Cordes pulls book from class over sex content
By DOUGLAS BURNS
Carroll Schools' Superintendent Rob Cordes has pulled a critically acclaimed Iowa author's novel from a high school literature class over the administrator's concerns that the book has "inappropriate" sexual content.
The book, Peter Hedges' "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" has been taught for several years in Carroll High School's literature-to-film class, which also features such books as John Grisham's "The Firm."
Cordes said a parent expressed concerns to high school principal Steve Haluska about a scene in the book in which the main character, the fictional Gilbert Grape, 24, receives oral sex from an older married woman.
Cordes said he didn't read the complete book but found the oral sex passage in question out of bounds for teen-agers.
"I believe there's some material in there that's inappropriate," Cordes said.
Carroll High School teacher-librarian Kelly Fischbach said the book deserves to be judged in its entirety, not for a few sentences.
"It's a great book," Fischbach said. "Kids love it. Boys who are at risk love it - you know, the people whose test scores (reading comprehension) we're trying to raise."
Fischbach said the 1991 novel by West Des Moines native Hedges resonates with rural Iowa teens in a way that few books can.
"It's a story about a boy in Iowa who is stuck in a job that's going nowhere, living in a dysfunctional family," Fischbach said.
She said a lot of young people see elements of themselves in the characters.
In the book, the main character Gilbert Grape struggles with life as a twenty-something in the fictional Iowa town of Endora. Living there, he says, "is like dancing to no music." He works in a mom-and-pop grocery store that is losing out to a larger, corporate "Food Land," and he sounds at times like a before-his-time anti-Wal-Mart advocate defending the old town square.
Grape shows enormous humanity with a love and connectivity with his mentally challenged brother, Arnie, and others in the family - which is haunted by the death of a father who hanged himself.
"There's no escaping that I'm 24 years old, that I've been out of Iowa a whopping one whole time, that you can say about all I've done in my life to this point is baby-sit my retard brother, buy cigarettes for my mother, and sack groceries for the esteemed citizens of Endora," Grape says in the book.
Grape - who was played in the movie by Johnny Depp - is torn by his deep love for his family, which includes Arnie, an obese mother, three sisters with varying issues and an older, estranged brother.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his portrayal of Arnie in the 1993 movie adaptation of the book - which CHS kids watched until the book was removed from the curriculum just weeks ago.
The book largely deals with the isolation of rural young people, and how that intersects with their worldviews and decision-making.
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" does deal frankly with sexuality.
There are scenes describing masturbation, and Grape's 16-year-old sister has sexual intercourse in the back of a hearse with a man who appears to be in his late 20s.
Those are snippets of a 317-page book that reaches kids on social and economic realities of rural life, says Fischbach.
Hedges is often compared to J.D. Salinger, author of "Catcher in the Rye." Author Anna Quindlen has said "What's Eating Glbert Grape?" is a novel that makes teen-agers "feel more human."
For his part, Cordes says the issue in the high school is a curriculum one, not a matter of censorship as "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" is available for students to check out on their own accord in the school's media center.
Fischbach, who is part of the committee that selects books for the lit-to-film class taught by Kim Klein, said the library has 25 copies of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" 13 of which are checked out by students.
Many students have been enthralled by the book, she said.
"The kids come and say, 'Can I get another book like that?'" Fischbach said.
She said the Cordes book-pulling has been a major topic around the school and in Internet chat rooms visited by students.
Cordes said he acted fast on the concerns about the book because a new section of students was ready to start reading it. He said he viewed the matter as a curriculum discussion, along the lines of textbooks selections, in which he had the authority to make the final call.
"I'm not saying the process that was used here was the best," Cordes said.
When parents have concerns about objectionable material in the library or classroom, the Carroll School Board appoints a committee that then makes a recommendations to the board, Cordes said.
Cordes noted that there was no official complaint in writing to start that process in motion.
The superintendent acknowledged that a book he found unsuitable for reading in a classroom, with adult supervision, may be reviewed for its current library availability as well.
"That probably remains to be seen, whether that will happen or not," Cordes said. "Do I have some concerns about a book in the library? Yes. I'm sure this will cause us to re-look at some things."