The Message of Hope in Alicia Partnoy’s The Little School





The Message of Hope in Alicia Partnoy’s The Little School

The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival is a book by Alicia Partnoy that documents her experiences as one of the people who were “disappeared” by the military junta in Argentina. In the book, Partnoy provides a vivid explanation of her ordeal as she saw it through a gap in the blindfold that the soldiers forced her to wear at all times. In addition, to her own experiences, Partnoy also relays the ordeals that other disappeared people went through. One of the other people in the camp was her own husband. Some of the predominant themes in the book include torture at the hands of the soldiers and the absence of any system of justice and accountability. This legal vacuum meant that the military regime could hold the prisoners indefinitely and in some cases killed them without any repercussions. Despite the grim possibilities that surrounded her death, the hope and resilience of Partnoy and other characters in the book provide a welcome respite from the depression that surrounds their captivity. Partnoy’s The Little School is an intriguing book that derives the message of hope and strength from morbid tales of suffering and despair.

            One of the reasons why Partnoy’s book is so compelling is the way that she introduces it with a short narrative that provides the context for events that occur later in the book. The narrative is an important part of the story because it helps the reader understand how the military regime came into being and the reasons why the soldiers detained Partnoy. The first section of the book also introduces the reader to The Little School, where Partnoy bases most of her book. The introduction also helps the reader understand how arduous the ordeals of the disappeared were, especially after the author clarifies that military would kill some prisoners at a whim. Conversely, Partnoy narrates some of her experiences in the present tense, making them more vivid and gripping for the reader. This makes the reader understand the situations that she was in, especially after the use of hindsight makes it obvious that she did not have some of the comforting information that the audience has.

            Suffering is the predominant theme in Partnoy’s book. Inside the camp, the guards torture, molest, beat up and dehumanize the prisoners on a daily basis. This treatment provides the backdrop for much of what happens in the novel. One of the ways that Partnoy highlights the suffering of the prisoners is by describing the contrasting personalities of the prisoners and the soldiers. Despite the fact that the prisoners remain hopeful and resilient through much of the book, the guards never relent in their beatings and torture maintaining a constant level of brutality. Partnoy’s ordeal with one of the male prisoners provides a clear demonstration of this contrast. As Partnoy was leaving the toilet, one of the guards pushed a male prisoner into her and they bumped into each other. The guards then told Partnoy to slap the prisoner and punish him for his bad manners but instead of following the instructions, she disobeyed the soldiers in a show of solidarity with her male counterpart, “placing my still untied hand on the other prisoner’s cheek. I caressed his face” (Partnoy 31). This event shows the fact that the guards, brutal as they were, could never truly break the spirits of the prisoners. It also shows the way that they constantly and relentlessly degraded and dehumanized the detainees.

            Even though suffering is a predominant theme in Partnoy’s The Little School, the author uses it to show the reader instances of hope, strength, resistance and compliance within the prisoners’ behavior. One thing that stands out in The Little School is the immense amount of suffering that the detainees went through. The fact that the guards undermined and dehumanized the prisoners within every single daily activity makes the reader understand that life in the camps was horrible. The ruthless nature of the guards meant that even the most mundane tasks such as using the toilet were humiliating for the prisoners. Partnoy demonstrates this brutality when she narrates, “sandpaper was what they almost always gave the men instead of toilet paper” (Partnoy 30). However, the suffering still serves as a backdrop for the hope and strength that the prisoners had while inside the camp. A good example of such hope is seen when Partnoy’s husband is being tortured and sings a nursery rhyme about a frog symbolizing the resilience of the human spirit. The nursery rhyme was symbolic of the strength that Partnoy’s husband had and the hope that he would survive his predicament. Even though the spirits of the prisoners remained strong, the still complied with most of the orders and instructions, as they soon appeared to acclimatize themselves with life in the camp.

            Partnoy’s ordeal various objects helped her retain her strength acting as symbols of hope and innocence. The most significant object for Partnoy was the tooth that she kept in a matchbox. The tooth is an important symbol for Partnoy because it helps her understand that she is still whole and that the torture and dehumanization is yet to destroy her. Another significant item in the story is the jacket with which she was left. The jacket had belonged to her friend Vasca and helped survive her experience by serving as a symbol for protection. Partnoy narrates how safe the jacket made her feel explaining that she felt safe for the first time since the military arrested her when she put on the jacket (Partnoy 109). The flower on her shoe was also symbolic object for Partnoy as it presented a sharp contrast between normal life and the suffering and pain of the camp through the innocence that it projected.

            Partnoy’s horrible experiences in The Little School provide a compelling read. Arrested by the military in 1977, she spent three months in the detention camp where she survived the constant beatings and torture from the soldiers. Even though the book tells tales filled with pain and agony, Partnoy manages to twist it into a positive narrative highlighting the hope that the prisoners had and their resilience in the face of unthinkable horrors. Accordingly, The Little School is a tale about that the strength that the human spirit has, especially in the most dire times.

Work Cited:

Partnoy, Alicia. The Little School: Tales of Disappearance & Survival. San Francisco, Calif: Cleis Press, 1998. Print.

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