A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that while this book is on many short lists for the Great American Novel, and with good cause, it is one big Parental Advisory from cover to cover, starting with politically incorrect racial references in the second sentence and progressing rapidly to variations on sex, violence, hatred, and people treating each other badly before the plot's even gotten under way. And this in the context of a mental hospital, so there's an extra element of pathology to it all. There is not merely smoking, drinking, cursing, drugs, and gambling, but also hookers. The protagonist reminisces fondly about having sex at age 9 with one of his contemporaries. In short, it's not for innocents or the faint-hearted, yet it is often assigned to upper-grade high school students. Parents may want to read it themselves in preparation for discussing any issues that arise -- both the peculiar behavior and the literary themes. One can also check out the 1975 film version, which won five Oscars, including one for Best Picture.
What's the story?
As told by Chief Bromden, the giant, half-Indian inmate who's been in the mental hospital for decades, pretending to be deaf and dumb, Nurse Ratched has the ward running with fine-tuned precision till the day Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives. McMurphy, a career con man currently serving a sentence for statutory rape (he claims the charge is bogus, though his sex drive clearly isn't), figured his sentence would be easier if he pretended to be crazy, so he got transferred from the work farm to the mental hospital. Soon he's encouraging the patients to stand up for themselves, which throws Nurse Ratched's carefully managed world into disarray. Cosmic, tragicomic clashes follow.
Is it any good?
This mature novel is excellent, although it's certainly possible to find fault with the over-the-top quality of Kesey's writing or his fondness for the larger-than-life. But the themes of the individual being swallowed up by the Combine, of industrialization destroying nature to our peril, and what we should be doing about it, to say nothing of the universal human imperative to develop a spine, all remain timeless.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the fact that Kesey was using the mental hospital as a metaphor for the larger society of his time. Why? Also, do you think treatment for mental illness has progressed since this era?
This book is considered a seminal work of the 1960s. What do you know about Kesey and his influence in that era, and his later work?
Chief Bromden talks about how his people lost their land and had it taken away for a dam. Today some of those tribes are involved in salmon restoration efforts. What do you know about that, and other work to restore rivers to their natural state?
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