King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography

King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography

by Chris Crutcher

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Overview

Do you know:

  • A good reason to be phobic about oysters and olives?
  • How shutting your mouth can help you avoid brain surgery?
  • How to survive in the winter wilderness with only a fishing pole and a sausage?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060502515
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/05/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 284,760
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Chris Crutcher has written nine critically acclaimed novels, an autobiography, and two collections of short stories. Drawing on his experience as a family therapist and child protection specialist, Crutcher writes honestly about real issues facing teenagers today: making it through school, competing in sports, handling rejection and failure, and dealing with parents. He has won three lifetime achievement awards for the body of his work: the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the ALAN Award, and the NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award. Chris Crutcher lives in Spokane, Washington.

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King of the Mild Frontier
An Ill-Advised Autobiography

Chapter One

Fireworks

I grew up riding a rocket. If legendary rocket man Wernher von Braun could have harnessed the power of my meteoric temper, we'd have beaten the Russians into space by a good six months. The bits of evidence lay in the wake of my explosive impulsivity like trailer-house pieces behind Hurricane Andrew: broken toys, holes in walls, a crack from top to bottom in a full-length mirror on the bathroom door of "the little house" where I lived until just after my seventh birthday. My dad purposely didn't replace that mirror as a reminder, a monument to me. Subsequently, when he'd see me heating up, he'd point to it and ask one of those questions to which adults never really want an answer: "Are you proud of that?"

"No," I lied, my bottom lip stuck out so far he could have pulled it over my forehead. Of course I was proud of it; I'd had to slam it three times to get it to break.

There was a famous family story about how my temper had been "cured" right around the age of two. It was told by my mother at bridge club, Christmas get-togethers, and you-think-your-kids-are-a-pain-in-the-butt afternoon coffee sessions at the Chief Café. It went something like this: "Chris was very difficult to deal with, even at an early age. When things didn't go his way, he would throw himself into the air, kick his legs out from under him, and land hard on the floor. I was afraid he'd hurt himself, so I called Dr. Patterson for advice. Dr. Patterson said, 'Just roll one of those wooden alphabet blocks under him when he goes up. That should take care ofit.' So the next time he launched himself, I rolled the block under him, and sure enough he never did it again." I knew how to keep this story going; I'd done it for years.

"But . . . ," I'd say, pointing toward the sky.

"But," my mother went on, "then he began storming into the bathroom and hitting his head against the bathtub when he got mad."

"So you called the ever-compassionate Dr. Patterson. . . . " I said.

"And he told me to 'help' him. Just push his head a little harder than he intended."

"And lo and behold . . . "

"He stopped hitting his head against the bathtub."

I'd heard that story all my life, and had been convinced it was a good one, probably because it was about me. On the thousandth telling, however, I sat in a circle in my parents' living room with a group of their friends on Christmas Eve. I was in my mid-thirties, and a thought that should have crossed my mind eons ago pried its way into my consciousness. I said, "Jewell" -- the Crutcher kids always called our parents by their first names, which probably deserves closer scrutiny somewhere in this confessional -- "do you remember the long crack in the full-length mirror in the bathroom at the little house?"

She frowned. "Of course. Your father wouldn't get it fixed. He left it as a reminder to you."

"Of my temper," I said. "I did that when I was five. Do you remember the hole I kicked in the plasterboard in my bedroom when Paula Whitson asked Frankie Bilbao instead of me to the Sadie Hawkins dance?"

Jewell released a long sigh. "Your father didn't have that fixed, either."

"As a reminder of my temper," I said. "I did that when I was a junior in high school. Do you remember the Volkswagen Bug I had up until about six months ago? With the top that looked as if it had been stung by bees from my punching it from the inside when the electrical system died on a busy street?"

"Yes, dear."

"Crutch wouldn't have had that fixed, either," I said, smiling at my dad. "I did that when I was thirty-three, a little over a year ago. Your story isn't about curing a kid's temper. It's about pissing him off for the rest of his life by rolling blocks under him and whacking his head against the bathtub instead of letting him have his two-year-old rage. Stop telling it."

What my mother didn't say then -- and something she and I often talked about years later in the long-term care wing of Valley County Hospital where she had gone to die slowly of emphysema resulting from forty years of a wo-and-a-half-pack-a-day habit -- was that her fear for me in those days wasn't really that I'd hurt myself bouncing off the floor or banging my head, but that I would grow up with the same temper that stalked and embarrassed and humbled her throughout her own life. Though I couldn't have known it in those early years, it was one of my first experiences with a phenomenon I discovered years later as a child abuse and neglect therapist at the Spokane (Washington) Mental Health Center: Shit rolls downhill.

I'm sure I could audit my early life and find times when my temper was my friend, when it got me through situations where my fear stopped me cold. It certainly helped me survive my early years on the Cascade High School football team where I started out as a 123-pound offensive lineman, when in practice I'd get so angry at the grass stains on my back and the cleat marks on my chest that I'd finally hit someone hard enough to satisfy the coach sufficiently to let me out of the drill. And it got me through my one and only full-tilt fight in junior high school when my embarrassment turned to rage the moment I saw the aforementioned Paula Whitson witness Mike Alkyre cracking my jaw. It took three guys to pull me off, and though I was still the odds-on kid most likely to have my butt kicked by someone from a lower grade, some of them would think twice after watching me cross over into the land of I Don't Care. But far more often than not, my temper brought out behavior that made me embarrassed to show my face around our lumber town of fewer than a thousand citizens for a couple of weeks.

King of the Mild Frontier
An Ill-Advised Autobiography
. Copyright (c) by Chris Crutcher . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

1Fireworks1
2Bawlbaby19
3Something Neat This Way Comes35
4Foul Bawl47
5Of Oysters and Olives and Things That Go Bump in My Shoe61
6E Equals MC Squared83
7The Roots of Angus97
8Conversations with Gawd107
9A Different Kind of Love Story127
10Dead Boy Sledding, or Why Things Happen143
11King of the Wild Frontier169
12A Requiem for Rosa Campbell191
13Becoming a Storyteller209
14From Chip Hilton to Michael Jordan and Beyond229
Epilogue249
An Ill-Advised Photo Album258

Reading Group Guide

Introduction:

Chris Crutcher is the critically acclaimed author of seven young adult novels and a collection of short stories, all of which were selected as ALA Best Books for Young Adults. Drawing on his experience as a family therapist and child protection specialist, Crutcher writes honestly about real issues facing teenagers today: making it through school, competing in sports, handling rejection and failure, dealing with parents. In King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography, you will read about Chris Crutcher's life as a dateless, broken-toothed, scabbed-over, God-fearing dweeb, and once you have contemplated his ascension to the buckskin-upholstered throne of the King of the Mild Frontier, you will close your eyes, close this book and hold it to your chest, and say, "I, too, can be an author."

Chris Crutcher revisits his late 1950s and early 1960s youth in this funny yet poignant autobiography. From trying to impress a member of the girls' softball team (with disastrous dental results) to enduring the humiliation of his high school athletic club initiation, this memoir of the tricky road to adulthood is candid, disarming, hilarious, relevant, and never less than riveting.

In small-town Cascade, Idaho, where Crutcher grew up, boys played sports even if they had no interest or athletic ability. Crutcher often had neither, but that did not stop him from being recruited to play. He was not a natural young athlete, and his love of junk food, readily available from the vending machines at the family-owned gas station, further impeded his childhood and adolescent sports career. Eventually he did find his sports nichein swimming and, later in life, running.

Crutcher vividly describes a temper that was always waiting to trip him up even as it sustained him through some of the most memorable mishaps any child has survived. He discusses his career as a family therapist and the way incidents in his own life, including his quick temper, helped him relate to his clients. These incidents also found their way into his award-winning novels and short stories. But how did this guy, who lifted his brother's homework through the entire tenth grade, ever become a writer, not to mention the author of eight critically acclaimed books for young people? As in his novels, Crutcher's autobiography reflects real life and the hardships that go along with living and dying. The frontier may be mild, but the book is not. You will laugh, you will cry, you will remember.

Questions For Discussion:

  1. How does Crutcher's coming-of-age in the 1960s differ from a teen's coming-of-age today? What societal changes have taken place in the last forty years to change the definition of coming-of-age? Discuss the dangers today's teens face vs. the ones Crutcher faced.
  2. Crutcher's grandfather was a kind and caring man who often helped others when they needed it, no questions asked. He gave people "the benefit of the doubt." Sometimes he was taken advantage of, but in most cases he was repaid for his kindness. What does it mean to give someone the benefit of the doubt? Would a teenage Crutcher have been given the benefit of the doubt by his high school principal or football coach? Have you ever been in a situation where you had to ask someone to give you the benefit of the doubt? Does it matter who you are, whether you are a football player, a cheerleader, a straight-A student, or the class clown? Are people as likely to give teens the benefit of the doubt today as they were fifty years ago? Why or why not?
  3. Crutcher admits to having problems controlling his temper in his younger years. What incidents did Crutcher experience as a young child that may have added fuel to the fire? How did his older brother, John, play into Crutcher's anger? What is the "famous family story" his mother tells about how they cured his temper when he was two? Why did Crutcher ask her to stop telling the story?
  4. Crutcher addresses real-life issues in his novels_teenage sexuality, abuse, race relations, suicide, etc. Why does his realistic approach to teen issues frequently raise the ire of the censor? Do you think his autobiography, King of the Mild Frontier, will be challenged? If so, for what reason?
  5. Crutcher's work as a family therapist dealing with emotionally and physically abused children has given him an unusual degree of insight into children and teenagers. What types of issues does Crutcher discuss in his autobiography? How does he use his own life experiences and those of his clients when writing his novels?
  6. Janice Winthrop, one of the least popular girls in school, was voted Cascade High School carnival queen. Who instigated "rigging" the election so that Janice won? What was Janice's response to her time in the spotlight? What did Crutcher learn from this experience?
  7. Crutcher attended high school from 1960 to 1964, a time when girls' competitive sports in schools did not exist. His high school principal went so far as to say, "Chris, you know girls aren't emotionally equipped for competitive athletics" (p. 50). Was this an accurate statement in the 1960s? Is it an accurate statement today? How has the public image of girls' sports changed since the 1960s?
  8. Crutcher recreated his swimming experience at Eastern Washington State with a group of high school swimmers in his novel Stotan!. Crutcher defines a Stotan as "a cross between a Stoic and a Spartan: simply put, a tough guy who shows no pain" (p. 63). The term was coined to describe the Australian runner Herb Elliot, a world-record holder in the mile run who dominated his event in the 1960 Olympics. Crutcher's coach took the term and applied it to swimming. Which athletes of today could be considered Stotans? Why? Are all of today's Stotan athletes male?
  9. Crutcher writes about lettering in football and the C Club initiation he had to go through. At what grade level did Crutcher go through this secret initiation? Was this level typical? What events took place during this initiation? Were the coaches aware of what was going on? Is this type of initiation still happening today? Would it now be considered harassment?
  10. Crutcher was not much of an athlete as a teen, but as an adult, playing basketball, swimming, and running are an integral part of his life. In the epilogue he states, "A sport has its own built-in integrity, doesn't need an artificial one. Athletics carries its own set of truths, and those truths are diminished when manipulated by people with agendas" (p. 256). What are the agendas to which Crutcher refers? How do these agendas affect high school athletics today?
  11. When Crutcher was in upper elementary school he was enthralled with the series of Chip Hilton sports books by Clair Bee. In later years Crutcher realized that although the character Chip Hilton may represent something young readers can aspire to, "Chip also represents what can never be" (p. 233). What does Crutcher mean by this statement? How does it relate to the type of young adult novel Crutcher writes?
  12. Crutcher was not much of a reader when he was a teenager. He only read when he had to and that was not often. What does Crutcher mean when he writes, "Serendipity did get me to read one book during my high-school years" (p. 218)? Why had he not read before this? What was the book he read? Was the next school-assigned book as enjoyable?
  13. Crutcher refers to a conversation with Reverend Grant, who asked him what his all-time favorite children's book was. Crutcher answered that it was Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss. The reverend then asked him if there was a lesson to be learned from this book. He also asked Crutcher if he believed that an elephant could hatch an egg. What was Reverend Grant trying to get Crutcher to realize about the Bible when he asked these questions?
  14. Crutcher writes about a student at one of his school visits asking him why someone always dies in his books. What was Crutcher's answer? Do you agree with him that "without loss there is no story" (p. 163)?

About The Author:

Chris Crutcher has won two lifetime achievement awards for his work: the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Outstanding Literature for Young Adults, and the ALAN Award for a Significant Contribution to Adolescent Literature. He lives in Spokane, Washington.

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