Sunday, February 14, 2010

Twist Endings (old book spoiler alert - Stone Fox)

So, Tootsie Roll was given Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner to read as her home "bagged book" by her second grade teacher.  Now, I found this book to be difficult for her because, even though she's a strong reader and the book is leveled grade 3.5, it really can't be read without an adult helping to explain potato farming, what taxes are and why the boy's grandfather is in danger of losing his farm, what is happening to the boy's grandfather when he goes into a paralyzing depression when the book opens, dogsled racing, and a little bit of insight into Stone Fox's refusal to speak to caucasians because his tribe was removed from their land. 

The book was published in 1980 and has won many awards and is still being sold by Scholastic in school book orders with teachers' guides, so I realize that it is a popular book.  Downright depressing, but popular.  I don't really want to debate the book's merits, though... I want to talk about the twist ending.  So if you haven't read it and don't want to know... here.  Go and watch this YouTube video of The Cutest Baby Tiger and don't peek over here. You won't be disappointed.

So... tell me how you feel about this twist ending.  The boy (Willy) enters the dogsled race to win $500 to pay the tax collector to keep Grandpa's farm and he knows it will make Grandpa well.  The trouble is that Stone Fox, best dogsledder around, has also entered with his team of Samoyeds.  He has never lost a race.  He uses the money he wins to buy back the land that the white man has driven his people from. (Sorry, poor grammar there).  Anyway.  Willy knows the course well, has been practicing with his beloved dog, Searchlight... is about to win the race... Stone Fox makes his move and pulls up next to him.  And then?
wait for it
yards from the finish line, Searchlight's heart bursts. 



Willy's beloved dog dies, right there on the spot, and to add insult to injury, Willy trips over his lifeless dog's body.

Ok.  So then Stone Fox stops, fires his gun, warns the rest of the racers not to cross the finish line or he will shoot them (thereby ending his silent treatment).  Willy picks up his dead dog and crosses the finish line.  The End.

My major gripe with this twist is that, aside from the fact that I was reading it to my daughter and my voice literally stopped and would not come out at that line - it was completely unexpected - especially because she is very sensitive and remembers sad books and movies and will talk about them until the end of time (don't get me started on when her after school program showed the movie Bridge to Terabithia), it seemed like a completely unnecessary shock value twist ending.  I got what Gardiner was trying to do in terms of us seeing into the formerly impermeable Stone Fox.  But, really, what purpose was served by killing off a beloved character, the only friend that pulled Willy through the mess of bills, his depressed grandfather, and so on, in the last few paragraphs of the book?  Of a third grade level  book?

It really seemed to me like a twist for a twist's sake.  For shock value.  To make people talk.  And it made me mad.

What are your thoughts on this book?  On twist endings in general?  I know they are very hard to write and it feels like every book needs one.  Has a twist ending ever made you really mad?  Let us know at the beginning of your comment if you are leaving spoilers, please.  Thanks!


Shelley Sly said...

Oh my gosh... I must have read that book in, what, 1994? 1995? And when I read the title of the book in your post, I thought, Did I read that book? and sure enough, when I read Searchlight and the heart bursting, it all came back to me. I remember loving that dog to the point where I named a stuffed animal Searchlight. And that ending stayed with me.

Twist for twist's sake? Heck yes. Or, twist for sake of making kids feel down in the dumps for a while. I don't know which. But man... couldn't Searchlight just feel sick and go take a little rest during the race? Why did her heart have to burst? Seriously.

sarahjayne smythe said...

Plot twists and twist endings are difficult if you haven't set the reader up for them, no matter how subtly, because the chances are the reader will feel cheated and/or betrayed at what they perceive as the writer's dishonesty.

I actually didn't read the book until I did my year as an ILA teacher in elementary, and when I read it I felt the ending like a kick in the gut. It's hard enough to for an adult reader to process, I can't really imagine it for a third grader.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm kind of like your daughter :) I don't like devastating endings - they never seem to let me go. I'm very careful about books I recommend to sensitive kids. We want our books to create an impact, but we also have to be careful of their little hearts.

Kit Courteney said...

I've not come across that book - and I have to say that I'm glad I haven't.

I love a good twist but this doesn't sound as if it was anywhere near being a good one!

I wouldn't enjoy reading it at 39 let alone 30+ years ago.

Reading should be fun for children and if they read 'lazy' twists, be they distasteful like this one or not, then they won't get as much enjoyment from the activity and that seems like a terrible waste to me.

Christine Danek said...

I usually like twist endings--I guess because I like the surprise. The twist has to be good though not like the one you mention. It almost seemed like it was just thrown in there so people would talk. For me the twist has to make sense.

Erin Kuhns said...

I'm all for twists...the twistier, the better...EXCEPT with stories like Stone Fox. I had to teach this book to a fourth grade class--I'd taken over for a teacher who had quit part way through the year. The principal handed me this book and told me to teach it to the class. I went home and read it right away and I was shocked by the ending!!! I didn't want to teach it to the class and I felt the need to forewarn them at one point.

I wouldn't want my son to read that book, though he's beyond that reading level now. I'm not entirely sure why it would be required reading...there are much better books out there and this one, well, it wasn't a book that ever made me want to read it again.

Mary Sheahan said...

My then-first-grade daughter burst into tears at the dog's death. Totally inconsolable, they had to pull her out of class. She is now in fifth grade and can still get teary about it.

I hate that this book is marketed towards children. With a fiery glow of the setting sun.

Mrs. Wallace said...

I really, really, really, REALLY hate this book. First, my son came home in a blue funk and remained in one for a week after having the book read to him at school. Then I read it and felt blue myself. To make matters worse I became a third grade teacher myself, and am now expected to read it aloud every year.

Yes, it stinks that the boy's beloved dog dies right on the last page with no wrap up or resolution. We adults can sense that his ill, elderly grandfather will soon die too, and the poor kid will be all alone, trying to keep up an unmanageable property.

But that's not the worst part about this book, everybody. The worst part is the one note character Stone Fox. Stone Fox is a terribly racist caricature of a Native American man. He is in the race to win money for his tribe, but he gives it all up to help a stranger save his land. Wait...what? Would a good tribesman, whose people have been screwed out of land for centuries really abandon hard won, well deserved, infrequently offered prize money that's meant to help his tribe in order to save a white boy's farm? Come ON! I am appalled that the Columbia Reading and Writing Program chose it as the first read aloud book in their otherwise excellent third grade reading program. I refuse to read it. If anyone knows of another book of about the same length that can replace it in the unit, I'd appreciate your recommendation. Thank you.

Brittany Yanez said...

So I read this book in 3rd or 4th grade. A teacher recommended it to me because I loved animals (later she regretted it and admitted that she had forgotten about the ending), but I remember so clearly the feeling I got in the pit of my stomach when I read that line and I literally bursting into tears in the middle of class. Ironically my mom got me this book for Christmas that year (not knowing I had read it in school and not knowing the ending). I think I still have it tucked far back behind my old childhood books hidden from anyone.

Mrs. Wallace said...

I have found an alternative to Stone Fox for the Columbia Writing Unit, and am trying it out this year. If anyone wants a teaching calendar for Building a Reading Life that uses The Family Under the Bridge instead of Stone Fox, write to me at I'm happy to share...I'm unsubscribing to this blog as I'm too busy right now, so my school address is the way to reach me.