The Technologists & that one phrase…& student reactions

p. 234  “‘The morning! Am I to spend the night as a darky until then? 

‘Oh, Lilly, you’ll be all right, I promise!; said Agnes, though in the back of her mind she could  not help feeling a little pleased at her comeuppance.'”

quandary: I do not know what to do.
Here is a title I was so excited to find, and then choose it for our school library book club, grades six through eight, until I came across this one phrase.  I find it offensive, not only for my students, but for myself. While the racist noun fits the context of the time period of the late 1800’s in the United States, there is no other reference to post Civil War race issues to add depth, and it is completely unnecessary to an otherwise gripping story.
Time after time, primarily in Young Adult literature, I come across such references – although they are  primarily sexual in nature – rendering a good novel for my middle school students, unacceptable.  And no, I am not against free speech.  I am against any gratuitous enticement aimed at these readers;  I am very sensitive to this when it relates to young adults who do not have the context (through lack of age and experience) to filter these phrases. Is this marketing manipulation?
Resolution:  I will present this title to my young charges, and point out this reference.  Our discussion, and the direction it takes, will determine if we read The Technologists. “Yes!,” you shout, “It is a learning experience.”  And, so it is.
Pearl, Matthew. The Technologists. London: Harvill Secker, 2012.  Print.
Addendum. evening thoughts:  After reading the author’s comment, I will have my students read the book, then ask them their thoughts about these references –  Did they take note?  DId they see what I missed? If so, what were their reactions?  It should make for a good discussion!

21  April 2015
Following through, some of our Form II students read (and are reading) The Technologists, so we could continute this discussion beyond Mr. Pearl and myself. I include some of their responses to this one title, which all agreed, is a good book with excellent characters!
“Fewer side stories”
“Central characters are so well written, but the minor ones seem superficial.”
“It took me to page 70 to want to read it.”
“The story showed more about women’s roles than race during that time period.”
“Race issue didn’t even register.”
“More about Harvard vs. MIT and religion vs. Darwinism”
“So many characters!”
and of course, this from an all-boys’ perspective, “more action.”
It was universally agreed that it is an extremely well-written story, with detailed setting and depth of characters.  It was also recommended by our students that our Head of Lower School read it over the summer!  There is a vote of confidence, Mr. Pearl!
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2 thoughts on “The Technologists & that one phrase…& student reactions

  1. Tina, first, I'd like to thank you for including The Technologists in your library book club. I welcome the discussion you've brought up. First, a major part of the novel — in fact, running throughout — are the consequences and changing world that come out of the Civil War's aftermath. That includes race, and among other elements related to race is an African American janitor at MIT (named Darwin). So it's not accurate to say there are not other references to race in the novel. Indeed, Louis Agassiz, one of the major antagonists in the novel, was (in real life) committed to proving white superiority and, if anything, I toned that down in the character, but it's still there (he even makes a comment about MIT's janitor). In terms of the scene you mention, I don't believe any reader would sympathize with Lilly, who is shallow and ridiculous in general — and her racism fits along with that. Marcus and Agnes, who are trying to navigate around her, are the characters a reader of any age would sympathize with and relate to. If one couldn't write characters who were unlikeable — or simply wrong — than it would be very hard to write stories with any kind of conflict in them. I hope you might rethink your conclusion that this comes from any lack of thoughtfulness, and, again, I wouldn't worry that any reader would be offended by a character who we are meant to sneer at. I appreciate you including The Technologists on your list, and thanks again for letting me jump in!

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  2. I am so happy to have you jump in, and especially to hear your train of thought in developing this novel. I apologize for overlooking the other references, as I went with my visceral reaction to Lilly's words. I suppose my wish was that there was more of this, rather than less, to help readers like me and my young charges along (but who knows? They may in fact undrestand it better than me!).
    I am excited about them reading this, and am more interested than ever to hear what their opinions are after reading (rather than before) in light of your words.
    Thank you so much again. I keep learning because of my students. It is a great job!

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