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James (W.) Bennett Biography (1942-) - Sidelights

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Writer James Bennett draws heavily on personal experience in his novels for young adult readers. His high school-aged protagonists are often emotionally or intellectually confused individuals unable to summon the emotional strength to deal with the circumstances that confront them in school, at home, and in other social situations. Only the caring, compassionate support of others can provide Bennett's characters with a resilient lifeline to adulthood. Many of Bennett's novels have the theme of the individual set against the institution; Bennett theorizes that everyone has feelings of rebellion against institutional wounds. "I think any book that I have written would take any reader on a trip to answer these questions: 'Who am I within this framework? How do I define myself? How do I establish integrity but know the difference between just rebelling for its own sake and rebelling based on some imperative?', " Bennett explained to Jon Saari in an interview with Authors and Artists for Young Adults (AAYA). Some of Bennett's books also deal with mental illness. "I would like my readers to recognize that the handicapped are not throw-away people," Bennett told Publishers Weekly interviewer Lynda Brill Comerford. "Within them lies enormous courage and a strong nourishing drive."

Bennett enjoyed journalism since he was fourteen and created his own newspaper, but it was not until his junior year at college that he had his first thoughts of becoming a writer. Subsequent graduate studies in English at Illinois State University led Bennett to a career teaching creative writing to community college students. In 1974, however, Bennett suffered an emotional breakdown; during his recovery in a psychiatric hospital, he began to view writing as a way of expressing his feelings and promoting an increased awareness of the plight of many who are challenged by mental and emotional disorders.

During the period of his own hospitalization in the late 1970s, Bennett was particularly troubled by the acquaintance of a young woman, a fellow patient who was notably emotionally withdrawn. I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, his first novel for young adults, is based on his impressions of that young woman. "I knew nothing about the girl's background or diagnosis," Bennett explained to Comerford. "She was difficult to approach, but I realized that it was worth the effort to get through her shy exterior and discover the human being inside." In addition to recreating the young patient's speech and mannerisms—both on and off medication—in his novel, Bennett had to do some extensive research into the world of female adolescents to realistically portray his young heroine. Three years of effort culminated in Bennett's first highly praised work for young adults. Published in 1990, I Can Hear the Mourning Dove is the story of Grace Braun, a "crazy wild" sixteen-year-old attempting to return to the outside world after spending several weeks in the supportive environment of a hospital psychiatric unit following her most recent unsuccessful attempt at suicide. This was not Grace's first stay in a psychiatric ward: she had suffered from periods of depression for many years. The recent death of her father and the stressful transition to a new school add to the young woman's difficulties in readjusting to "normal" teen life after her release; unfortunately, it takes only the hateful actions of a group of rowdy, uncaring teens to send her back to the hospital in a highly depressed, manic state. Fortunately, Grace's condition improves with the help of her psychiatrist, her mother, and Luke Wolf, a brash and angry teen hospitalized in police custody after he knowingly killed a paralyzed friend. "Few novels written for teenagers have dared to probe as deeply into mental illness" as I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, according to Stephanie Zvirin, who praised Bennett's novel in Booklist. "With tenderness and remarkable insight, Bennett identifies the causes and effects of Grace's suffering," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

In Bennett's second young adult novel Dakota Dream, teen protagonist Floyd Rayfield has replaced his early childhood memories of his natural mother and father with those of a long sequence of foster families and group homes. With a desperate need to belong somewhere, fifteen-year-old Floyd creates an internal sense of being a part of something by convincing himself that he is really a misplaced Dakota Indian; his main goal now becomes escaping the foster care system and joining "his people." Stealing a motorcycle, the young man makes an eight-hundred-mile journey to the Dakota tribe's Pine Ridge Reservation, where a vision quest taken with Chief Bear-in-cave and the active intervention of a naive but compassionate social worker help him to understand the real reasons for his fight against inflexible teachers and insensitive social workers. A Kirkus Reviews critic praised Dakota Dream, writing that the "dynamics between a thoughtful boy struggling to keep his unique spark alive and the oblivious public employees doing their best to quench it are poignantly realized." Deborah Stevenson of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books maintained that "this is a measured, serious story and Floyd, not your stereotypical problem kid, is admirable in his devotion and application." Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Shirley Carmony added: "Floyd is finely drawn and comes painfully alive for the reader."

Like Bennett's other novels, 1995's The Squared Circle features a teen struggling to deal with a series of emotional problems. This time, though, Sonny Youngblood must also try to cope with his mother's mental breakdown as she spirals toward hospitalization. Basketball provides the eighteen-year-old high school senior with an escape, and when his obsession with the game helps him to earn a sports scholarship to a university, it appears that he is on the verge of burying his troubles for good. Sonny's presence has an immediate impact on the team's success, as it moves up in the national rankings while Sonny himself emerges as a media celebrity. But not all is right with this picture; Sonny learns that there are strings attached to big-time college sports. He has already realized that campus fraternity life makes some unpleasant social demands through its ingrained hazing and racism, and his game has been affected by lethargy. In a dramatic scene that shows Sonny's emerging understanding of previously invisible forces, he challenges his uncle about the under-the-table payoffs. Then, in what appears to be a deliberate act, Sonny cuts the fingers off his right hand while chopping wood for an art class. "Interwoven around gritty, occasionally brutish, guys-only scenes of fraternity hazing, basketball team practice and tension-filled games is an acutely perceptive account of a young man's emotional and intellectual awakening," asserted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Calling the novel "a sobering read," Tom S. Hurlburt recommended in a School Library Journal review that The Squared Circle "should be thrust into the hands of any high school students who are contemplating playing revenue-producing sports" at large colleges or universities. "It is difficult to adequately describe the power of this book," exclaimed Dorothy M. Broderick in Voice of Youth Advocates. "It is a masterpiece." The Squared Circle was named "America's finest YA novel" for 1995 in Voice of Youth Advocates.

Blue Star Rapture, Bennett's second book on the corruption of college sports, takes place at a basketball camp, where Tyrone, a six-foot, nine-inch high schooler, is attracting the attention of the college scouts. The novel's narrator, T. J., is Tyrone's best friend, and the street agents (men who receive illegal payments for influencing high school players to sign with college teams) reason one way to Tyrone is through T. J. Meanwhile T. J. has befriended a girl at a nearby Bible camp who commits suicide, a plot development that permits Bennett to draw a parallel between religious fanaticism and college recruiting methods, as both use undue pressure tactics.

In Faith Wish, Bennett's main character is Anne-Marie, a popular teenage girl who is struggling to pass her classes her senior year. When she encounters the charasmatic evangelist, Brother Jackson, she is swept up in her new-found faith and her interest in the spiritual leader himself. The first time they are alone, Brother Jackson takes advantage of her and seduces her. At the same time that Anne-Marie discovers she has failed her senior year and will not be allowed to graduate, she also finds out that she is pregnant with Brother Jackson's baby. Instead of attending summer school in order to finish high school, she allows Brother Jackson to take her to an isolated girls' camp, where Anne-Marie tries to find God and herself. "This tale raises provocative questions about religious conviction and religious cults, blind faith and obsessive infatuation," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Joel Shoemaker in School Library Journal also noted, "The book clearly communicates that religion can serve as a haven for evildoers and that vulnerable people can be harmed by religious people who take advantage."

The Flex of the Thumb, a baseball novel for adults, allowed Bennett to collaborate with his son, Jason, although not on the writing process. Jason, at the time twenty-three, published the book himself, setting the type and printing 10,000 copies. Jason marketed the book to libraries and bookstores on his own as well. "It helps me that dad has a good reputation as a writer," Jason told James Keeran of the Pantagraph. The Flex of the Thumb is an adult novel and the story of high school pitcher Vano Lucas who gets hit with a baseball bat between the eyes. The event changes his whole career, and when he goes to college, his focus is no longer on competetive sports; instead, he focuses on more contemplative arts. Bennett told Keeran that he'd written the novel five times over a span of twenty-five years. "It was the manuscript that was always lying around," he explained. "When I wasn't embroiled in something else, I went back to it." Bennett's other adult novels include 1983 title A Quiet Desperation and his satiric comedy Harvey Porter Does Dallas, a novel about a young man searching for his past.

Today, Bennett visits secondary schools to talk about writing and help students along the path to be writers. "I like to tell the students I was an underachiever. There are always kids who need to hear that," Bennett told Saari in AAYA, continuing, "I do like to be up front with them with the fact that I was not an outstanding student when I was young. I did not achieve a lot as a teenager. I did not mature until later. Teachers like to hear that too. I like to work with basic kids as well as honors kids."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, vol. 26, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, January 15, 1991, Stephanie Zvirin, review of I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, p. 1052; January 15, 1994, Jeanne Triner, review of Dakota Dream, p. 918; December 15, 1995, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Squared Circle, p. 697.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1994, Deborah Stevenson, review of Dakota Dream, p. 182.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1994, p. 138; November 1, 1995.

Kliatt, July, 2002, Barbara Jo McKee, review of The Squared Circle, p. 15.

Pantagraph, August 28, 1983, Barb Kueny, "Quiet Desperation," p. D2; August 13, 1996, James Keeran, "Author's Son Takes to the 'Road' to Sell Dad's Book," p. D1.

Publishers Weekly, July 13, 1990, Diane Robuck, review of I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, p. 57; December 21, 1990, Lynda Brill Comerford, interview with Bennett, p. 15; December 20, 1993, review of Dakota Dream, p. 73; November 20, 1995, p. 79; July 21, 2002, review of The Squared Circle, p. 92; June 2, 2003, review of Faith Wish, p. 53.

School Library Journal, December, 1995, Tom S. Hurlburt, review of The Squared Circle, p. 128; July, 2003, Joel Shoemaker, review of Faith Wish, p. 123.

Voice of Youth Advocates, October 1990, pp. 213-14; April, 1994, Shirley Carmony, review of Dakota Dream, pp. 22-23; February, 1996, Dorothy M. Broderick, review of The Squared Circle, p. 379.

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