Shuggie Bain and the Illusion of Trying Harder

“There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.”- Paulo Freire

I wonder how many educators entered the holiday period – particularly this year – determined to read a book that might provide a brief refuge from the work we do each day … only to find you really can’t escape it?

In her New York Times review of the Douglas Stuart, Booker Prize-winning novel, Shuggie Bain, Leah Hager Cohen observes that “the book would be just about unbearable were it not for the author’s astonishing capacity for love… He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster — only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains.”

I felt almost bereft finishing the poignant story of Shuggie and his troubled mother. It seems apt to compare Stuart’s novel to Frank McCourt’s earlier memoir, Angela’s Ashes. Both books share striking themes of childhood, poverty, and profound social inequity. Both feature childhood protagonists residing in graphically sordid, heartbreaking worlds of broken, deeply flawed, yet heroic matriarchs. Both authors discovered unique voices with which to tell their powerful stories.

Stuart’s world is a place of unrelenting, visceral darkness. “Rain was a natural state of Glasgow. It kept the grass green and the people pale and bronchial.” McCourt reminded us that “. . . nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters.”

Both stark worlds – though painfully real in their historical reference points – ultimately transcend their place and time and bring to life a forgotten people, a world in which those in power have turned their backs; where poverty, alcoholism, religious bigotry, homophobia, racism, misogyny and the cold reality of death are the representation of societal oppression. Significantly, rather than find some glimmer of hope, some respite or redemption at school, both boys realise that these institutions merely serve to compound their misery. The one place that should have been safe, school serves only to keep both boys firmly where they belong in a world order of deprivation and neglect.

McCourt encountered the dual tyranny of school as both educational and religious institution, complicit in keeping the destitute in their place: “They don’t like poor people. They like people with motor cars who stick out their little fingers when they pick up their teacups… My mother is a beggar now and if anyone from the lane or my school sees her the family will be disgraced entirely. My pals will make up new names and torment me in the schoolyard.”

If Glasgow’s mean streets and poverty are not enough for Shuggie Bain to endure, he is offered little solace by the cruelty of those who use his emerging sexual identity as a weapon to wound: “When they banned the cane a few years before he thought he might give up teaching altogether. In the end it made little difference; after all the years of peering into the dark corners of little boys’ souls, he knew where real pain and motivation lay. He cupped a hand over his mouth and shouted up the pitch. “Move IT, Bain! You little bender.” It got a cackling laugh from the other boys.”

For young Frankie McCourt and Shuggie Bain, the only glimmer of hope comes from their innate humility, honesty, and humanity. It reflects, ultimately, what Cohen terms an “astonishing capacity for love”. Their resilience, their very survival comes despite those who should know better. Should schools not ultimately be places that demonstrate a capacity for care, for love? Ironically, both authors achieved redemption and found the voice to tell their stories as a result of education in the end. The price paid was an enormous one. And it continues to be for too many who are denied basic human rights.

I was particularly struck by one plaintive exchange between Shuggie and his older brother that resonated deeply and highlights the constant obstacles he was compelled to endure:

“I am trying, Leek. I try all the time.”
“If you want to survive, you need to try harder, Shuggie.” 

It seems it is past time, once and for all, to stop asking young people to try harder to fit into systems that do not respect or seek to understand who they are. Every child has a unique identity, history, story, challenge, and talent. There’s no such thing as a neutral education. Morally and ethically, education is an act of liberation that must transcend the structures that result in compliance. There’s no escaping this reality. We know better. We can do better.


Stuart, Douglas. Shuggie Bain. Picador, 2020.

Cohen, Leah Hager. “In 1980s Glasgow, a World of Pain Made Bearable by Love”. The New York Times. February 11, 2020.

McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. Scribner, 1996.

Photo: A Message of Hope, near Strathclyde University, Glasgow, 2017.