54 pages • 1 hour read
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Originally published in 1982, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book is Nat Hentoff’s only novel for youth. Hentoff was a multi-talented scholar and entertainer, known for his years as a columnist at the legendary Village Voice, an alternative newspaper in New York City. He was also a music critic and professor. Hentoff was regarded as an eloquent, tireless advocate for freedom of speech; he made his arguments in essay form for adults in his book Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee, and he chose to teach young people the importance of literary liberty through The Day They Came to Arrest the Book.
While the story centers around the events at a high school, the book is categorized as middle grade fiction. Hentoff describes the events at George Mason High School when certain students and their parents call for the banning of the classic Mark Twain novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which contains many racial slurs and descriptions of the maltreatment of Black enslaved people prior to the Civil War. The dispute between proponents of censorship and free speech advocates draws the attention of the national news. Hentoff’s novel experienced a resurgence of interest in the second decade of the 21st century as the number of states and school districts seeking to ban various books dramatically increased. Summarized here is the 1982 Laurel-Leaf paperback edition.
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Content Warning: This book frequently uses quotes from Huckleberry Finn containing the n-word. This study guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the n-word.
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George Mason High School students Barney Roth, Luke Hagstrom, and Kate enter the building on the first day of the fall semester. Michael “Mighty Mike” Moore, the unpopular principal, greets them. The three discuss the resignation of Karen Salters, the long-term librarian. Barney, incoming editor of the student newsletter, is curious about the rumors that Karen left because of a dispute with Mike. In the library, history teacher Nora Baines interrupts Deirdre Fitzgerald, the new librarian, to warn her about Mike.
In her 19th-century history class, Nora discusses French writer Alexis de Tocqueville’s comments that Americans do not utilize the freedom of speech. Nora assigns her students The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The following day, Gordon McLean, a Black student, approaches fellow student Scott Berman to complain about the book’s racial expletives. Gordon says his father, Carl, will meet with Mike and have the book removed from the curriculum.
Nora and Deirdre meet at a coffee shop to discuss Karen’s departure, as well as the efforts of parents and outside groups to determine what books are acceptable in schools. Nora warns Deirdre that Mike will invariably try to circumvent the review process by pressuring the librarian to remove the books in question. Nora reveals that Karen left because of Mike.
Kate, Luke, and Barney walk home after school discussing Gordon’s anger about Huckleberry Finn. Barney and Luke favor reading the book to learn what Twain has to say, while Kate believes it is unacceptable that Gordon should have to read an assignment where the n-word is used repeatedly.
At school, Carl demands that Mike remove Huckleberry Finn from the history course and the library. Placating, Mike promises Carl he will resolve the matter with his faculty. Carl threatens to start a parents’ movement if the book is not removed.
The next morning, Gordon shouts in the halls that “Huck Finn is dead” (29). Nora encounters Maggie Crowley, an upbeat social studies teacher. Maggie has invited a civil liberties lawyer and a conservative religious spokesman to debate personal freedoms for her students. Nora asks if she can bring her history class to the debate.
Mike summons Nora to his office, attempting to talk her out of using Huckleberry Finn. She refuses. Nora reminds Mike that questions about the acceptability of a text must be handled by a review committee after an official complaint. Mike says he will start the process. After Nora leaves, Mike asks Deirdre to see him the next day.
The morning of the debate, Deirdre meets Barney in the library. They introduce themselves and discuss their shared love of books. Nora bursts in to warn Deirdre of a controversy that will envelop the library. Students gather in the school auditorium to hear Kent Dickinson, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney, debate religious pundit Matthew Griswold on the purpose and extent of First Amendments rights. Prior to the debate, Gordon, Luke, and Barney discuss whether they personally experience real freedom.
Dickinson discusses the constitutional ideals behind personal liberty and urges the students to recognize their freedoms and their responsibility to use and preserve their rights. Griswold warns that individual freedom advocates may possess hidden agendas, and claims religion is necessary in education. Meanwhile, in the principal’s office, Mike tells Deirdre that Carl has filed an official complaint about Huckleberry Finn. Mike asks Deirdre to conceal all the library’s copies of the book. She refuses, saying she will only do so if Carl’s complaint succeeds.
That afternoon, Deirdre, Kate, and Barney debate the worthiness of Huckleberry Finn. Kate believes the book should be banned because it is so offensive to Black students. Nora arrives with a copy of Carl’s complaint: He wants to remove all copies of Twain’s book from the school.
Reuben Forster, the school board chairman, assigns seven people to the review committee. Luke, Barney, and Nora wait in the library until Deirdre appears with the list of members. The group reviews them, guessing what biases they might have. The next morning, Gordon stages a walkout of Nora’s class. After nine students leave, only one Black student, Steve Turney, remains. Steve says he wants to study Huckleberry Finn and decide about the book for himself.
Barney wants to print an article that includes criticism of Principal Mike in the school paper. Maggie warns him that printing his article will result in reprisals for both of them. He reluctantly agrees to delete the criticism of Mike to preserve their overall freedom of speech.
The evening of the review committee, numerous speakers on both sides of the issue present to the committee. Two days later, Barney, Luke, Nora, and Deirdre learn the review committee voted to restrict the use of Huckleberry Finn. They turn their attention to the school board meeting, where the final vote will be held. Barney goes to interview Karen; she tells him about the unethical pressure Mike put on her to remove books when she was the school’s librarian.
Barney and Maggie go to Mike’s office, where he demands that they retract the interview with Karen. Having covered their bases, Barney and Maggie decide to go ahead with publication. The article garners local and even national news attention. Barney, Deirdre, Kate, and Mike speak to reporters.
In the face of national news coverage, Forster grows concerned that the community will look bad if Huckleberry Finn is censored. He summons Mike and tells him the school board will vote to retain Huckleberry Finn. He also warns him not to seek reprisals for the negative news coverage. The school board meets and votes 4-1 to allow the unhindered use of Twain’s book.
By Nat Hentoff