine reading the book.

It sounds like the list of books you've compiled have the potential for moving your son in a meaningful way. Thanks for submitting it for this week's Homeschool Showcase.

mumo6 said...

I am really intrigued by your list - copying it for a few years from now. :-) My question is - he reads the books and then what? Do you have a formal method to help him grapple with the content? Are you requiring some kind of feedback?

Thanks for sharing a great idea!

Abby said...

I read Left to Tell before I traveled to Rwanda on a missions trip this summer. It was one of many books I read about the genocide. I was thrilled to read that you are including it in your course.

Thanks for sharing what you are teaching. Giving me ideas for the future (which is not too distant for my oldest!)

The Reluctant Homeschooler said...

Mumo6: I've been struggling with the question myself. He reads the book, then what? For the first book, he's writing a summary and will deliver an oral report (summary) to the whole family one evening this week. For the other books, I'll have to think of essay topics because I always have him write SOMETHING after reading a book. I'm thinking of asking how he would react to certain situations, how he thinks he can help or what God might be asking of him in other situations (like the slums in City of Joy). I'm open to suggestions, and I'm brainstorming one book at a time.

I've read all these books, and they ARE powerful.

The Reluctant Homeschooler said...

Abby, I'd love to hear more about your mission trip to Rwanda. I hear that it's a beautiful country!

Anonymous said...

I'm always looking for good books for my older boys. Thanks for the detailed list.

This link may be able to provide you with some ideas to give/talk over when your son finishes a book.


The Reluctant Homeschooler said...

Thanks, Elisabeth!

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)