Taking Flowers for Algernon, a guest post by Lesley Connor
Posted January 15, 2014on:
I met Lesley Connor at ConText down in Columbus last summer, and we became fast friends. Lesley works for Apex Books, and she’s one of the people to thank for next month’s Book of Apex blog tour.
Taking Flowers for Algernon by Lesley Connor
Lesley Conner is the social media editor and marketing leader for Apex Publications. She spends her days pestering book reviewers, keeping the Apex blog in order, and chatting about books, writing, and anything else that crosses her mind on Twitter at @ApexBookCompany.
*Warning: This post includes MAJOR spoilers for Flowers for Algernon. You’ve been warned. Go read the book. You’ll be happy you did.*
I can still remember the first time I read Flowers for Algernon. I was in the seventh grade; Mrs. Smith’s advanced reading class. I don’t remember everything, of course. Over the years the classroom discussions dissecting the diction and Daniel Keyes’s decision to tell the story through a heartwarming but unreliable narrator have faded. The hours I spent with my legs curled beneath me as I read Charlie’s journal entries, letting the story unfold first in clunky, unsure sentences but quickly hurtling toward a level that was nearly beyond my thirteen years, are more of imprint, rather than a true memory.
But the emotion those words invoked. That I will never forget.
The tears blurring my vision, tracking down my cheeks, dripping from my jawline. The ache that gripped my heart when Charlie realized Algernon was regressing and there was nothing he could do, no matter how desperately he tried, to keep the same from happening to him. Rereading his early journal entries with him, knowing where he was going back to, how he’d let people hurt him, tease him, push him around, because he hadn’t realized they were being cruel. When he goes back to his adult education class in the final scene, sitting in his old seat, and a part of his teacher, Miss Kinnian, breaks down, knowing the man she’d grown to love was gone forever. I cried for Charlie, for Algernon, for Miss Kinnian, for every time I felt like I hadn’t quite fit in.
When the assignment was over, I handed my copy of Flowers of Algernon back to Mrs. Smith and shoved the memory of the novel into that sacred place where really good books go to live. A place that would soon be populated with the likes of 1984, The Stand, Clan of the Cave Bear, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. With so many amazing books left to discover, Charlie and Algernon soon were little more than a memory of flooding emotions and the satisfaction of a reading truly powerful story.
Fast-forward to me in college, haunting the tiny Waldenbooks in the local mall, searching for a quick read to fill the gap between the massive tomes assigned by my English professors. I stop when my fingers trail along the spine of Flowers for Algernon, remembering Mrs. Smith’s smile and how much I’d loved the book in middle school. It slips off the shelf and into my hand, coming home with me so I can discover Charlie’s voice all over again. It resonates with me just as strongly the second time as it did the first. The tears and the amazement over the power of simple words pour from me.
Since then I’ve reread Flowers for Algernon on an almost yearly basis. I loan my battered copy out to anyone who reveals to me that they’ve never read it, pressing it into their hands, looking deep into their eyes, and whispering, “This book is amazing. It’ll make you cry.” Not the best tagline ever, but I think there’s something about the passion in which I handover my much loved copy, the way in which I insist they take it, that gives them pause, makes them open their eyes and truly considered this slim novel with a light blue cover and a picture of a white mouse. And more often or not, when they return the book, passing it back reverently, they say, “This book is so good. I bawled.”
As dear as Flowers for Algernon is to me, until I set out to write a vintage sci-fi post for Andrea, I’d never really considered it to be science fiction. Sure, the entire plot revolves around a mentally retarded man having a surgery which not only boosts his intelligence, but boosts it to a point where he is smarter than the doctors who developed and performed the surgery – clearly science fiction, especially considering the time period in which it was written – but the story isn’t about the science. It’s about the people. It’s about Charlie Gordon and how he sees the world. His longing to fit in and his willingness to risk everything to have an experimental surgery that may give him the chance to be smart, to make Miss proud because he can learn to read, to be more like his friends at the bakery. But the surgery doesn’t give him what he wants. The guys at the bakery can’t understand how dumb Charlie Gordon can suddenly be smart, they don’t want to be friends because they’re afraid of what he’s become. For the briefest of moments Charlie is on the same level as the average person, he gets a glimpse of what it is to be normal, experiences the confusion and the exhilaration of falling in love, but before he can truly comprehend it, he’s hurtling passed and again cannot connect with the people in his life, this time because he is smarter than them. Joy is fleeting. Normal is a narrow window in which a lot of us don’t fit, but flit by and long for.
I also didn’t realize the book has won a whole litany of awards: the Hugo for Best Short Story (1960), the Nebula for Best Novel (1966), the movie adaptation won the Academy Award. Does this new found knowledge change how I feel about the book? Not for a moment. When I pulled up the Wikipedia page I had a moment of “Oh. Awesome!” and then I went on, learning that the story started as a short story that was later expanded into the novel I cherish. Great information, but nothing that added or distracted from the wonderful story that has been a part of my life for so long.
That’s how some books are. They lose their genre, their awards, the coveted title of “literature,” and simply become a Great book. That’s what Flowers for Algernon is. A great book. I’ll leave you with that, because it’s time that I picked up my dogged eared, battered copy again and delve back into the world of Charlie and Algernon.