I first reviewed the picture-book version for the Spring 1999 issue of Prevention Update (Committee for Children), and that article was later picked up in the September 2002 issue of Social Education. If you can get your hands on Beth Peck's beautiful picture book, DO. I wish I'd hung on to my review copy. I see that the book is out of print and fetching a good price.
Here's the article as it appeared in Social Education, featuring a full review and suggested discussion questions for classroom use.
In Truman Capote's evocative sketch of seven-year-old Buddy's relationship with the school bully, the adult Buddy reflects on his experience.
Talk about mean! Odd Henderson was the meanest human creature in my experience. And I'm speaking of a 12-year-old boy, not some grown-up who has had the time to ripen a naturally evil disposition. At least, Odd was 12 in 1932, when we were both second-graders attending a small-town school in rural Alabama.
Capote wrote "The Thanksgiving Visitor" for adults, but it is a wonderful read-aloud for third- and fourth-graders and a great read for Grades 5 and up. Of course, older students benefit from being read to as well, and this rich, lyrical text is perfect for audiences of all ages. Furthermore, the story's events, relationships, and flawed characters are guaranteed to spark lively discussions about such issues as bullying and bystander behavior, anger management, empathy, and friendship.
The Story in Brief
The kids at school fear Odd, but no one's fear is as constant as Buddy's — he is Odd's favorite target. The bullying occurs daily, before school and after, as Buddy prays that the harassment will stop. Some mornings, Buddy is so frightened of what might happen that he begs to stay home from school.
Buddy's teacher, Miss Armstrong, suspects what is happening but doesn't intervene. One day, Buddy takes the time to clean up after his morning run-in with Odd. He is late for class, and Miss Armstrong berates him in front of the other students. Buddy reports Odd's actions, calling him a "sonofabitch" in a moment of fury; he is then severely punished for his outburst.
At home, Buddy repeatedly tells his elderly cousin and best friend, Miss Sook, about Odd's actions. Instead of rising to Buddy's defense, however, Miss Sook makes excuses for Odd's behavior because of the hard life his family leads, Miss Sook says, "The thing to keep in mind, Buddy, is that this boy can't help acting ugly; he doesn't know any different."
Miss Sook invites Odd to the family's Thanksgiving celebration. She believes that the boys will be able to resolve their differences if they get to know one another.
To Buddy's considerable dismay, Odd shows up for the holiday. Later, Buddy witnesses Odd stealing Miss Sook's beloved cameo. When everyone is seated at the dinner table, he exposes Odd's crime. Miss Sook reluctantly checks her jewelry box, then lies to protect Odd in front of the guests. But Odd confesses to the theft and leaves after paying his respects to Miss Sook.
Buddy is scolded for deliberately disgracing Odd in front of the others. Miss Sook explains that while Odd was wrong to take the cameo, Buddy doesn't really know Odd's intentions and should have no reason to think he meant to harm anyone. Buddy's actions, on the other hand, were far more serious in Miss Sook's eyes. She calls what he did "deliberate cruelty" and says, "All else can be forgiven. That, never."
Buddy listens to Miss Sook. Although his first reaction is to wish he had come up with a better plan of revenge, eventually Miss Sook's message sinks in.
As the story closes, Buddy and Miss Sook reaffirm their friendship. Odd stops bothering Buddy for good; no reason is given for this, but the reader can infer that Odd is ashamed of — and that he possibly learned from — the events of that Thanksgiving Day.
- Consider Buddy's description of how some kids watched as he was bullied: "Usually a circle of kids ganged around to titter, or pretend to; they didn't really think it funny; but Odd made them nervous and ready to please." Why do you think that nobody stepped in to help Buddy? List some ways you could help if you were a bystander in a similar situation.
- Miss Armstrong punished Buddy for his outburst and use of inappropriate language. Why do you suppose she did not punish Odd for harassing Buddy? Brainstorm other ways in which a child could report bullying to an adult. Which ways might be most effective?
- Buddy explained that he hated school — but only because of Odd Henderson. How might Buddy's situation affect his schoolwork?
- Miss Sook was willing to overlook Odd's behavior because of his difficult home life. Do you agree with her that Odd couldn't help acting "ugly"? Why or why not?
- Why do you think Odd accepted Miss Sook's invitation to Thanksgiving dinner?
- Imagine that you are Odd, and you've just noticed the cameo in the cigar box. What thoughts are running through your mind as you reach in and take it? Why do you want it? What is it worth to you? Now imagine that you are Miss Sook. What is the cameo worth to you? Why?
- Miss Sook lied to protect Odd, and Buddy felt that she had betrayed their friendship. Did she? Explain your thinking.
- By the end of Thanksgiving, Buddy thought, "Odd Henderson had emerged — how? why? — as someone superior to me, even more honest." In your opinion, was Odd more honest than Buddy? Explain your respond.
- Why do you think Odd stopped bullying Buddy? Do you think it was a realistic outcome? Why or why not?
- Are there signs that Buddy and Miss Sook are still good friends at the end of the story?
Happy Thanksgiving — I'm off to make my pumpkin pie!