A bunch of 9th graders and I started reading Catcher in the Rye last week, and we’re about 100 pages into it now. The book opens just as winter is starting to get serious in the East, the snow is falling and local lakes and ponds are starting to freeze over.
Our reading coincided with the arrival of serious winter weather here in Utah. Last Saturday we had an amazing snowstorm that left 8 inches of perfect snow blanketing everything, down to the tiniest twig at the end of the tiniest tree branches. Walking around the night after the storm, with streetlights illuminating everything in monochromes of white or yellow, it looked like the whole world had suddenly snapped into relief. With the snow highlighting every irregular nook and cranny, the hazy, grey, 2-dimensional valley popped into extreme 3-dimensionality. That’s how I remember it now, anyway. At the time of the walk, I was actually pretty scared I was going to fall and break my coccyx. I didn’t.
Anyway, I’m just saying that the weather in the book and the weather here are quite similar, which is why I’ve found myself asking, as Holden often does, Where do the ducks in the park go when the pond freezes over?
In real life, there is a simple answer to this simple question. I live near Liberty Park. The pond in Liberty Park is really just a little run-off reservoir which they can turn on or off with a button somewhere in the bowels of some city administration building. When it’s winter, they turn the pond off. What used to be the pond a couple of weeks ago is now 4-acres of gently-undulating mud and silt, imprinted with literally billions of the twiggy footprints of its fowl inhabitants. Well, maybe millions. And yes, the ducks are still there. See, global warming has treated the lazy duck well lately, as evidenced by the lovely, Spring-like rain shower we’re having today. Ducks, clothed as they are in their essentially impermeable cloaks of feathers and natural ducky oils, might as well be sipping Mai Tais on the beach in Fiji on a day like today. Because animals are stupid, they probably find the sludgy shores of Lake Liberty just as delightful.
But in a literary work like Catcher in the Rye, this simple question takes on much larger significance. What is it about the seasons, about the natural world and the struggle for survival, that so fascinates Holden?
This week in class we’ve started deciphering Holden’s heavily coded messages by going into some pretty deep analysis of his language. Specifically, we’ve collected extensive lists of “Holdenisms,” or characteristic words, phrases, and narrative structures that come up over and over in Holden’s narration. Of course, these lists have involved some “naughty” words, but I was very pleased with the maturity demonstrated by students as we probed deep into the subtleties of Holden’s use of words and phrases like “goddam,” and “moron” and “to give someone the time.”
Okay, once I get the class podcast up and running all you out there in Cyberlandia can recalibrate your “maturity” meters, because it’s not like there wasn’t the occasional giggle or wildly inappropriate, possibly illegal comment, but in general we went deep.
So far, we’ve determined that Holden is insecure, easily depressed, lonely, and, despite his basic sensitivity and affectionate nature, terrified of women.
To reinforce all this talk about the deep aspects of character that can be gleaned from language, I came up with a little theme for Response Paper #2 that I think will yield some interesting results:
Response Paper #2
Choose a simple theme, such as:
- My favorite family vacation
- My trip to the dentist
- My weekend
- My pet
- My hobbies
Remember to choose something ordinary, or mundane. In fact, the smaller the theme the better. Once you have a theme in mind, you’re ready for the second part of the assignment: Write it like Holden. Use the words, phrases, pacing, and details that Holden would use as you tell your little story.
Yeah, that’s right. I want to know what Holden would say about the attractive, nazi-like dental hygienist who scolds him for not flossing twice daily. What would Holden think about during hour 8 of driving in the family van from Butte, Montana to Topeka, Kansas?
You get the idea. Response paper #2 is due Monday, Dec. 10, by 3:45 pm.
I’m going to go check on the ducks. See if anyone needs their Mai Tai refreshed or whatever.