Banned Books Awareness: “Waterland”


\"\"Last week I reported that the Plymouth-Canton Schools in Michigan resolved a challenge to the book Beloved; but the same parents that objected to that title also have their torches aimed at another novel- Waterland, by Graham Swift.

Matt Dame, along with his wife, Barb, complained that “Beloved” was inappropriate because of passages that deal with sex, infanticide, and a character that is a ghost. At a public meeting, Dame also criticized a character in it using God’s name in vain. (Hmm, has he ever actually READ the Bible?)

Dame suggested that Beloved be replaced in the class with a nonfiction text about slavery. But an instructor at the school, Brian Read, pointed out that the class in which the two novels are taught is AP English Literature. “It’s about fiction,” Read said, “Poetry and fiction.”

Parents who attended the meeting overwhelmingly opposed the ban, and after deliberation the school board retained the title.

Meanwhile, Dame’s issues with “Waterland” are over sexual situations, and themes of incest and mental illness.

Waterland” (1983) is considered to be Swift’s best work, and was adapted for the screen in 1992. In it, Tom Crick has been history master for over thirty years in a secondary school in Greenwich. Tom has been married for as long as he has been teaching, but the couple has no children. The plot loosely revolves around interwoven themes and narrative, including jealousy for the narrator\’s wife, a resulting murder, an abortion the girl undergoes, and her subsequent inability to conceive, resulting in depression and her kidnapping a baby.

Waterland’s main theme, though, is concerned with the nature and importance of history as the primary source of meaning in life, including storytelling and history; and also explores how the past leads to future consequences.

Frank Rugirello Jr., the school district\’s director of community relations, stated that a public review of Waterland will be held on February 8th at the E.J. McClendon Educational Center, located at 454 S. Harvey in Plymouth, Michigan. A meeting time has not yet been announced.

Ruling on the constitutionality of banning books, the Supreme Court stated in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982), that if books are removed from schools to prevent diversity of ideas for nationalistic, political, or religious reasons, it is not allowed by federal law under the provisions of the First Amendment. However, school officials have more flexibility with nondiscriminatory reasons, such as vulgarity or educational unsuitability.

By the way, I mention this because it might be worth noting that Matt Dame ran an unsuccessful campaign for the school board in 2011- as a Tea Party candidate. Bitter, much?

The book was removed after the singular complaint by Jeremy Hughes, the interim Superintendent of the district. He reversed his decision after a public outcry for not following the district’s complaint-and-review guidelines, but stated that, “As a former high school English and Latin teacher, I am certainly aware that much of modern literature contains sexual material. It was my judgment, however, that the passages I read from Waterland had crossed the line in terms of graphic portrayal of sexual activity. Although it has been argued that I took action solely on the complaint of one parent, it was my judgment at the time that the majority of parents in Plymouth-Canton would have a similar objection if they read what I read.\”

But that strikes at the very heart of what stinks about this situation. One set of parents complained, and one administrator- an interim one at that- ignored protocol and instead instituted policy based on personal opinion.

He just assumed that everyone else in the community would feel the same way he did, and took matters into his own hands. I\’m sure some in the community do agree with him, but the majority didn’t- as the heated public meeting proved.

But this isn’t the way that our democracy is supposed to work. For good or bad, it’s a majority rule.

Time and again we see it happening in schools all over this country- one parent brings a complaint and/or one administrator makes a unilateral decision that affects the rights of the many without so much as a whisper. At least for now Waterland is back on shelves, and when the panel made up of parents, officials, and teachers meets in February we can only hope that cool heads and the voice of reason prevails.

What’s more disturbing is that for any text to be included in a class curriculum it must pass these very same deliberations to begin with, so obviously the knowledgeable panel of educators saw nothing wrong with it.

But here we are, with yet another incident where one person thinks that they know better than the majority based on personal belief. This not only smacks of arrogance, but insults the integrity and intelligence of all involved.

And so it is that Graham Swift becomes the latest casualty to the political machine, to join the ever-growing list of challenged books. He’s in good company, though.

Perhaps the greatest summary to all this is by Swift, himself. In a passage from Watermark, he writes, “We believe we are going forward, towards the oasis of utopia. But how do we know- only some imaginary figure looking down from the sky (let’s call him God) can know- that we are not moving in a great circle?”

If we continue to allow others to think for us then we are nothing more than sheep, wandering aimlessly in circles, being led along by a leash of ignorance and blissfully unaware of the demise that awaits our freedoms.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: American Library Association, Amazon, Wikipedia, Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, Wall Street Journal, Plymouth Patch, MSNBC
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions