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Fifty Years of Cuckoo

February 1st was the 50th anniversary of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ken Kesey was just out of the Stanford creative writing program, trying to make ends meet, when he took a job as a night orderly at a mental ward. The time there inspired Cuckoo, his epic novel of individualism and oppression that was published by Viking in 1962. It’s a modern classic that has to make the short list of great American novels. Randle Patrick McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and the schizophrenic narrator Chief Bromden are all characters who have entered the collective conscience.

For many, the iconic 1975 movie may be the most familiar version of this story, either because they’ve never read the book or because they’ve seen the movie more often. Kesey wasn’t a fan of the film, and there’s a different tone to the novel that make it worth revisiting. The final scenes of the film are powerful, but still not quite the gut punch that Kesey creates. The conflict is less comedic without Jack Nicholson’s uber-charismatic McMurphy or Louise Fletcher’s icy Nurse Ratched. In particular, the narration of Chief Bromden, interrupted by hallucinations, gives the novel a different tone.

This isn’t just a story of nonconformity, there’s also an underlying gender battle, a streak of misogyny that whether or not Kesey intended it, adds dimension to this story, particularly when viewed 50 years later. As experienced by contemporary readers, Cuckoo is even less of a simple hero-versus-villain tale. Both McMurphy and Ratched have major flaws and good intentions.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest still succeeds, both as a document of its time and in a more timeless sense, as an important meditation on what it is to be crazy, what it is to be free, and where those two states of being may overlap. A book group looking for a classic to revisit couldn’t do much better.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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