Title: Tunes for Bears to Dance To
Author: Robert Cormier
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Number of Pages: 90
There’s a reason why Robert Cormier is one of the most controversial and frequently censored YA authors of all time. Tunes for Bears to Dance To is a very short book with a simple, to-the-point storyline but it had me feeling stressed out throughout. It builds so much dread over it’s brief duration and the ending managed to surprise me. Overall the characters lack moral ambiguity but something about the story still managed to stick with me.
The book is about a kid named Henry who is having a really tough time in his life. His brother was recently killed in an accident and his parents have moved to get away from the memories. His dad has become severely depressed, his mom is working her ass off to make ends meet, and Henry is working in a grocery owned by quite possibly one of the most evil characters in all of YA literature. Seriously, it sucks.
Henry’s boss Mr. Hairston is portrayed as someone who experiences no joy in his own life and gets off on cruelly mistreating others and treating them like shit. Henry knows Mr. Hairston beats his wife and his daughter but he keeps on working for him because he needs the job.
Then Henry meets an old Jewish man named Mr. Levine, who has PTSD because his whole family and everybody in his village were murdered by the Nazis. Mr. Levine seeks comfort through a recreation of his village he’s building, full of intricate figurines representing his neighbors and loved ones. When Mr. Hairston finds out he tries to coerce Henry into smashing the village to bits.
When I first heard the premise of this book I thought Mr. Hairston’s methods of getting Henry to commit such an act would be more manipulative, but Mr. Hairston doesn’t exactly operate with finesse. He basically just threatens to ruin Henry’s life, and when Henry finally asks why Mr. Hairston replies ‘Because he’s Jewish.’
He can’t seem to find much more of a reason behind his own behavior, although breaking Henry as a person is also important to him. Henry is a good kid and Mr. Hairston can’t stand a person who doesn’t hate as much as he does. The characters and their roles are pretty simple but the storyline is engrossing. The irony of the ending adds extra layers and was both less disturbing and more disturbing than I expected.