To the Teacher
In California Blue, David Klass introduces readers to a teen protagonist who is struggling with life and death issues. Not only is his father dying of cancer, but the preservation of a forest of ancient trees and the future of a town of lumber mill workers are in question because of John's discovery of a new species of butterfly.
California Blue is a novel that could have a place in several thematic units of study. Klass helps place environmental issues in a meaningful perspective for teens by exploring one high school junior's decisions. Throughout the book he refers to battlefields of the environmental wars in the United States in recent years: spotted owls, marbled murrelets, hawksbill turtles, California condors, sockeye salmon, bald eagles, whales, and others. Although John's choices are fictional, the situation in Kiowa is similar to cases that have torn apart members of different communities. Researching some actual cases of endangered species is an obvious outgrowth of reading the book.
Klass's novels are much more, however, than sports stories or vehicles for social issues. California Blue is a coming-of-age novel about an adolescent boy struggling over his relationship with a dying father. Part of the tension in the book stems from his feelings of inadequacy with his father and brothers and the fact that he recognizes that he is the agent of destruction of the only world his father has known.
This book, like Klass's earlier novels, Wrestling with Honor, A Different Season, Breakaway Run, and The Atami Dragons, places a teenage athlete in a situation where he is forced to face serious ethical decisions and take a public position. Whether the conflict involves drug testing, having a girl on the high school baseball team, understanding another culture, or preserving an endangered species, the many sides to each issue are explored and the reader begins to understand the complexity of the protagonist's decisions.
Like many other teens, John Rodgers feels like an outsider both in his family and among his peers in the small lumber town of Kiowa, California. A serious honors student, John has few friends, even on the track team, and a difficult relationship with his domineering father, a former football star. Two days after learning that his father is dying of leukemia, John, while running in the company's redwood forest, discovers an unusual butterfly. Intellectually curious and fascinated with nature, John tries to identify the insect. No one in his family shares his interest in science and nature, so he brings the specimen to his biology teacher, Miss Merrill, on whom he has a crush.
When Miss Merrill is unable to classify the butterfly, she calls Dr. Hammond Eggleson, her entomology professor as Berkeley. After careful research, Eggleson sets up a town meeting to announce that the butterfly is a never-before-discovered subspecies, and John reveals to everyone that he is responsible for finding the butterfly and alerting environmental groups. But preservation of an endangered butterfly habitat will stop the lumbering industry that has meant the livelihood of his father and of his entire community. Everyone in Kiowa is furious with him. In order to escape threats and attacks by his own neighbors, John runs away to San Francisco where his father has been receiving treatment for his cancer. At the end of the novel John returns to Kiowa, where he participates with environmentalists in a rally to save the forest and the butterflies. After his dying father comes to a track meet to see him run the best race of his life, John comes to an understanding with him.
- Newspapers regularly carry stories about endangered species and the efforts made to save them. In recent years, for example, spotted owls, wolves, and turtles have been the object of conflicts between preservationists and economic interests. Have students use the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature or other reference tools to research one of these cases or an endangered species in your area. Then have them prepare a speech or an editorial taking a position on whether the species or the economic interest should be protected.
- Have your class conduct a debate or a mock court hearing about the need to stop logging in the woods where the butterflies have been found. Both the loggers and the environmentalists should be represented.
- John makes some significant decisions in this story. Was John an "agent of destruction" for his community? Discuss his decision to tell someone about the butterflies, to take Dr. Eggleson to the forest site, and to reveal his role in finding the butterflies. Should he have participated in the protest at the mill? Ask students whether they would have done the same things if they had been in John's place.
- lass chooses to tell several parallel stories with different conflicts in this novel. In addition to the story about John's finding a new species of butterfly, there is the story of his conflict with his father, his father's illness and impending death, and the story of John's infatuation with his biology teacher. Discuss the relationships between these different stories and consider how the novel would have been different if John had not already had difficulty communicating with his father or if his father had not been sick. What if his biology teacher had been a different kind of person? What is the major conflict in the novel?
- In addition to writing novels, David Klass also writes screenplays. If you were doing a screenplay of California Blue, would you change the story in any way? Choose one scene to rewrite as a play. Prepare the scene for presentation to your class. If you were casting the novel as a movie, which actors would you choose to play the roles of John Rodgers, his father, Miss Merrill, and Dr. Eggleson?