A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that context and the teacher's skill will influence how well their kids relate to this reading-list staple. Widely regarded as Hemingway's masterpiece, it won the Pulitzer Prize and had much to do with his winning the Nobel. It's packed with epic struggles (man vs. nature, man vs. himself), eternal issues (love, survival, teaching the next generation, tenacity against the odds) and strong writing. It's also about three days in a boat in which most of the action takes place in the title character's head, punctuated by graphic descriptions of, say, the gutting of fish. It's also somewhat fraught with a late-in-life perspective that may be largely lost on young readers. Readers young and old are rarely ambivalent about this book -- it's either love or hate, often mixed with a hefty dose of parody (Hemingway at times writes like a macho parody of himself). To nudge kids in the love direction, you may wish to check out Alexander Petrov's 1999 Oscar-winning animated film adaptation.
What's the story?
After 84 days of catching nothing, Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, sets out alone in his small skiff into the Gulf Stream in search of better fortune and soon hooks what proves to be the fish of a lifetime. As he spends the next three days on the high seas being towed by the colossal marlin, sleeping and waking, he ponders his strategy, struggles with the mighty fish, and reflects on his life.
Is it any good?
Not everyone, especially among the young, is prepared to engage with a plot that's largely waiting and introspection, punctuated by description and reminiscence, however beautifully written. Generations of critics and readers have showered this book with praise; generations of other readers, particularly those required to read it in school, have blasted it as the worst book they ever read, when they admit to getting through it at all, despite its brevity. Whether the particular class for which your kid is reading the book intends to focus on Hemingway, symbolism, heroic struggle, marine life, pre-Castro Cuba, or baseball in the Eisenhower era, it might be helpful to get a few bearings before sending him or her out on the high seas in this book.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what Santiago won and lost from his quest, and whether the reward was worth the effort.
What do you know about Joe DiMaggio, who Santiago finds so admirable? This might be a good time to talk about the era when baseball teams had spring training in the Caribbean, and the cultural ramifications.
Early on, Santiago says, "Fish, I love and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends." Santiago spends a great deal of the book talking about killing what he loves, in which he is probably speaking for the author, who made something of a career of killing big game on several continents. Is killing what you love a tenable position?
Why do you think The Old Man and the Sea is often required reading in school?
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