Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Childhood Book Nostalgia Project: House of Stairs

Sometimes tracking down a book you loved as a kid is as easy as going to the Teen section of the local library.  That's where I recently found an original edition of William Sleator's House of Stairs.  I'm going to count this as "acquired," even though obviously I have to return it.

I love freaky 70s minimalist cover art.
Unrelated note:  Our library has self-checkout stations, where you run your books under a barcode scanner.  The machine is frankly a little fussy, and I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't use it often enough to become experts at scanning their books just so.  There is a particular breed of snob that stands in line, rolling their eyes and sighing and muttering "Geez Louise" if they have to wait an extra 30 seconds while the person in front of them fumbles with the machine.  These people should get a life, because people who have lives don't feel the need to passive-aggressively broadcast their moral superiority to the patrons of a public library.  But I digress.

House of Stairs is one of many young adult novels published in the 1970s whose goal was to inform a generation of readers that the world was cold, cruel, and determined to turn them into unthinking minions of an impersonal society.  Yes, if those damn hippies taught us anything, it's that freedom of thought and expression are unstable elements that should be purged from periodic table of democracy, but don't worry, we won't make that mistake again!  You have no idea how many books with this theme I read growing up.  I didn't know what nihilism was back then, but I knew a downer when I read it.

That doesn't mean that these books weren't entertaining and thought-provoking, because they were.  House of Stairs was a book that stayed with me, because it was so damn out there.  The bare bones of the plot (and there's not much more than bare bones) are this:  Five 16-year-old orphans from a future society (dystopian, although that word wasn't in vogue then) find themselves in a strange place that consists entirely of flights of stairs as far as they can see.  There is one small landing that contains a toilet/drinking water station, and another that houses a machine.  Occasionally the machine will emit flashing lights and strange whispers and produce coveted food pellets.  As time goes on, the kids learn that the frequency and number of pellets depend on their performing a series of complex, dancelike movements that change over time.  Eventually, their dance isn't enough, and they come to understand that the machine expects them to behave in certain ways in order to elicit the gift of food.  Those behaviors become more barbaric and aggressive as time goes on.  Finally, they learn that they have been subjects in a government experiment into conditioned behavior.  There's more to it, of course, but it's character-driven and needs to be read to be appreciated.

As I read this book for the first time in 30-odd years, I realized that I had missed a lot when I was a kid.  In fact, I started to let Precocious Daughter read it, but as I got further into it, I saw how much language, violence, and homoeroticism informed in the story and flatly refused to let her read further.  Either I was older than 11 when I read it, or I was reading shit I had no business reading at that age.  Or a bit of both, most likely.  I had a good relationship with my local librarians, and they let me get away with a lot.  PDaughter can read this book in 8th grade if she has a mind to.

Bottom line:  House of Stairs is a great book, but very much of its time.  I guess these days vampires and werewolves are the tropes that obliquely introduce our kids to the psychological issues of the early 21st century.  I suppose my kiddo may blog about Hunger Games or Amulet in 20 years or so and conclude that her daughter is not ready for the themes they present.  Is that wise?  Should we expose our children to the books that disturbed us as kids? I don't know.  I'm not sure PDaughter should have to go through the 70s as I did.  Maybe the Aughts and the Teens provide enough sturm und drang for the modern tween without introducing the hangups I had to internalize.  I don't know.  I don't want to be one of those parents who pretend that their era was somehow more "meaningful" than any before or since.

But to the adults who read this, I would say that House of Stairs is worth a read.  I think kids in middle school and beyond will probably get a jolt out of it, too.  The themes in it certainly aren't outdated, which is a bit sad in itself.  Look this one up, dear readers.  I loved this book, and maybe you will, too.  That's what this project is all about.  But don't steal it from your local library.  If I can return it, so can you.

1 comment:

  1. I too, recently read this book for the first time in thirty-some years. I hadn't remembered the gay part at all. Nor did I remember the swearing and a few other things. I think I was about ten when I read it. In fact, I remember quite clearly that this book was in my library's juvenile section, not the young adult section. To this day I can remember exactly which shelf it was on.

    I wouldn't worry your daughter reading it. After all it didn't mess you up did it?


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