Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: A book banner tried a book burglary, and it misfired

Sept. 7, 2022 Updated Wed., Sept. 7, 2022 at 8:25 a.m.

Jonathan Evison.
Jonathan Evison.

As the tragicomic anti-library charade goes national in Bonners Ferry – where book-banners have driven out the director and mounted a recall drive for the board over titles that are not actually in the library – it’s worth digging out one little nugget for further attention.

In July, one of the organizers of the recall effort boasted on Facebook that a friend of hers had checked out a dastardly book – and thrown it away! To, you know, protect the children. This was reported on 9B News, a web site run by longtime North Idaho journalist Mike Weland.

Now, there’s been a lot of ugly behavior demonstrated by the Grand Inquisitors of the Boundary County Library system. Most recently, their effort to recall four library board members stumbled because organizers didn’t meet the filing requirements for the November ballot. They subsequently started an effort to recall the county clerk.

Still, this particular burglary deserves special mention.

As 9B reported, “Not only is it a crime to dispose of things that don’t belong to you, they tossed the wrong book.”

That’s right. Someone saw that a book called “Lawn Boy” by the Washington author Jonathan Evison was on a list of naughty books, and so they went to the Boundary County Library and took “Lawn Boy” by Gary Paulsen, of “Hatchet” fame, and trashed it.

Ready, fire, aim.

For more than a year, Evison’s book has held a spot on the online hit lists conservative extremists are using to attack their local libraries. In the case of the Bonners Ferry library, critics have mounted a recall over books that are not even in the stacks – their fury is based in part on the fact that the former library director, Kimber Glidden, said she would order a challenged book on inter-library loan if a patron requested it.

Glidden, after months of this, resigned her position a couple of weeks ago, citing “the political atmosphere of extremism, militant Christian fundamentalism, intimidation tactics, and threatening behavior currently being employed in the community.” Her story, and the story of the Bonners Ferry library, has been reported by national news outlets lately, as an example of a trend afflicting libraries around the country.

The chapter of the “Lawn Boy” mixup is a perfect metaphor for the whole movement.

Evison lives near Sequim and has appeared at Spokane literary events and readings. He’s a friend of mine, a good guy and a good writer. His novels include “All About Lulu,” “West of Here,” “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” “Legends of the North Cascades,” and, most recently, “Small World.” He’s won scads of awards and accolades

“Lawn Boy” tells the fictional story of Mike Munoz, whom the New York Times reviewer called a “Holden Caulfield for a new millennium.” Munoz is a gay young Mexican American who feels estranged from the American dream; the book has some crude language, but nothing like an explicit sex scene. The book is tough on the racial and social hypocrisies of this country, but remains hopeful.

Evison has undergone what all authors who are thrust into the modern censors’ weak, sickly light suffer. Lots of furious, uninformed backlash. Gross, threatening online messages. Ludicrous misrepresentations of the book’s content. But – happily – there are also even more supportive, outspoken responses from people who actually read and who are accepting of all people.

Oh, and sales. Being the object of the book banners ire is great for sales. “Lawn Boy” has undergone repeat printings thanks to all the attention.

“Sold like hell,” Evison said this week.

No author minds that. But Evison has also taken on his role as a vilified writer by standing up for free speech and art, and against the censors. He’s done scores and scores of interviews, and spoken up continually against book banners. In a few weeks he will appear as a panelist on a discussion on this issue at Georgetown University.

Evison wrote a powerful essay about his experiences for “Poets & Writers” magazine, in which he details the road he’s been on since a parent in Texas went to her school board, declared him a pedophile and demanded his book be removed from the library. He began to immediately receive hateful, threatening messages – and no matter how hard he worked to correct the false claims about the book’s contents, it made no dent in the ardor of the self-appointed defenders of children.

Even as that was happening, other versions of the “Lawn Boy” mixup occurred, with Paulsen’s book being mistakenly savaged by people who were trying to mistakenly savage Evison’s book.

“(N)ot one of these would-be book banners or gatekeepers had bothered to rescind, alter, or in any way amend the misinformation they continued to propagate,” Evison wrote in his essay. “Not only did they refuse to read the book in question, they couldn’t even cite the right book.”

The result, Evison said this week, is that Paulsen was also bombarded with hateful, ignorant responses. He died in October.

“Poor Gary Paulsen,” Evison said. “The final year of his life was spent with people calling him a pedophile for a book he didn’t write – which is itself not pedophilic!”

There is no doubt in Evison’s mind about what drives the passionate objections to “Lawn Boy” – the fact that it treats a traditionally marginalized character, a gay man of color, as a worthy, even ennobled subject, and it critiques the foundations of the society that excludes him. When you look at the list of the books the banners want to ban, he notes, the vast majority of them involve the positive portrayals of LGBTQ people and people of color.

One of the many ironies of this story is that “Lawn Boy” itself is a direct critique of this. The main character, for example, dreams of writing “the Great American Landscaping Novel.”

“Mike asks, ‘Where are the books about me?’ ” Evison said. “Mike says that directly in the book.”

The Bonners Ferry book burglar ought to find a copy somewhere and give it a read.

More from this author