One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - 2015 Reading Challenge

Penguin Classics are fun to carry around. Everyone's eye is automatically drawn to them--those plain little orange and cream covers have come to be a symbol of respectability and, dare I say, class. So yes, it's fun to read a Penguin Classic.

When you're reading Ken Kesey's groundbreaking novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, you get even more attention. This is something I didn't expect, but nearly every person I work with who noticed it on my desk said what a great book it is. Other comments ranged from, "Oh, that's a difficult one to read" (meaning emotionally) and "Oh wow, yeah, that book."

There is almost a little aura of awe about it, and I can understand why. Not only is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest very well written and developed, with unique and gripping subject matter, but it was published by a 27-year-old man following his own experiences working in a veterans' hospital and being surrounded by patients like this every day. There is something very real and honest about it, almost more like a memoir than a novel.

A book that became a movie

Kesey's belief that the majority of patients in psych wards weren't actually crazy is evident throughout this book. He believed that most of them were in asylums because they didn't fit into the conventional definition of 'normal', or because they made society uncomfortable and were told they could not exist within it.

Popular belief at this time was that life in these asylums was improved and significantly less barbaric by the 1950s and '60s. Kesey's novel managed to destroy those assumptions thoroughly. Patients in Cuckoo's Nest are humiliated, treated like children, given disciplinary electric shock therapy, tied to beds, blackmailed and drugged without their consent.

The narrator, a displaced Native American who pretends to be deaf and dumb, watches silently as the inner workings of the hospital unfold. Through Chief Bromden's eyes, we see Nurse Ratched's reign of manipulation and fear, and we are warmed by the prospect of possible change when Randle McMurphy shows up and tries to breathe some life into the stale halls of the ward. His noisy, insouciant attitude takes a while to catch on, but soon the other patients are enjoying moments of small rebellion against the system themselves.

Most people by now have either read the book or at least seen the movie. Both are fantastic, but for different reasons. I felt like the movie was funnier, almost enjoyable to watch in spite of the sadness. The book was perfect research for me as my own novel is set partially in the 1960s with a character who has been committed to an asylum. Kesey so beautifully captures the characters within the walls of that ward--their idiosyncrasies, their hopes, their fears of the outside world. I can only hope that I sometimes manage to do the same.

The book is often funny, sometimes sickening, but overall full of hope. And hope is that important ingredient that makes it so remarkably readable despite its depressing subject matter. Hope is what keeps the reader going to the end, and beyond, running away with Chief Bromden into the darkness.