Gary Paulsen’s The Monument
(1991) a novel for middle school and young adult readers, follows thirteen-year-old Rocky, who gains a deeper understanding of herself, her small town, and the true power of art when an artist arrives to create a town war memorial. In an author’s note, Paulsen writes that he “wanted to show art, show how it can shake and crumble thinking; how it can bring joy and sadness at the same time; how it can own and be owned, sweep through lives and change them—how the beauty of it…can grow from even that ultimate ruin of all ruins: the filth of war.” The Monument
explores themes of identity, war, and memory.
Rachel Ellen Turner, “Rocky,” is the first-person narrator of the story. Rocky lives in the small rural town of Bolton, Kansas, with her adoptive parents, Fred and Emma Hemesvedt. Rocky was abandoned as an infant and spent her first nine years in an orphanage. Rocky knows she was not adopted right away because of her “light caramel” colored skin and tight curly hair, and the fact that her left leg didn’t grow correctly. Despite several surgeries to correct her leg, all the doctors could eventually do was fuse the knee, leaving Rocky unable to bend it. Self-conscious about her leg and her funny walk, Rocky feels that living with Fred and Emma is much better than the orphanage.
Fred works at the local grain elevator and Emma cares for the home. Rocky notes that they “love me and are very good to me and are completely drunk by nine o’clock every morning.” Rocky spends a lot of time alone. She has difficulty making friends but loves animals. Her best friend is Python, a big scruffy stray dog that Rocky breaks out of the pound. They go everywhere together. Rocky works with Fred at the grain elevator and gets to hear all the town gossip. She learns that Trudy Langdon, who won an art prize at the county fair, has been tasked with finding an artist to construct a monument for the town’s war dead.
Out walking with Python early in the morning, Rocky meets Mick Strum, the newly arrived artist. Rumpled and red-eyed, Mick is recovering from being drunk the night before. Rocky thinks he looks “kind of like a garden gnome.” He has a small beard, is bald on top, and has a “devilish” gleam in his eye. Mick immediately begins exploring the town, drawing pictures as he goes, and Rocky and Python follow him. Mick draws an abandoned home, elderly Mr. Jennings and his old dog, and an old car. Rocky is amazed at how his drawings capture the emotions and memories of the things he sees. His drawings show “all of what the thing had been or would be”; Rocky begins to see beyond the surface of things. She realizes she wants to be an artist. Fred and Emma are supportive. Emma comments, “You just let it grow and grow and have a good time with it.”
The next day, Mick is clean and clear-eyed. Rocky tells him she wishes to be an artist. Mick says that she already is an artist inside, but he can teach her technique. He gives her a new tablet and a pencil box that was his as a boy. Mick tells her to draw and draw and draw. Together they draw the grain elevators and the local graveyard. Sketching a child’s gravestone, Rocky begins to cry. Mick understands, saying, “I cry each day—my soul weeps. It means you’re seeing something as it is, as it’s meant to be seen, doesn’t it?”
Mick declares that when he knows the people of the town, he’ll know how to make the monument. He looks up military records and discovers that eighteen people from Bolton died in wars, and the town has one living war hero: old Mr. Jennings. Mick draws the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Even getting in a fight at the local bar is part of his plan to learn about the town. Mick gives Rocky a book about the artist Degas. Looking at Degas’s painting “The Dance Master,” Rocky becomes emotional thinking that all the dancers in the painting are dead and gone. Emma consoles her, saying that they’ve been forever immortalized in the painting and can never really be gone.
The townsfolk meet in the courthouse to talk about designs for the monument. Mick has lined the walls with all the drawings he created of the town and its people: he has captured the essence of Bolton. Rocky sees one of herself and realizes that in all her life “I never saw me. Just me.” People have different reactions to the drawings: some are angry at the way they have been portrayed. They tear Mick’s drawings down from the wall, primarily the ones showing people.
Mick explains that “art is everything” and the monument must be a part of all the people in order to be true. He listens to ideas for the monument then suggests that it be a living place to think and remember. He suggests planting a tree for each of the eighteen who died and placing benches there for people to sit and reflect. Everyone agrees and soon eighteen oak trees, with a plaque to honor each individual, line the courthouse lawn. Mick and Mrs. Langdon—who has fallen for Mick—leave Bolton together before the official showing of the monument. Rocky is sad to see Mick go. She writes him a letter describing the town’s quiet and emotional response to the monument. Rocky promises to keep drawing.