A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
This book provides important historical context for issues of race and poverty in the United States, and shows how societal institutions, pressures, and isolation can lead to the mental, emotional, and moral breakdown of individuals who find themselves feeling trapped in a no-win situation and without hope. Bigger Thomas is a striking example of what can happen when fear that comes from isolation and oppression meets rage and desperation -- and how many lives can be destroyed as a result.
The ultimate message is that people, when they are not isolated from one another, experience each others' cultures in a positive way. The common ground we find creates a stronger society, better relationships, and conditions for us all. The worst thing we can do as a society is set people apart from one another and create an environment of fear, mistrust, oppression, and inequality -- as we see in how the character of Bigger Thomas develops and behaves for most of the book.
Positive Role Models
This book is full of flawed characters who have good qualities, but there aren't many strong role models. Jan, Mary Dalton's boyfriend, and his friend Boris Max, who defends Bigger in court, are the best role models the story has to offer before Bigger's own transformation.
Violence & Scariness
There is quite a bit of violence, both intentional and accidental, including instances of bullying, fighting, and the use of guns and knives. There is also a description of a rape, an accidental killing (which looks like a murder) followed by the burning of a body and a premeditated, somewhat gruesome, bloody murder and callous disposal of another victim's body.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
There are several consensual sexual acts and encounters in this book, as well as a rape. Kissing, groping, and other sexual touching, public masturbation, and sex between characters are all mentioned at various points during the story. The descriptions are never particularly graphic but do describe touching of body parts and emotional descriptions of the characters.
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Though maybe not as frequent or strong as many contemporary works of literature, this book does contain cursing ("sonofabitch," "goddammit," "damn," "hell," "bastard"), provocative sexual innuendo as well as racially insensitive language (the "N" word).
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Characters smoke and drink alcohol, at times heavily. There are several depictions of drunkenness and its correlation to sexual acts, killings, and murders.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this book, a literary classic, takes place in a racially divided, violent, and sometimes sexually explicit setting. The power of this book lies in its gritty, straightforward, and controversial depiction of the results of institutionalized racism and bigotry in the United States. There is racially charged language, two murders, a rape, other sexual activity, and capital punishment.
Is It Any Good?
NATIVE SON, Richard Wright's classic novel of tragedy and violence, is intense. Wright is masterful in taking readers into Bigger's mind and explaining the processes that shape his behavior, emotional state, and decision-making process. Readers will be confronted with several uncomfortable and tragic issues, not the least of which is wondering whether the world is still anything like the one Bigger endures in the book.
This is a great read for anyone wanting to delve into the societal and psychological consequences of oppression, segregation, and poverty -- historically and today. It is definitely not suitable for younger children, and parents should be prepared to discuss the tough questions and situations in the novel.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.