I recently met up with one of my former high-school English teachers, and talk turned naturally to books. I told her how influential the books I'd read throughout my high school years had been, and mentioned several titles by name — The Count of Monte Cristo, Alas, Babylon, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men.
I leaned closer, admitted that though I'd loved all of those books — indeed, they had become permanent fixtures in my own library — the book I enjoyed the most was Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, which had been assigned to me by a different English teacher in a different year.
My former teacher sneered a little. "I hated that book, and never assigned it for my students," she said. "I really don't think that's appropriate content for impressionable teenagers."
Because of the sex, or because the sex was with a priest? I wanted to ask but didn't.
As a young teen, I'd rarely had a conversation about sex, let alone read about it. Occasionally my Aunt Kay would toss a romance novel in my direction, as if she knew that, at my house, I would learn nothing about boy and girl parts meeting up for a play date. Sex was a verboten topic with my religious mother, right up there with "But how do you really know God exists?" and "Why does Dad sleep on the couch so often?" Not questions she wanted to hear — certainly not ones she'd attempt to answer.
I knew from the buzz at school that The Thorn Birds — a story about the forbidden love between a girl-turned-woman, Meggie, and an older priest, Ralph — would probably not meet with my mother's approval. It was in part the allure of doing something slightly wicked and rebellious that made me eager to sink into McCullough's work. But as I began to read, another, more significant, reason for continuing emerged.
I felt the book like I'd felt no other book before it, and I still have in my possession the paper I presented for that class. The themes of commitment and obligation as they related to love, family and even religion resonated keenly with me. I wrote about all the ironies, like the way Ralph's commitment to God waned and perhaps morphed into obligation when he fell in love with Meggie, or the way Meggie remained committed to Ralph despite her marriage to another — a marriage that, soon after the honeymoon, seemed reduced to obligation.
These values of commitment and obligation were so very different, yet it seemed they could replace one another in an instant — even when a commitment appeared, at first, to be unalterable. I wondered over that. Was it wrong to question commitments and obligations, even those requiring vows, or was it simply ... human?
After the paper was written and the class moved on to Macbeth, my mind stayed on The Thorn Birds. What made people remain latched to one another even after a relationship stopped working? Why would anyone cling to idealistic values rather than test them via deep scrutiny?
I considered pride and ambition and other things that can stand in the way of simple human happiness. What can be gained or lost over a lifetime if a person or couple refused to examine their choices or reflect on whether or not they had made a wrong one? I wondered if religion was a "villain" in McCullough's novel, as well as in my parents' marriage, or if it served a necessary and stabilizing purpose. I wondered if obligation and love could ever coexist, or if someone would always end up on the couch.
McCullough's book marked a turning point for me, an awakening to the ways of human relationships. I even braved up and spoke to my mother a time or two about divorce. And though she stayed with my father until death did they part — and we all miss him fiercely — she has acknowledged that a different choice might have been made. Life is short. Patterns can be broken. And though her path wasn't something my younger self readily understood, time has made clear the complexities involved with committed relationships and the power of obligation. Obligations can help keep people together through life's natural unrest and resist the revolving-door invitation of shiny new possibilities. That good-looking secretary with the ready smile. That friend who is such a great listener, who has invited you out for a drink. Apple after apple, each temptation a test of obligation and commitment, each potentially defining and refining and illuminating those personal boundaries.
Do I believe The Thorn Birds is "appropriate content for impressionable teenagers"? Perhaps not on the surface — sex with a priest and all that. Still, I think it's exactly the sort of "dangerous" book teens should read. McCullough's story invites the reader in with its epic scope and scintillating possibilities, then cracks open the mind with its unexpectedly muddled wide-angle view of the world. It encourages readers to consider the many qualities of gray that can be found in adult relationships — both then, and decades later.
Therese Walsh's latest novel is The Moon Sisters.