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Butterfield’s portrayal of Willie Bosket should be required reading in college ethnic courses as well as those of American history. His careful rendering of the details of Willie’s family history along with that of Edgefield, South Carolina reveals a disturbing pattern of distorted ethics that I have never encountered in all my years of schooling. Yes, we read about slavery, but we don’t learn about how its effects continue to resonate in our current culture, nor do we learn about the insidious nature of the “code of honor” in the South.
All God’s Children demonstrates not only the importance of fathers in the role of a child’s life, but also the subtle way parents influence their children’s behavior. One counselor noted that Willie’s real problem “…has to do with his underlying sense of inferiority and insecurity and the rage which he personally feels towards his mother and which his mother expresses to the world partly through his behavior…the real trouble was Laura and her rage at having been mistreated” (192). This is illustrated by her laughing at his bad behavior at different points in the narrative. She does nothing not because she feels helpless but because she is vicariously venting through Willie—and it is Willie who pays the ultimate price.
That Willie’s photo is featured in promotional material for a reform school is savagely ironic. That he begins acting out at eight years old and no one rescues him is heartbreaking. That he survives his childhood is mystifying.
What is also baffling is that our nation continues to regard penal institutions as a catch-all solution to crime. Willie is clearly the product of an ineffectual system that took up where his family left off. Breaking family chains of dysfunction requires taking a risk, but if the mother herself is unaware of those patterns, how can she address the issue? Willie’s mother didn’t know, and was so steeped in her own rage that she didn’t care. What difference might she have made if she had cared?
Poverty is a key issue in Willie’s story. He gets passed around various institutions, and it seems the only thing that would have brought a caring adult into his life—one willing to take a risk for an extended amount of time—is money. Money would have bought him psychological attention, for one thing, and it would have filled his tummy when he was little, when he was on the streets trying to make a buck for food.
It is altogether chilling that our nation has this undercurrent of historical violence that seems to go unnoticed. We sanitize our history books and continue to repeat our mistakes, and Butterfield aptly demonstrates how dangerous this is. While he doesn’t offer one concrete solution, his research illuminates both where we’ve come from and where we should not continue. And lest anyone should think his actions are inconsequential, he should note what inaction creates.