A Critical Approach to Will Hobbs' Bearstone from a Play Perspective
Edgar H. Thompson and Dorothy Sluss
Will Hobbs' Bearstone is one of the finest young adult novels available for students to read, and it has won numerous awards, from being selected as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults to being an IRA/CBC Teachers Choice Book. We love the book, but when we look at it critically, there is a problem. It is two stories in one, and even though you must finish the first story (Cloyd and Walter posturing with each other until they come to trust and care for one another) before you go on to the logical extension that becomes the second story (here, Cloyd matures into an adult), there is an evident sense of closure when readers finish the first story. Will Hobbs' book works in this format. The question for us is: how and why does it work?
There are numerous critical approaches to literature which reveal and illuminate meanings that might be missed during a casual reading of any novel, adult or young adult. For instance, a feminist, deconstructionist, reader response, or new criticism approach are ones traditionally used with adult novels. Although they do work when applied to young adult and children's literature, we believe that something special happens if you shift the critical approach to one rooted in the lives of all of us as children, a play perspective. In the case of Will Hobbs' Bearstone, the dilemma of the missing unifying link between the first story and the second story in the novel can be resolved.
Four kinds of play are important for this reading: exploratory/sensory play, which children begin to engage in from birth to age two; constructive play, where children begin to create things with materials, begins around age two or three; symbolic play, where children name things, begins between the ages of two and three and peaks at age five; and games with rules, using logical thought processes, that begin somewhere between the ages of five to seven. (Piaget (1962) identified three of these kinds of play, and Smilansky (1968) added the intervening stage of constructive play.] Regardless of when these kinds of play initially emerge, they can and do reappear at different times in our lives, and as in the case of Bearstone; if you look at the kinds of play and when they occur, you can begin to see a pattern emerge that explains why the two parts of this story hold together.
Bearstone is set in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado. Cloyd, a fourteen-year-old Ute boy who is in trouble, will spend the summer with retired rancher Walter Landis, who is lonely after the death of his wife. Their subsequent trust and care for one another is the basis of the first story. Though both Cloyd and Walter engage in play, individually and with each other, throughout this first story, we will focus on Cloyd's play. The first instance of play for Cloyd occurs in Chapter 2 when he runs away immediately after getting out of the car upon arrival at Walter's ranch. This is the game of hide-and-seek, a removing of himself to test whether anyone will come and find him, which is an example of exploratory play. Most fourteen-year-old boys would not engage in this kind of play, but Cloyd does. Why? Not only because he is a troubled adolescent but he is trying to establish the boundaries of his life in this new place, this new space. Will anyone look for him? Can he come to trust that someone will care enough to look for him? Young children need this reassurance, but then so do older children and adults when they are placed in new situations. In Chapter 4 Walter does go look for Cloyd, so Cloyd does receive assurance that someone will come look for him.
While hiding, Cloyd continues to engage in play as he explores his relationship to this new place. In Chapter 3, he explores an ancient Anasazi cave where he finds a turquoise stone that is shaped like a bear. This is another example of exploratory play, in this case with a toy or specific material for play. The stone also symbolizes the nature and the history of people whom may have been Cloyd's ancestors. Cloyd continues to climb, which is dangerous, and it is this danger that people enjoy during play, especially during this kind of exploratory play.
Cloyd decides to stay with Walter. He realizes that where he is now in space is near the traditional hunting ground of his people, a part of his past and now his present. Being in this area, playing in this area, this space, gives him a way not only to connect to his past but also to his present, and up to this point in his life, Cloyd has been detached from both. Play is a way he is linking himself to this place, and it will eventually be a way he links himself to Walter.
Next, even though Cloyd is hungry, he refuses extra food. He is described as shy and polite, but children who are under stress often refuse food as a way to control their environment, to make a choice. Maybe the motivation is not just shyness but is an attempt to exercise some control over his position in this space, a place he does not yet literally know. Cloyd is playing games of a much younger child, but he must do this to not only establish his security in this environment but also to grow to a point where his age and his behavior will come into congruence.
Clarifying his boundaries and limits continues through symbolic play. In Chapter 5 Cloyd is able to choose his own horse, Blueboy, and he starts talking to him. Cloyd feels that he has a "kind of mental telepathy" with Blueboy. The act of talking to his horse is an example of symbolic play similar to the kind observed when a child talks to an imaginary playmate, except Cloyd has ascribed human, intellectual sensitivities to Blueboy. Cloyd is finding dimension to the boundaries in his new world, the world of his present and his past, even if these boundaries are symbolic, not literal. This trait is commonly found among children who play in dirt around the world and across cultures when they draw horizons on the ground and mark off space as they engage in constructive/symbolic play to establish the boundaries of their environment. Cloyd has done this marking first with exploratory play, followed by constructive/symbolic play.
Once the initial understanding is reached, Cloyd continues to define more clearly his location in this new space by engaging in a series of games with Walter, games that have rules but with rules that are constantly changing. For example, as Cloyd and Walter fall into the routine of work with Walter telling stories, they have created a game with rules. Though the rules are not explicit, an implicit pattern of behavior has come into being, which helps Cloyd define his space. From symbolic play and games to rules, he is defining his space. His literal, explicit love of this new place is not yet fully established, though it will follow. [Isn't it interesting initially that "love of place" may be more implicit and symbolic than "literal", which is contrary-we think--to what most people assume.]
Chapter 8 is a pivotal chapter in the book. Walter tries to help Cloyd adapt to the world of his ranch and life, but his actions and game rules don't communicate this caring feeling to Cloyd. Cloyd believes that Walter truly doesn't like him. The rules of the game are being evaluated from both of their perspectives, but it is Cloyd's misreading of the rules at this point that cause many things to happen. Cloyd believes that Walter's apparent friendship with bear hunters is a betrayal. Bears are very important to Cloyd, and he believes that Walter truly understands how special bears are to him personally, an important symbol of his people, the Utes. Cloyd changes the rules because he doesn't understand Walter's behavior. [All of this begs the question, when is the game over? When do the rules change?] Because Cloyd decides that Walter is not his true friend, he refuses to help Walter put up hay. Walter gets angry, and being stubborn himself, puts the hay up by himself, and he exhausts himself in the process. They are both still game playing, which is leading to a "drawing of the line" which will provide clarification of what the rules truly are in this instance.
In retaliation for Walter's betrayal, in Chapter 9 Cloyd cuts down all of Walter's prize peach trees, trees that Walter has nurtured for years. Is this the line? Walter decides he can do nothing with Cloyd, but he is not going to take him back to the group home for Indian boys. Walter does care enough about Cloyd, however, to take him back to Cloyd's real home in Utah where his grandmother lives. In Chapter 10 when Cloyd finally understands that Walter truly cares for him, they come together again, as friends. The clarification of the rules and their roles with one another signals the end of game, and the end of the first story. By engaging in exploratory play, constructive play, symbolic play, and games with rules, Cloyd has come into balance with the world of Walter's ranch and with Walter. Play has been a pivotal tool is causing this new caring relationship to come about, but there is more for Cloyd to learn.
As the second story begins, a new game begins. Cloyd and Walter will go on a trip to the mountains where Walter will reopen his old gold mine, "The Pride of the West," and Cloyd will explore the hunting grounds of his people and work his way to the Pyramid of the Rio Grande, which is the highest point of elevation in the area. As Cloyd and Walter begin their journey together into the mountains in Chapter 13, their play takes on some of the same characteristics of the play they engaged in at the beginning of the novel. What is significant is how Cloyd's play changes. When Cloyd starts his ascent to the Pyramid, he is also starting a new game. His new play is not just symbolic. He is now playing with real animals. Blueboy saves his life. He catches a fish with his bare hands. He sees a bear. He is playing in a natural environment with real animals. His sense of connection to the place and space of his past is moving beyond the symbolic to the literal. How interesting that from this perspective, the literal takes precedence over the symbolic and from a play perspective, seems to be more powerful, more real.
Cloyd's "childish" play ends as he grows as a human being. An example of this change is when he realizes that Rusty, whom Cloyd observes killing a bear with a bow and arrow, appears to be remorseful for his actions. Remembering Walter's forgiveness of him for his poor behavior when he destroyed Walter's peach trees, Cloyd decides not to turn Rusty into the law. To do so would not bring the bear back to life. Cloyd is using moral realism to make his decision. He recognizes that everything is life is not either good or bad, that there are many gray areas. Moral realism is the product of what Piaget would call formal operations, a mode of abstract thought that is usually first observed in human beings around age 14, which is Cloyd's age.
The rules of the games that constitute Cloyd's play have changed as Cloyd has matured, and as a result, he has reached a point where his age and his development in terms of play, cognition, and emotion are synchronous, and it is the achievement of this synchronicity that provides the link, the coherent connection between the first story and the second one, that ties the story together. It is Cloyd's play and the development and maturation of his play that provides an internal structure and integrity to the story.
In Chapter 21, a symbol of Cloyd's past, and his growth through both stories, is revealed when he gives Walter the turquoise bearstone, his most prized possession. Cloyd is now able to give up this toy, this symbol of his past and his present, because he has now defined this place, this space literally for himself. Cloyd's multi-faceted, multi-dimensional play has led to his full development as a young man, a young man who now understands the rules of the game of life, at least as they are played in his new world.
From our critical play perspective, we have discovered some things that had not occurred to us before, and these discoveries intrigue us. Life is a game with rules and so is fiction, only the rules are created by the writer and are played out by the characters in the story. Ironically, approaching fiction as a representation of play allows us to see life and literature in a way that is at once both more playful and more serious.
Edgar H. Thompson is professor of Education and Education Department Chair, Emory & Henry College, Emory, Virginia.
Dorothy Sluss is Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee.
Reference Citation: Thompson, Edgar H. and Dorothy Sluss. (2000) "A Critical Approach to Will Hobbs' Bearstone from a Play Perspective." The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 2, 8-10.