41 pages 1 hour read

Robert Cormier

Tunes for Bears to Dance To

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1992

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Summary and Study Guide


Tunes for Bears to Dance To by pioneering young adult writer Robert Cormier (1925-2000) is a young adult novella that explores themes of The Inadequacy of Language, The Everyday Nature of Evil, and The Inescapability of the Past. First published in 1992, the story follows 11-year-old Henry, who, while grappling with the recent loss of his brother, becomes entangled in a sinister plot devised by Mr. Hairston, the manipulative manager of the grocery store where he works. This plot tests the limits of Henry’s moral convictions and challenges him to make choices that reflect on broader issues of humanity and ethics. Kirkus Reviews praised the story for the vigor and authenticity of its characters and called it “thought-provoking.”

This guide is based on the Kindle edition of the 1994 Bantam Doubleday Dell/Laurel-Leaf version of the book.

Content Warning: The text deals with themes of antisemitism and includes numerous racial slurs.

Plot Summary

Henry is an 11-year-old boy mourning the passing of his athletically gifted older brother, Eddie, who died in a hit-and-run accident. His family has moved to a new town, Wickburg, to escape the memories of Eddie. His father has developed depression, and his mother has taken up waitressing to support the family. Henry himself is no stranger to hard work. He had been working for a local grocer until he broke his leg, which has made the family’s financial situation more precarious.

In the new town, Henry befriends an elderly Holocaust survivor named Mr. Levine, who lives at a neighboring institution for people with mental illnesses. By following Mr. Levine, Henry discovers that the elderly man regularly visits a local craft center, where he works on carving a small wooden replica of his hometown before it was ravaged by the Nazi regime. A man named George manages the craft center, and both he and Mr. Levine become Henry’s friends.

After his leg heals, Henry returns to work for the grocer, Mr. Hairston—a two-faced racist who fawns over his customers and then refers to them with racial slurs after they leave the store. One day, Henry sees Mr. Hairston’s daughter, Doris, and notices an ugly bruise on her cheek.

When Henry and his mother visit Eddie’s grave, he wishes his dead brother could have a headstone with a bat and a ball. At work, Henry asks Mr. Hairston for advice on buying a headstone, and to his surprise, the usually curt Mr. Hairston offers to speak to the owner of a monument dealer on Henry’s behalf.

Back at the craft center, Mr. Levine attempts to teach Henry wood carving and cries out in distress as Henry accidentally cuts himself. George explains that the blood reminded Mr. Levine of all the evil in the world. His village was turned into a concentration camp by the Nazis, and Mr. Levine was forced to build gas chambers there as his family was sent off to camps to die. Bringing his lost village to life in his carvings is Mr. Levine’s cure for his depression and loneliness.

Mr. Hairston observes Mr. Levine walking along and tipping his hat to nobody—a relic of a time when he had to salute prison guards. When the grocer calls Mr. Levine “crazy,” Henry explains that his friend is both a Holocaust survivor and a talented wood carver. Mr. Hairston presses for details about the miniature village, which Henry uneasily provides. The next time Henry sees Doris, she is in pain, and he guesses that her father hurt her. Doris confesses that her father also verbally abuses her mother and warns Henry to be careful around him.

Mr. Hairston shows Henry a beautiful drawing of a stone monument with Eddie’s name and a baseball bat and ball. When Henry says his family won’t be able to afford the marker, Mr. Hairston says they can work something out. That night, Henry’s father leaves for a hospital where he will receive therapy for his depression. Back at the store, Henry sneaks a look at the sketch, which is now covered with a black X. Mr. Hairston tells him he is being fired but refuses to say why. At the craft center, Henry learns that Mr. Levine won first prize in an art contest and that his miniature village is going on display.

Henry must work through the remainder of the week. However, when he shows up at the store, Mr. Hairston shows him the sketch of the monument, from which the X has been removed. He offers to have the monument made for free if Henry will do a simple thing for him: destroy Mr. Levine’s toy village before it can go on display. When Henry refuses, Mr. Hairston threatens to get Henry’s mother fired and tell the principal that Henry can’t be trusted.

Agonized, Henry goes to the craft center and finds a mallet. He naps in a storeroom until everyone is gone and then stands over the toy village with a mallet. He cannot make himself bring it down, but when he sees a rat, he drops the mallet, smashing part of the village. When the grocer congratulates him, Henry asks why the destruction was so important to him. Mr. Hairston replies that it is because Mr. Levine is Jewish, but when pressed, he says he really wanted to destroy Henry’s innocence. He wants to prove that the decent, religious boy is just like everyone else. After this revelation, Henry refuses to accept the reward.

As the novella concludes, Henry has begun to forgive himself. Mr. Levine has partially rebuilt his village and gives Henry a tiny, smiling replica of the boy. The family is moving back to their old town, but before they do, Henry finds Doris and promises to keep in touch with her. Henry is never able to get the tombstone for his brother’s grave. Instead, he places his brother’s old baseball bat and ball on the grave. He prays for everyone—his parents, Eddie, Mr. Levine, George, Doris—and asks for forgiveness for Mr. Hairston and himself.