The Character of Pop Bottle Pete in The River Warren

The Character of Pop Bottle Pete in The River Warren

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The Character of Pop Bottle Pete in The River Warren

   In the novel, The River Warren, Pop Bottle Pete is a character whom not all readers have an easy time understanding or relating to. The most obvious reason for this is that he is a grown man with a mental disability. The reader understands this through the words that he uses, the way he uses them, and also through his relationships, which are affected by his disability. Having a clearer knowledge of this disability, by looking at his language and social skills, the reader will gain a better understanding of these relationships. Out of respect for the character I will refer to him as Peter. To get a general range of Peter's skills, the Battelle Developmental Inventory will be used as a resource. The Battelle is an assessment used for children birth to six years of age but can be used on an older person who is functioning around this level. Given Peter's description of himself, his activities, and his feelings we can estimate a general developmental level (it is not possible to obtain a standardized score or an actual age level of development). According to the Battelle, Peter's skills appear to range about the five to six year age level in the areas of Adult Interaction, Expression of Feelings/Affect, Self-Concept and Social Role.


Some of the items that we can look at in the Adult Interaction are tasks such as "separating easily from the parent," a skill that is developed around 36-47 months. Peter seems to show no difficulty leaving his mother's presence and showing some independence. He seems very comfortable going out, away from his mother, to collect bottles and cans. Also, he did not show any difficulty when he was a Dr. Piersoll's office and his mother had to leave the room. If anything his mother seemed more disturbed than Peter. But he did have a task in the area of Adult Interaction that he would not have passed and that is "asking for adult help when needed," a skill that is developed around 72-83 months. If he had had this skill, he would have gone to his mother when he contracted frostbite on several of his toes and his penis, and he would have had her help him in the most appropriate way.

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Instead Peter tries to solve the problem himself, for fear of getting into trouble. He describes what he thinks is the solution; "I sat on the bed. The big scissors went smile. I put it on a toe. I closed my eyes. Chop. I tried not to cry. Because Mom would hear...One two one two three. On my bed. Just my thing left. Then Mom wouldn't know" (Meyers 205). Peter assumes that he can cut off his own toes, which will take care of what he sees as the problem, with no one ever knowing what he has done.


Another area, on the Battelle, in which Peter shows a distinct skill level is noticed in the area of Expression of Feelings/Affect. One of the higher skills that stand out is that he "expresses affection toward or liking for peer" a skill acquired around 24-35 months. This is observed in all of Peter's talk about Two-Speed Crandall, or Simon as Peter fondly refers to him. Though Peter does not directly express his affection for Simon in the beginning of the novel, he does mention that he saved all the bottles that Simon had thrown to him. They are kept on a shelf, even though he could have turned the bottles in for cash. Later in the novel Peter actually expresses this affection outright when he has the fear of getting in trouble for being out at night and having to leave his friend. He says, "And no one would think. And they wouldn't come. And I wouldn't go away. Me and Simon would still be friends" (205). Peter also "shows sympathy towards others", a 36-47 month skill. In the first of Peter's chapters we hear a sympathetic note in his theory of why Simon crashed the truck. When Peter is talking about feeling hot he says,"...I'll feel like smashing myself. Just to let the hot out. That's what he did. Because he couldn't find something cool. You can't feel like an egg all the time. You have to smash yourself" (18). Although, he doesn't actually say that he feels badly for Simon, he related his bad feelings that he has experienced to what he assumed Simon felt.


This last quotation also shows the reader how the words that Peter uses to describe his emotions are not appropriate for his chronological age. He cannot seem to use words such as frustrated, afraid, or happy. His description of feeling like a "hot egg" when he can't find any bottles seems to be a substitute for frustration. When his mother walks in on him as he is chopping his toes off we know that he is feeling afraid but cannot quite find the words to describe this emotion. Instead he says, "The door went open and Mom screamed. Chop. I dropped the big scissors. I put my hands on my ears. Then I screamed and cried. To chase Mom's screams out of my ears" (206). His mother's screams seemed to add to his fear, and his own screaming helped to cover this fear up. To Peter being cool seems to be equated with happiness. Bottles bring him happiness because he can get money for them, they are cool. He also gets paid for picking up rocks in the fields, rocks are cool. And in his dream of Simon coming to pick him up in the truck, the coolness seems to represent his happiness at being there. Peter tells of a dream in which "The truck goes bubba bubba bubba...He's leaning over, and he pulls me in. Here, he says. He hands me a coke. It's cool. It makes me cool inside. Like ice" (269). So Peter seems to lack the ability to use appropriate words to "describe his feelings", a 48-59 month skill, in which he would use emotion words (happy, sad, angry, etc.), instead he substitutes them with sensory words (hot, cool, scream, etc).


Another communication skill that we can consider when looking at Peter's developmental level, is his sentence length. On the average his sentence length is five to six words, with some sentences being only one word and others up to eight to ten words in length. According to the Battelle this skill would be acquired between the 48-59 month age level. He seems to have acquired two other skills in the area of expressive language, or how he expresses thoughts through words. They are "relating his experiences" which is a 36-47 month skill and "communicating effectively", a 48-59 month skill. He seems to be able to tell us about some events in his life in a way we, as readers, can understand. Although Peter uses these skills in his narrative, he does not always use them in his dialog with others. He has difficulty "engaging in meaningful dialogue," a skill that should be developed around the 60-71 month age. His conversations with both Simon and Dr. Piersoll seem to lack adequate communication skills on his part. Most of Peter's parts in these conversations seem to be phrases that he has heard elsewhere. These conversations give us the only view we have of his receptive skills or how he understands others. He seems to understand enough language to be functional, but he does not quite comprehend some of the adult language that is used around him. The reader sees this difficulty initially in his conversations with Simon, when words are repeated without the meanings being known. When telling of one of these times Peter says, "He stood by me. I didn't move. Maybe he didn't see me yet. That's the idea, Peter, he said. Your old lady got you stuffed up, right? Shityeah. So you gotta cool off, right? Shityeah, I (Peter) said. He made his teeth big and smiley then. Whoa, Peter, he said. Shityeah, I (Peter) said again" (100-101). Peter goes on, later in the novel, to repeat other curses that he has heard from Simon, like a young boy imitating a father. It happens again when Peter is at the Dr.'s office with his mother and Dr. Piersoll is asking Peter, "I really need to know how you frostbit yourself this badly". Peter does not answer but instead agrees with the Dr. and "nodded then, vigorously, and actually grinned. 'Frostbite', he said. 'Shityeah. Frostbite" (212). At this point we see Peter's misunderstanding of the word 'Frostbite' which is used to explain the condition of his toes and penis. He tells the reader, "It worked. I fooled Mom. I even fooled Mister Doctor. No one will think. No one will come. I won't go away. Mister Doctor thinks I got bit" (215). Peter is interpreting the word "Frostbite" literally, thinking it meant actually being bit by something. This literal interpretation of words fades out in language development around the age of 6-7 years old.


Peter's relationship with others is obviously effected by his mental disability and can give us some insight into where he is developmentally. He is under the control of his mother, who in her abundance of love has given him rules to live by. Due to his limited understanding of rules and consequences, he only knows what she tells him. He must always be told not to do certain things because people will think and they will come and take him away. His mother has, obviously, told him that when he picks up bottles and cans, not to drink from them. But Peter breaks the rules because, he says, "Sometimes there's something in them. I'll sometimes taste. If no one's coming on the road. So they don't think" (16). This worry of people "thinking" seems to set his code of morals. If an act might make people think, then it is not something he should do. It is not known if Peter fully understands what people might think or who would come or where he would be taken away to. It is just a bad and fearful thing to him that he knows he should avoid.


This reaction can be better understood by looking at Jean Piaget's stages of development. Piaget, a theorist in child development, does not look at the specific skills as does the Battelle Developmental Inventory, but rather his theories are based on generalizations of skills. In the Preconceptual Phase, which normally ranges from 2 to 4 years of age, the average child "comprehends the activity of doing as they are told before they have the conception of obedience. They equate this with pleasing the person who cares for them and conceive a causal relationship between the two" (Maier 45). Peter will do what his mother asks of him before he comprehends why he is doing it.


So he is torn when it comes time to help his friend, Simon, the night he finds him hurt. Peter is naked and worries what others will think, but his commitment to his friend wins his inner battle of right and wrong. He tells us about the night that he saw Simon walk toward him and disappear into the darkness. Simon did not reappear from the dark, "But I [Peter] waited. He didn't come. If I went on the lawn the light would be there. The people would see me and think. My feet wanted to go back in the house. All the hot was gone from them. But the dark stayed in him (Simon) and he didn't come. If the dark goes in you too far people can't see you ever. My heart went like a horse. I crossed my fingers and shut my eyes. I ran onto the lawn. I put my hand down by my thing. So if the light came in me people wouldn't see it. Because that's what makes them think. My feet went on the lawn like when I hammer" (168). Peter feels good, emotionally, about his decision to help Simon and seems rewarded when Simon's wife, LouAnn, thanks him. From the porch of Simon's house Peter hears LouAnn, "Thanks, whoever you are, out there...I guess he's got a friend somewhere, she said" Peter later thinks, while lying in bed, "I guess he's got a friend, huh? I said. Fucking right. I guess he's got a friend" (172). It is apparent that Peter is starting to develop some skills beyond the Preconceptual phase because he can begin to make independent decisions in his actions and not always to what he is told.


The next of Piaget's phases is that of Intuitive Thought which ranges from 4 to 7 years of age. Peter is showing some characteristics up into this level. Up to this point of development children, including Peter, have lived very egocentric lives with everything revolving around them, their thoughts, and their feelings. In this phase some changes occur and it is noticed that "Most important for children...are their widening social contacts in the world around them, which necessarily reduce egocentricity and increase social participation" (45). Peter is building a relationship with Simon and becoming aware of other things happening in the community and to other people. He sees that Simon isn't just a person who meets him in the nights but that he has a wife. He also has to face the loss of his friend after the accident and is starting to realize that Simon will never be back. Peter expresses his loss, "But sometimes I still wake up. I try not to, but sometimes I do. I go out and wait. Just in case. Once I went up to where he is. I walked right on the street. No one saw me. I didn't care if they did. Or if they thought. They made him into a stone, but it's not him" (Meyers 270). Another characteristic of the Intuitive Thought phase is that "the child increasingly employs appropriate language without fully comprehending it's implications" (Maier 51). Once again we are reminded Peter's imitative use of Simon's curse words. Even thought Peter does not fully comprehend the meaning of those words, he uses them at appropriate times.


Looking at Peter as we would a five-year-old boy, his relationship with Simon is understood and accepted more easily by the reader. It seems more like the relationship between a father and a young son, not between two grown men. It may be the relationship that neither had, but where both wanting. Peter did not see Simon in the same way as the other people in the town did. He did not know that Simon was not a good father to his sons or not a good husband to his wife. He did not know that Simon drank to an excess, only that his breath smelled funny. He was not aware of Simon's reputation with the cattle prod; he only saw Simon's kindness and how it effected him. To Peter, Simon was a friend. He was someone who blew his truck horn without Peter having to ask. Peter says, "He always did. Wa-a-a-a, wa-a-a-a, wa-a-a-a, until I couldn't hear it no more. I didn't have to raise my hand for him. He's start way before. Before I even saw him" (Meyers17). Simon was a friend that threw bottles that were so valuable in Peter's mind that they weren't even traded for cash but kept on a shelf. Simon was one who would come and talk with him in the night and didn't "think" just because Peter was naked. Simon would laugh with Peter. Peter recalls a conversation in the night; "It's mighty cold out here. Don't let that little guy freeze off. I (Peter) looked down where he pointed. No, I said. It's not like an icicle. Cold makes it thaw. He laughed so hard I thought Mom would wake up and come" (101). He was a friend that called him by his real name; "Then he'd yell my name. Not Pop Bottle like most people. He'd yell Pe-e-e-e-eter-r-r. Big and loud. Out his window, going by. He'd stop his horn so he could yell. My name...I'd yell back and wave. Si-i-i-i-im-o-o-o-n. Not Two-Speed like most people. His name. Simon" (17). Peter heard these names being called at the cemetery even after Simon's death, "The wind went ssssssss ssssss in the tree. Sssssss sssss it went. Ssssss ssss sssssiiimmmmmon. Then in the rocks it moaned. Peeeeeteeeer. It called our name. The wind. It called our name" (271).


Works Cited

Battelle Developmental Inventory. The Riverside Publishing Company, 1988

Maier, Henry W. Three Theories of Child Development. New York: University Press of America, 1988

Meyers, Kent. The River Warren. St. Paul: Hungry Mind Press, 1998

















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