The Children's Story, by James Clavell, New York: Delacorte Press/Eleanor Friede, 1981, 80 pp., $7.95.
"That's the most frightening book I have ever read," an attorney friend of mine said as she put the book down. And it is.
It is not the kind of horror served to you in the 380-page sinister-mystic-mystery novels being born again and again today. It is the kind of creepy fearfulness that crawls through your body, activating in reverse order first your nerve ends and eventually your brain cells.
The Children's Story takes 30 minutes to read. A small book—in size only. An unnerving book. A controversial book. A book not to be forgotten for a long time.
They are such little children in this story. Your child, my child. Seven-year-olds. We pay so little attention to the importance of the vulnerability of their minds. The vulnerability of our own minds, perhaps? How unobtrusively control can creep in and how quietly and quickly the coup can be made.
The story takes place in a second-grade classroom. The war (a war between the United States and…who?) is over, and "they" have won. One of their teachers is replacing the children's old, familiar teacher.
The children know they will not like her. She is one of them, the them that took daddy someplace where he can't come home.
But instead of a monster, a beautiful young girl stood in the doorway. Her clothes were neat and clean, all olive green—even her shoes. But most important, she wore a lovely smile, and when she spoke, she spoke without the trace of an accent. The children found this very strange, for they were foreigners from a strange country far across the sea. They had all been told about them.
Patiently the young teacher—she is only 19—charmingly (deviously? cleverly?) wins the children over, at first by such simple means as having taken the time and shown the concern to memorize their names beforehand from their desk assignments. This impresses the little children. The new teacher points out to them that roll call isn't necessary for a teacher who cares about them that much. Her manner and methods reflect the discipline under which she had been so carefully trained.
Good thoughts, bad thoughts, right thoughts, wrong thoughts, prayers and praying (to whom and for what), uniforms, "Our Leader," parents and secrets from parents, understanding, learning—these and more are warmly and patiently discussed with the children, so easily and effectively countering everything they have been taught before.
But then the children had been taught by rote before, memorizing and reciting words—like the Pledge of Allegiance—but having little if any understanding of what the words mean. The New Teacher is quick to point this out and interpret for the children. Now the "right" understanding is ingested. The children feel much better. Now they understand. The New Teacher is really a very nice teacher, a "good" teacher.
I will not tell you the story, because the shocking what-happens are not nearly so terrifying as how they happen. So easy. So logical. So quickly.
In the eyes of the children (at times even in the eyes of the all-knowing reader), Clavell's New Teacher certainly is no monstrous protégé of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. She is young, beautiful, warm, full of fun, concern, and understanding. As the book ends, she reflects on what a good land, vast land, this is. And she is warmed by the thought that "throughout the school and throughout the land all children, all men and all women, were being taught with the same faith, with variations of the same procedures. Each according to his age group. Each according to his need."
Clavell's writing in this book obviously reflects his appreciation of the effectiveness of fables and Oriental brevity—condensed thought. There are no excess words. Not one. Since children are not subtle, there is little subtlety in this fable-like story. But the impact is staggering.
The impact is staggering because, although not all of us entirely agree on what is bad and what is good, we certainly agree with the point of the book: the terrifying power of mind control and how very easy it is (especially with the young mind) when there is not enough care or time or patience to counteract it—when there is not enough cherishing of freedom to even recognize when the opposite of freedom is being taught—when there is not even enough knowledge to realize it does not take winning or losing a war to have it happen.
Patty Newman is the author of three books and a free-lance writer.