In James Bennett's novel, I Can Hear The Mourning Dove, 16 year-old Grace struggles to control her hallucinations and to connect with the real world. After her father's death, Grace suffers from depression and schizophrenic episodes.
I Can Hear The Mourning Dove is a first-person account of mental illness with strong characterization and powerful emotions. Bennett helps the reader understand the daily problems the mentally ill face and the heartbreak they encounter as they attempt to recover. Bennett says all his books have some treachery in terms of politics. An angry, foul-mouthed young man, Luke Wolfe, befriends Grace in the mental institution. Much of Luke's anger and defiance is the result of a life spent in social services.
I Can Hear The Mourning Dove was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults in 1991 and received many positive reviews including Voice Of Youth Advocates and School Library Journal. Reviewers describe the book as gritty and intense. James Bennett agrees, "...gritty, but not grim. Mourning Dove explores the reality of mental illness. It does not go away, but a courageous person improves, understands the healing strategies and the medication." Grace is a brave person and there fore there is a hopeful ending. Her therapist, Dr. Rowe, is the exception to the institutional bureaucrats that Luke is so disdainful of. Grace studies her illness with Luke's help and is finally able to conquer some of her fear.
Most older teens can read and appreciate I Can Hear The Mourning Dove, but Bennett's book will be particularly appealing to teachers in advanced placement type classes who can encourage students to explore the links with mythology and symbolism. James Bennett says he thinks highly motivated readers will enjoy analyzing the connections with the "Beauty and the Beast" stories as well as the mirror and the maze symbolism. The contract of "light" in Grace's character, who is so very careful never to anger or offend anyone, and the "dark" in Luke's character will be an interesting study.
I Can Hear The Mourning Dove can be paired with two commonly required curriculum novels that are less accessible to teen readers, Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You A Rose Garden and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.
James Bennett's I Can Hear The Mourning Dove is a novel in the tradition of the novels written by another gifted young adult author, Chris Crutcher.
Sixteen-year-old Grace Braun tries to keep a diary of her thoughts as Dr. Rowe has suggested, but her thoughts are confusing and when the voices and the mist come Grace shuts down. After the dearth of her father, Grace and her mother must move from physically and emotionally comfortable circumstances to a housing project where the "surly people" live. Grace, who has attempted suicide, suffers from depression and anxiety and is in and out of psychiatric hospitals. She calls herself "crazy wild" and wonders if she will grow old in the "loony bin." With the support of her mother and a sympathetic therapist, Grace is able to go home and attend public school. Grace even has a friend, her lab partner Dee-Dee, who is a "normal person." Dee-Dee becomes an advocate for Grace and represents what Grace wishes she could be.
Grace's fears are borne out and she is assaulted by a gang of thugs when she happens upon them as they are vandalizing school property. In the mental institution once again, Grace must confront a fellow mental patient, Luke Wolfe, who reminds her of those thugs who have hurt her. Luke's hostility toward the hospital staff and the world in general frightens Grace at first. Slowly Grace and Luke develop an appreciation and understanding for one another. When Luke runs away it is Grace who finds him, and convinces him that he must return, and that by coming back on his own he is taking charge of his life. In order to physically save Luke's life, Grace must overcome great fear and actually acts in anger, something she has been unable to do in the past. The ending is hopeful. Grace understands she must always work to be well.
Thinking About The Book
- Students can check their prejudices and anticipate their reactions to the book before reading it. First, students can discuss in small groups whether they agree or disagree with following statements: People who are mentally ill never get well; All mentally ill people have hallucinations; Most teens would be glad to befriend a classmate returning to school after a period of time in a psychiatric hospital; the staff at mental hospitals, including therapists, must play "head games" with the patients; Mental patients are scary and angry.
- Make sure students record their thoughts. Then, after reading the book, students should refer back to these records, and note whether their thinking has changed about any of these statements now that they have read the book. If so, they should explain why.
- Discuss Grace's physical appearance, her speech patterns, her mannerisms. How do these descriptions help the reader understand Grace's character? Show an appropriate scene from a popular movie (e.g. Ordinary People) of a conversation between a therapist and a patient. Compare and contrast the movie scene with one of the sessions between Grace and Dr. Rowe in I Can Hear The Mourning Dove.
- Grace is able to see that Dr. Rowe can be helpful to both her and Luke. Grace must convince Luke that Dr. Rowe is different from the social service workers he has encountered in the past. Have students discuss, in small groups, the statements and actions that make Dr. Rowe seem a sympathetic character. Students can write a character sketch of Dr. Rowe.
- As part of a discussion about how characters can change in novels, students can consider Grace's attitudes (how she feels) toward the following characters and concepts at the beginning of the novel, and at the end: her mother; the apartment house where she and her mother live; school; peers; Luke; her illness. How does the novel reveal these changes? If possible, find the page number in the book where the change is described, or where there are clues to the change.
- Group students and provide each group with a picture-book version of the "Beauty and the Beast" story. Have students discuss the parallels between I Can Hear The Mourning Dove and "Beauty and the Beast." Groups could produce a picture book with a modern version of "Beauty and the Beast" with Grace as "Beauty" and Luke as the "Beast."
- Have a group of students choose a scene from I Can Hear The Mourning Dove and rewrite this scene as a page or two from a movie script. Students may cast this scene with names of current actors and actresses. Students should also choose background music that fits the scene's mood. Students will share scripts, cast, and music selections with classmates, explaining their reasons for making certain choices and supporting these reasons with text examples.
- Have students find several passages in I Can Hear The Mourning Dove where Grace describes "the Beast" statue her father made for her. Students can reproduce the statue as a sculpture or drawing.
- Have students create a replica of the Allerton maze garden or draw the maze garden. Discuss the other examples of maze symbolism in I Can Hear The Mourning Dove. Have students discuss the connections between mazes and Grace's mental illness.
- Have student volunteers act out the scene between Grace and Luke at Allerton (page 168-173). All students can then complete one of the following RAFT writing activities.
AUDIENCE: Grace's Mother
FORMAT: A Note
TOPIC: "Why I Must Go After Luke"
FORMAT: A letter
TOPIC: "Why I'm Glad You Came to Allerton"
- Many students will have questions about mental illness as a result of reading I Can Hear The Morning Dove. Have students form small groups and research topics related to mental illness and teens (e.g. incidence of teen schizophrenia; teen suicide; mental facilities for teens; support programs for teens; etc.) Each group will make a multi-media presentation providing definitions, statistics, and recommendations.
An interview with James Bennett
(HL-M): Was there a person or event that provided the impetus for writing I Can Hear The Mourning Dove?
James Bennett (JB): I Can Hear The Mourning Dove came from my own experience. I have a long history of manic depression and have been hospitalized for it. I did know a young woman who was a physical model for Grace, but Grace's character developed over time through contact with many young women with mental illness.
HL-M: What would you like to tell readers about writing I Can Hear The Mourning Dove?
JB: I Can Hear The Mourning Dove was a challenging book to write. I had to really be in touch with my feminine side. It was a great experience to learn about make-up, shaving legs, and taking care of long hair. I had to be very conscious of staying in character. I worked on "Mourning Dove" for about 2 1/2 years. The descriptions of Grace's hallucinations, the electrical quality that voices take on when Grace is disturbed, her flatness are standard manifestations of a schizophrenic incident. I have done a great deal of research on the subject - reading, interviewing, questioning therapists, etc.
HL-M: What would you like to tell teachers who might use I Can Hear The Mourning Dove as a class or small group novel study?
JB: I Can Hear The Mourning Dove is used quite a bit in schools. I think it appeals more to those students who are avid readers because of the literary allusions, symbolism, and imagery. For those students who are interested there is a good deal of symbolism, for example, mirrors and mazes.
HL-M: Some reviewers have referred to I Can Hear The Mourning Dove as gritty and grim. Do you agree?
JB: Grace is brave. The ending is hopeful. Mental illness does not go away, but the courageous patient can improve by understanding the illness and the strategies for dealing with the illness and the medication. Grace learns as much as she can, and she accepts that she must take charge of her illness.