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The Butterfly Revolution

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Ballantine, New York, 1967
(price: 75c; 224 pages)
first published 1961

dedication: To Dr Harold Winkler

The blurb on the back:

Winnie is a quiet, bookish boy, small for his age - a reader of Plato and Thoreau.
Frank is older than his years, hot-tempered, instinctive, intelligent - a natural leader.
The Butterfly Revolution is a chilling tale of terror in a world without adults. On the surface it is the compulsively readable story of a bloodless revolution at High Pines Summer Camp for Boys - a revolution that gets out of hand and turns into a nightmare. But General Frank is the dictator that men instinctively seek. The boys' totalitarian government - its organization, its psychology, its brutality - is a mirror of the adult world. And Winston Weyn - despised bookworm, hater of the fuhrer principle - is attracted like the rest through the cunning of the leader.
Inevitably this is a book that will be read and compared with
Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace.

opening lines:
My thirteenth birthday, and this diary from my Uncle Giles. My name, Winston Weyn, embossed on it in gold. I have never seen such a big diary. I guess it would be very heavy if the pages weren't so thin.

I never quite understood those Summer Camp things that Americans seem so keen on. I guess they're intended for middle-class parents who don't like their children (as opposed to our very own public school system), but I've seen the movies and frankly they're just an open house for every psycho, nutter and axe-wielding madman in the country. Don't go there, kids.

Of course in this novel - as the sleeve notes suggest - the madness comes from within. The kids, quite reasonably, get pissed off with the adults, decide to stage a coup and before you can say Joe's your Uncle, we've got us a real-life Stalinist state happening. They imprison all the adults, plus a few dissidents, then invade the next-door girls' camp to liberate the kids there, and start casting expansionist eyes at the nearest towns. In other words we've got something between Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm and Joe Orton's Erpingham Camp.

Except that doesn't quite do justice to the book. Because, to my mind at least, the thing that really makes this work is the character of our narrator, Winston Weyn, and his struggle against the bone-headed ignorance of his family and peers. He arouses intense suspicion and hostility in practically everyone he meets on the grounds that - horror of horrors - he reads books. Not only that, but they're books by the likes of Herodotus and Thoreau. Which pretty much makes him a communist and an atheist, as far as everyone else can see. Well, actually that's partly true: he is an atheist, but he's certainly no commie. He's just na´ve enough to believe that the American Constitution was supposed to enshrine the rights of the individual, rather than beat the shit out of any individual who disagreed with the democratic will of the majority.

In effect, this is a study of American politics at a time when the witch-hunting of McCarthy and Nixon was still fresh. The Supreme Revolutionary Committee that seizes power soon co-opts the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem and the Gettysburg Address to justify its repression and violence, leaving Winston baffled as he seeks to find some room for religious tolerance within the new regime: 'How can I fight the SRC when the whole government of the United States seems to be supporting it?' Meanwhile, racism isn't too far from the surface, and the fact that Winston himself joins the SRC as the Minister of Propaganda is a scary indictment of the complicity and corruptibility of the American intelligentsia. Unless, of course, I'm reading too much into this...

But I'm not. It's a fine piece of writing that addresses some serious state-of-the-nation questions through a superbly accessible and fast-moving storyline. Recommended reading.

I understand that this was belatedly filmed as Summer Camp Nightmare in 1987. I haven't seen the film, but looking through the cast list, I notice that the character of Winston Weyn doesn't turn up, which makes me think that all the subtlety was dumped in favour of the most obvious elements of the plot. I'm not fussed that I missed it.