One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
50th Anniversary Edition, Viking Penguin, 2012; first published in 1962
In the past The Board has said that we don’t necessarily like to read books written entirely in first person; this is an exception to that rule. The story is told through the eyes of Chief Bromden, an American Indian who appears to be a deaf-mute, bearing silent witness to the lives of a group of patients in a 1960s-era mental ward. In the beginning the former Army nurse, Nurse Ratched, has everything under tight control. Into the world she rules comes one Randall P. McMurphy, an inmate from of a prison work farm who moves onto the ward. He brings new life and trouble to everyone he comes into contact with. And that is something Nurse Ratched won’t stand for.
Chief “ Broom” Bromden, born of an Indian father and white mother, the Chief is pulled into McMurphy’s orbit like many of the residents and out of the “fog” he finds himself in most of the time.
Randall “Mack” P. McMurphy, as brash and bold as his red hair, Mack walks into the ward and immediately takes over. He leads the residents on a fishing expedition, a wild night of partying, and to rebel against the rule of Nurse Ratched.
Nurse “Big Nurse” Ratched, a tyrant if there ever was one, rules her ward with a tight fist and a no-nonsense attitude. She and Mack clash from the very beginning and the power struggle between the two is epic and the main focus of the novel.
Mr. Harding, a voluntary resident, is the unofficial head of the residents.
Billy Bibbit, another volunteer resident, is a severe stutterer who is afraid of the world.
Written in the early 1960s while the author worked as a nurse’s aide in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, the book gives some insight into that era’s viewpoints toward mental treatment. Although electroshock therapy was on its way ‘out’, it was still used in extreme cases. Also used was the brutal and inhumane lobotomy procedure. Whether the mental health treatment of that era was beneficial or not is for loftier minds to decide.
I found the book to be both funny and sad, a ‘tragic-comedy’. I sort of knew how it would end from watching snippets of the movie (starring Jack Nicholson) but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment (and sadness). The antics of Mack and the residents were laugh out loud funny, but always in the back of my mind – and in the back of the narrator’s mind – were the less than pleasant consequences meted out by Big Nurse. I really liked the way the author put words to the madness of Chief’s mind and the way he interprets the world around him. Very disarming at first, but also really creative.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Paws; the book is well written and thought provoking but it is not one I will be rereading any time soon, if ever.
Banned & Challenged
1972, Strongsville, Ohio; 5 residents sued the board of education to remove the novel. They labeled it “pornographic,” they charged the novel “glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.” (I missed the all of that – maybe I read a different book then they did.)
1975, Randolph, New York & Alton, OK, removed from public school libraries
1977, Westport, MA , removed from required reading list
1978, ID, Banned from the St Anthony Freemont High School and the instructor fired.
1982, NH, Challenged at the Merrimack High School
1986, WA, Challenged as part of the curriculum in an Aberdeen High School honors English class because the book promotes “secular humanism.” The school board voted to retain the title.
2000, CA, Challenged in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District after complaints by parents stated that teachers “can choose the best books, but they keep choosing this garbage over and over again.”