04/18/2002 - Updated 08:58 AM ET

'Empire' can open students' minds

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

The USA TODAY Book Club, launched last week, is off to a lively discussion about Richard Russo's Empire Falls and what novels students should read in high school. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (Vintage paperback, $14.95) is set in a struggling Maine mill town and deals with the relationship between an about-to-be divorced father and his 16-year-old daughter. That prompted our first question: Given the violence at the end, not to mention references to adultery, masturbation and dumb-as-a-post teachers and coaches, few high school English teachers may have the guts to recommend Empire Falls to their students. Should they?




One reader thought the question was aimed at stirring a false controversy, noting that violence and sex have long been part of American literature and saying that high schools should assign vital, modern novelists like Russo, Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and even Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections).

Others readers thought Russo's 483-page novel is too slow-paced for today's youth. But most defended and embraced the book. Among their comments:

  • "Today's music, TV and other media certainly could be more damaging to a teen than what's in Empire Falls," says Pat Donaghue, who at 60 is back in school at the University of Pittsburgh. She "loved the book, loved Miles (the father), loved Tick (the daughter). You wanted to protect them both." She says it's a good idea for teens "to read the book to see how harmful it can be to be cruel to one's peers."

  • "Courageous teachers will recommend the book because of the reality of the characters' portraits, both teen and adult," says Dorothy Ammerman, who teaches in Bristol, Conn. "The pictures drawn of adolescent life are quite accurate. The love affairs, the nastiness, the cruelty are all elements that I observe every teaching day and talk about with my kids."

  • "Russo knows how to weave a story with many down-to-earth characters," says Shari Pretzer, a retired librarian in Longville, Minn. "High school students should have the opportunity to read it. It's relevant. Sure, there's some foul language, but that's the way life is. We don't live in a Little House on the Prairie world."

  • "I should probably do a bootleg around the school board and intoxicate my students with a few jugs of Empire Falls," says Steve Everhart, an English teacher in Tyrone, Pa., who's tried to introduce "modern writers like Russo to our highly conservative district with only minimal success." Everhart, one of Russo's students at Penn State-Altoona in 1984, says he "showered his students with the same humor and warmth that he sprinkles over the lives of his fictional characters."

  • Earl Huffman of Belleville, Neb., wrote (he mailed his comments) that he opposes censorship but is concerned with what's suggested for students. "I don't believe we should recommend anything that you couldn't print in your newspaper or that you would feel uncomfortable reading aloud in a family circle."

    Other comments on our message board ( complain about novels about dysfunctional families. That prompts this week's question: Is the Roby family — Miles, Janine and Tick — "dysfunctional" or merely struggling with some problems? Our next question will be posted Tuesday. Keep reading.