Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther (1949)

It’s beyond me why this book remains in so many English curriculums.  But before I criticize it, let me say what I find redeeming about it or why I think it remains a staple of so many classrooms.  Today, memoirs abound.  There is a memoir for every experience on the planet and thousands of memoirs about cancer: survival memoirs and death memoirs.  But in 1949, I imagine this was groundbreaking stuff.  No one wrote about dying and certainly no parent wrote about watching their child die–that was probably considered a private matter, not something to be shared with the general public.  So from that standpoint, this book is pretty amazing.  People were able to live through this horrific experience through the words of John Gunther as he and his wife watched their son fight but eventually lose his battle with brain cancer.  Gunther was brave to allow the world into their story, to not hide his grief behind closed doors.   On the other hand, this book is not well written.  It’s telly and flowery and overwrought.  Instead of simply telling the story and allowing the reader to get to know Johnny through his brave actions, Gunther consistently tells us what we should all think about Johnny.  He gushes on for over 20 pages in the foreword so that by the time the story begins, I’m already turned off.  So I’m not crazy about Gunther’s style and I think the book is much longer than it needs to be, but having spent the last year going through cancer treatment, I did find it fascinating that Johnny was the first to receive mustard gas (the precursor to chemo) at that particular hospital and that today’s radiation treatment was an archaic form of x-ray back then.  I’m not sure Johnny’s form of brain tumor is any more curable today, but I’m certainly thankful that our treatment is much easier to tolerate.  Still, if I wanted 9th graders to read a memoir about dying or about cancer, this is not the one I would choose. (memoir)

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