I selfishly gave The Old Man and the Sea to our nine year old son for his birthday, with the inscription, “Happy Birthday! Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite authors. I hope you have a wonderful birthday. Love, Mom 2012.” Even now, when I read what I wrote, I expect it to say what I originally wanted to say, “I hope you love him as much as I do.” But I knew that was too much, was making the gift about me instead of about him, packaging the gift with pressure instead of potential.
We read the book together, I reading it aloud to him, though my voice wasn’t gravelly enough, wasn’t deep enough, wasn’t male enough. “It might have some bad words in it, buddy.” But he didn’t care. And neither did I. We talked about bad words when we came to them, and then we moved on.
Our son loved it. Was sad every night when I stopped reading and sent him to bed. “But Mom, it’s a cliffhanger! The bird is circling – what’s under there? Why’s he circling? Why’s the old man watching him?”
Still, bedtime is bedtime. Every night, our son proclaimed he loved it, that it wasn’t the most boring book ever (like I told him some people feel about it.) He loved the boy. He loved the descriptions of the ocean. “It makes me miss home. It makes me miss Florida.” He loved how energetic the old man was.
“How do you feel, fish?” [the old man] asked aloud. “I feel good and my left hand is better and I have food for a night and a day. Pull the boat, fish.”
And when the book ended, when the old man dragged the huge marlin skeleton up onto the beach, and collapsed, and was nursed back to health by the boy, and, shockingly, began making preparations to fish again, our son said, “Was that a happy ending or a sad ending?”
That’s up to you, baby.