Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie

Source: Goodreads
The Young Desire It
Kenneth Mackenzie
Originally 1937, I read Text Classics 2013
345 pages, coming of age, school story, love and nature

Found: Text Publishing’s website, on sale for only 10 Australian dollars with free worldwide shipping! (They always have free shipping, so check it out!) 

Charles is a sensitive 15 year old boy who has spent his entire life on a farm in the Australian outback. Besides his mother and a few hired hands, he has never spent much time with people; he is most comfortable spending the sunlit hours roaming through hills, forests, and fields. When his mother announces that it is time for him to go to boarding school to finish his education, he is not happy. He does not want to be confined with other people away from the natural environment that he loves so much.

His fears are confirmed when, on the first day in the boarding school, he is sexually assaulted by a group of older students. Isolated because of his “feminine appearance,” he seeks to hide his emotions by concentrating on his studies and finds a mentor in one of the teachers. The teacher, however, may have other intentions towards him.

Charles matures over the course of the school year, learning new things about himself and about human nature. He falls in love with a girl from another school, navigates the difficult social organization of the school, and does well in his studies. And when he discovers that his mentor is attracted to him, he handles it in a way that is the best for everyone.

This is (I think) the first piece of Australian literature I have ever read. It is a beautiful, lyrical exploration of humanity and growing up, and rightfully deserves the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal that it won when it was published in 1937. Thank you to Text Publications for republishing this gorgeous book.

School and the "sensitive" child

I have never understood the idea of "sensitive children." The term seems to mean children who are overly emotional, who get upset despite nothing being wrong, and whose emotional vulnerability makes them unfit for the social environment of school.


As a "sensitive child" myself, I have never understood the concept that having and expressing emotions makes a child "emotionally unfit." What child does not express emotions? This "sensitive child" idea seems to be just another way that important virtues like empathy and compassion are de-emphasized in society, especially by those in power.

Everybody needs to learn how to identify and deal with their emotions, kids most of all. But many (if not most) children are not taught how to do this in ways that are productive and compassionate to themselves and to other people. When children do not learn how to deal with emotions properly, they can take their discomfort out on their companions in the form of bullying.

In the standard narrative, children who are bullied are considered to be too emotional, while those doing the bullying are considered to be tough or emotionless. Since everybody has emotions and uses different coping mechanisms to deal with them, this polarity is absolutely untrue. Unfortunately, in many school scenarios like the boarding school in this book, the people at the "emotionless" end are considered to be "normal," making people who are more comfortable dealing with their emotions the outcasts.

Charles, for example, has spent much of his life alone; he is comfortable in himself and in dealing with his own emotions. When he is bullied by the boys at school, he doesn't know what to do. He has never dealt with such terrifying and negative emotions before. This does not mean that he is unfit for the school environment: it means that the school environment is a fundamentally unhealthy place. It is perfectly reasonable for Charles to be upset after being raped or tormented by the other boys. Classifying him as "too sensitive" only puts blame on him for having reasonable emotions, rather than on the other children for attacking him.

It's important to notice that much of the bullying happens because Charles is considered "pretty." Right before a group of boys rape him on his first day at school, this exchange takes place:
'He's sissy,' one said softly, and they laughed with satisfaction. 'Come on,' they said, 'we'll see if you're a girl too.'
The logic here is easy to understand. Being pretty means being like a girl means being sensitive means an easy target for bullying. Because being sensitive is considered to be a girlish trait, it is automatically classified as "bad" by these sexist boys.

The good thing is that The Young Desire It gives a beautiful picture of Charles's inner life and the way he deals with these upsetting events and emotions. The bad thing is that this book is still relevant almost 80 years after it was published.

Instead of blaming people for being "too sensitive," let's encourage people to develop healthy compassion and empathy for those around them.


As a coming-of-age story, much of this book involves various types of emotional awakening. When Charles returns home from school for the first time, for example, he suddenly sees his familiar surroundings in a different light. This includes his relationship with his mother; what was an unquestioned reliance on each other has changed because Charles realizes that his mother is a person, too. She has her own needs, will, and desires - and some of those needs or desires will be counter to what Charles himself wants. This sudden realization makes Charles uncomfortable at home for the first time. He begins to question what he himself wants vis-a-vis what his mother wants for him, which is an essential part of reaching emotional maturity.

Charles's first relationship with a girl, Margaret, is another moment of awakening. Meeting her in the forest, in his own quiet place, made him fall in love with her immediately. He feels that they can be intimate without any restrictions, which is a first for him. Finally he has found someone who loves him for himself, but how long will their relationship last?

The most complicated awakening happens not to Charles, but to his mentor Penworth. After graduating from a prestigious university in England, Penworth has come to Australia to teach in this boarding school. He feels lonely and out-of-place. Then, when he is doing his normal rounds of the school at night, he discovers the naked Charles, who had been stripped and then left in a garbage can in the bathroom. Despite himself, he feels oddly attracted to the pretty boy, and can't get the image of Charles's body out of his head. He takes it upon himself to mentor Charles and gives him special classes, all while struggling with his attraction to his student. Finally he attempts to proposition his student, but Charles is not interested (and doesn't really understand what's going on, anyway). So Penworth is left to figure out what to do with this useless unrequited love while he is alone in a foreign land.

Not much action happens in this book, but action is also unnecessary. It is a beautifully meditative glimpse of the inner life of Charles and other people at the boarding school, one that has stood the test of time and continues to be relevant today.

Further Reading: 

The Young Desire It can be purchased from the publisher's website or

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