The first book that ever made me cry

I remember crying because of films, when I was young—Old Yeller, The Boy Who Talked to Badgers, The Yearling (I was a sucker for movies about animals).  I was upset about Ben dying in Star Wars.  But I don’t recall any novels that had any great emotional impact on me until A Separate Peace.  And that one devastated me.

I think it was 1982, when I was a junior in high school.  I was sitting in first period Latin class, bored and not particularly following the lesson (I flunked the class), so I started flipping through my English Literature textbook.  I feel bad for kids who are forced to read A Separate Peace as an English assignment, because few novels survive that stigma.  Who falls in love with something that they’ve been forced to read and write essays about?  (Okay, I still love Lord of the Flies, despite this, but that’s the exception—not the rule.)  I started reading and was immediately hooked.

And when I say hooked, I mean hooked.  I couldn’t put it down.  I kept reading through every single class I had that day.  In art class, my teacher had to order me to close the book and concentrate on the assignment.  Most teachers either didn’t notice me reading under the desk, or chose to ignore it.  I continued reading on the bus ride home and then immediately ran up to my bedroom and finished the book.  I’ve never read a novel of that length that quickly, before or since.

I was bawling by the end of the book.  The ending destroyed me.  I couldn’t fathom how Gene could still go on.  What was wrong with him?  I didn’t even want to leave my room to eat dinner.  I just wanted to lay there in the dark and cry.

So I did the only thing I could think of to do:  I picked the book up and began reading again from the beginning, where everything was peaceful and idyllic once more.

Why did A Separate Peace affect me so deeply?  I’m still trying to figure that out.  It’s definitely a good book.  I re-read it again this week and still loved it, though the ending is merely sad now.  I’ve read it too many times in the intervening years to be affected by it the same way I was thirty years ago.  Now, I see it through the eyes of not only an adult, but also a writer.  I can see that the prose is very good, if not particularly poetic.  The story structure holds together well.  And there is symbolism that flew over my head as a teenager.  My biggest criticism would be that Leper’s descent into madness doesn’t feel at all realistic to me now.  I’ve learned a bit more about mental illness in my adult life, and the way John Knowles portrayed it just didn’t feel right.  But that’s a minor criticism.  The characters are just as vividly painted as I remember them.  I still fell in love with Finny.

And that’s a big part of it, of course.  I fell in love with Finny.  To me, even a couple years before I’d come to terms with my own homosexuality, A Separate Peace felt like a gay novel.  I know the author, John Knowles, never intended that.  It’s a novel about two teenage boys who have such an intense, close bond between them that they feel like extensions of each other.  Gene’s struggle is, in a way, a battle with his own personal demons, manifested in Phineas.  When Finny is absent, there is a scene in which Gene dresses in Finny’s clothes and in his mind transforms into Phineas for a short time, and this bond between them is referred to several times in the novel. But to me, that bond felt like the bond between two boys who were in love with each other, even if they never acted on it.  Several times, the narrator (Gene) describes Finny’s handsome features and physical perfection in terms that might make a teenager uncomfortable these days, now that everyone suspects homo-eroticism in same-sex relationships.  Things were different in the 1940s, of course.  But even in the 1980s, I recall a friend’s father referring to the film Brian’s Song derogatorily as a “romance between a black guy and a white guy.”  (This totally killed my friend’s interest in a film that he’d previously enjoyed watching several times.)

The day Gene and Finny spend together on the beach, sleeping side by side on the dunes, with Finny doting on Gene the whole time… that felt really romantic.

This is perhaps a common problem for gay teens—seeing homo-erotic overtones in books and films, where straight teens see just friendship.  But then, of course, this disconnect often happens in their real lives.  Why should fiction be any different?

So the book that made me cry was, in the final analysis, not really the book I was reading, but the book that was taking place in my heart and mind.  And some of that passion now seems lacking, when I go back to re-read it.  But it’s still a great book.  And perhaps even a straight guy might cry reading it.

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11 Comments

Filed under Drama, gay, Life, Reviews, Writing, Young Adult

11 responses to “The first book that ever made me cry

  1. Jamie, that was a beautiful, touching, and enlightening wander through your mind. I too felt that the bond between Gene and Phineas was that of two people in love.

  2. I think the first book i can recall making me cry, *really* cry was… wait for it… “Bridges of Madison County.” I was really sad when Sirius Black and Dumbledore died though.

    • I never cried for Sirius or Dumbledore, because I refused to believe they were dead. I thought she was going to pull some kind of trick on the readers. By the time I realized Sirius was really gone, I’d gotten over it. I cried in Bridges of Madison Country — the movie. Still haven’t read the book.

      • I apologize to Jessica for saying this, but as a reader speaking to other readers, I feel obligated. 🙂 The Bridges of Madison County still holds the distinction of being the worst book, by far, I’ve ever read. Open it at your own risk.

        I’m one of those unfortunate people who was forced to read A Separate Peacefor a high school English class. All I remember about the novel is that it bored me to tears. I’ve known for years that I need to give it another chance. Thanks for the nudge, Jamie.

      • I may give Madison Country a try anyway. I’ve been considering it. 🙂 But I definitely suggest giving A Separate Peace another shot. It’s too bad that our school experiences so often sour us on books like this.

  3. I’m a sucker for books that make me cry. I often read in bed and when I need to sit up because I can’t breathe anymore, I know it hit a major cord.
    I’ve always been the one to pick up the homo-erotic overtones (or undercurrent, if you like) in books supposedly about friendship between two young men too. I’m often disappointed when they both go on with their separate lives afterward. This sounds like a book I might need to pick up!

  4. I absolutely believe that Gene and Phinny were in love. Maybe they didn’t feel the lustful aspects of it, but they were in love. Absolutely. Learning years later that the author was gay made sense to me – not saying that he intended to be writing about a gay relationship, just saying that he understood and could naturally write two boys who loved each other. The lack of sexual feelings doesn’t make the love less real or less special.

    And I fell in love with Phinny, too. Who wouldn’t?

    • I think the rumor of John Knowles being gay may have been derived from the way so many of us see the relationship in the book. I’m not sure that it was really true. But in searching for that, I certainly came across a lot of people interpreting the relationship between Gene and Phineas as gay. (Knowles denied it.) And apparently Knowles received a lot of mail from girls about it, as well as boys. So he certainly tapped into something archetypal about relationships between two boys and the veiled homo-eroticism that often accompanies it in teenage years.

  5. What a wonderful post. I’ve never read A Separate Peace, but I’ve read books like it, ones that grab me by the throat and force me to keep reading, leaving me drunk and reeling at their ending, unable to start another book until somehow this book has burrowed its way under my skin and been absorbed by my bones. Like you, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about these books that seduces me, but I think you’ve figured it out. There’s something in them that talks to your heart and mind, that makes the story “yours” and allows you to fill in the gaps and write the epilogues in your thoughts. Thanks for this great article.

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