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Mighty pen provokes a reaction

By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002

He is trying to be gentle.

After all, it is early in the school year, and these are freshmen. Babes just venturing into the woods of college.

In a bland seminar room that joins the Saint Leo University library, Kurt Wilt supplies the color. With his pale yellow straw hat with black ribbon banding, salt and pepper beard, small hoop earring and beaded bracelets, he's how you would picture the Bohemian English professor as he coaxes thoughts from his students.

The day's topic is John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the novel they were required to read during the summer. The book also is the center of the countywide book club, One Book, One Pasco. Organizers hope those who no longer are in school will emulate the students in reading the book and forming their own discussion groups.

Warning: The rest of this column contains spoilers, so if you want to be surprised by the book's ending, put down the column now.

The students have turned in essays about the heroic quest of the novel's protagonists. A few miss the mark, and Wilt tells them so in a way that will leave fragile egos intact.

But one paper's introduction has caught his eye.

"In John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, a poignant tale of friendship, hope, and heroism is unraveled as two men embark on a quest that leads them where none can predict," the author wrote.

Wilt does not name the writer but calls the essay "beautiful." He reads the first sentence aloud, turns to the board and in blue marker jots down the last four words.

"Is this true?" he asks no one in particular. It is clear that there are no right or wrong answers here, only the failure to make a good argument.

A young man in a black football jersey bearing No. 24 and the name Woodson grabs the bait. He wants more specifics.

"It sounds like an unfunded mandate," says the student, whose name is Armando R. Grundy-Gomes. "It leaves you guessing."

Others in the class agree that the ending is shocking.

"Each time I read it, I forget that George ends up killing Lennie," says Jeny St. Laurent. "I feel like it's not predictable."

St. Laurent finds the ending disturbing.

She sees George, whose mission throughout the book is to protect his mentally retarded friend, Lennie, as cruel and wishes the book ended differently.

"I saw George as quitting on Lennie," says St. Laurent, who cringed at the character's treatment of an old dog.

"To me it seemed very selfish of George. I just wanted them to run off, to escape into the trees and not be seen."

Robert Alvarez has been silent until now. When he speaks, it's from a perspective different from that of his classmates.

"I have a brother that has Down's syndrome," he says. "I would never give up on him like that."

Wilt points out that St. Laurent's heart might be getting in the way. The story is not meant to be real, but rather a parable to illustrate a point.

It's up to the reader to decide just what that point is.

"Two things you have here," Wilt says. "Either it's murder or heroism. An act of hate or an act of love."

During the discussion, Wilt gets his students back on track talking about the writer's technique of foreshadowing.

Could the ending have been predicted at the beginning? Probably not, Wilt says, but there are lots of hints dropped along the way that sometimes you have to go back and read again to pick up.

Therein lies the fascination.

Of Mice and Men includes many examples. A dog gets shot because it is old. In the final scene, a heron eats a water snake. The rest are for you to find.

Unlike the producers of theatrical drivel, true artists use subtle hints instead of car chases and in-your-face gore, Wilt says.

"We as human beings are so deadened to the subtleties of art," he laments. "Since we've become more and more deadened, we have to have this onslaught."

Grundy-Gomes points to his watch. Time is up.

Carly Helliesen rises to leave. To her classmates, it appears she said very little. Yet she contributed a lot.

Helliesen's essay is the one Wilt quoted.

"I think I could be good at writing for the back flap of books," she says. "I just have trouble with the middle."

And she admits hating Of Mice and Men.

"The death was just horrible, maybe too emotional. I threw the book down when I read it."

That's okay. Art is meant to provoke thought. Maybe her reaction is exactly what Steinbeck wanted.

-- Lisa Buie is the editor of the central/east edition of the Pasco Times. You can reach her at (813) 909-4604 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buie@sptimes.com.

One Book, One Pasco schedule

Following is a schedule of events for One Book, One Pasco. Additional events may be listed as the program progresses.

September and October: Juniors at Pasco County public high schools, who are studying Of Mice and Men throughout September, will hold an essay/poster contest this month and a Dear Author writing contest in October.

Monday: Larry Broer, professor of English at the University of South Florida, will discuss "Looking for Steinbeck: The Essence Must Lie Somewhere" at 7 p.m. in Selby Auditorium at Saint Leo University, 33701 State Road 52

Sept. 18: A panel discussion on Mice and Men: Innocence Experience? at 7 p.m. in Selby Auditorium at Saint Leo University.

Sept. 30: Discussion on Steinbeck at Gulf High School at 7 p.m. The school is at 5355 School Road, New Port Richey. Time to be announced.

Oct. 9: A lecture and panel discussion of the ethical themes, literary devices and history of Steinbeck at 6 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center, beginning at 6 p.m at Pasco-Hernando Community College, 10230 Ridge Road, New Port Richey.

Oct. 21: A discussion of Of Mice and Men led by John Seelye of the University of Florida at 6 p.m. at Hudson Regional Library, 8012 Library Road.

Oct. 22: Presentation of the film Of Mice and Men, followed by a discussion at 6 p.m. at Hudson Regional Library, 8012 Library Road.

Nov. 4: Cannery Row, also by Steinbeck, will be discussed by Professor Nola Garrett at 6:30 p.m. at the Hudson Regional Library.

Nov. 18: Professor Nola Garrett will discuss another Steinbeck work, Log from the Sea of Cortez, at 6:30 p.m. at the Hudson Regional Library.

-- For information about events taking place at the Hudson Regional Library, please call (727) 861-3040.

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