Tunes for Bears to Dance To

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Tunes for Bears to Dance To
First edition
Author Robert Cormier
Country United States
Language English
Genre Young Adult Fiction
Publisher Delacorte Press
Publication date
Pages 112
ISBN 0-440-21903-5
OCLC 30395632

Tunes for Bears to Dance To is a young adult novel written by American author Robert Cormier that discusses themes of morality from the perspective of an 11-year-old named Henry. This novel also has many metaphors and ties to the Holocaust. This book is very loyal to Robert Cormier's style as it is very short and haunting. It is also in his vein of younger boys discovering darker sides of life and it is left unclear whether the protagonist did the right thing or not. The title originates from a line in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary: “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."

Plot summary[edit]

Henry’s family moves to a new town to run away from the memories of their recently passed son, Eddie, who was hit by a car in which the driver instantly drove away, never to be seen. Henry’s father is traumatized by Eddie's death and becomes very quiet and no longer works, while Henry's mother works long hours as a waitress in order to support their family. Another problem Henry faces is that there is no stone to mark Eddie's grave. Henry also contributes to his family by working at a grocery store for a man named Mr. Hairston, a deceptive old man who makes rude comments about the townsfolk that would walk by his store,

He is a perfectionist, which is why he insults many people, including his wife and beats his daughter, Doris, when she messes something up. He appears to have a special liking to Henry, occasionally giving him candy bars.

Every day, Henry watches a curious old man leave the 'crazy house' near his apartment and disappear down the street. Henry is very curious of what the old man does but cannot follow him because he was on crutches, and still dows not know how to use them. The day after his leg is healed, Henry follows the crazy man one day to an art center, where he meets him in person and learns his name is Mr. Levine and he is a Holocaust survivor who lost his family to the SS. He goes to the art center every day to carve out a model of his old hometown town to bring back all the people he had lost, including his wife and kids. Henry and Mr. Levine become very close despite not speaking the same language.

Henry finds out that Mr. Levine is in the "crazy house" because the Holocaust had affected him mentally. He still tips his hat randomly, something the Nazis had made him do, as a joke, while was imprisoned. Mr Levine also frightened very easily, even by Henry, thinking that he was going to beat him, even though he is only 11, because the Nazi guards had beaten him so often.

One day, Henry tells Mr. Hairston about Mr. Levine's village, who becomes strangely interested. Later, Henry asks Mr. Hairston if he can somehow find him a good gravestone to put over Eddie's grave, which he surprisingly agrees to buy for him, and shows him a sketch of the gravestone, of a bat and baseball, because of Eddie's love for the game. Later on, Henry peeks at the drawing of the grave to find that Mr. Hairston had drawn a large black X on it. Mr. Hairston one day tells Henry that he will be fired at the end of the week for no reason and that he no longer receives the gravestone from him. Henry returns home and finds that his father is being sent to the hospital, to be treated for depression.

Unable to deal with the stress of losing the gravestone, his job, and father in the same day, Henry goes to the art center. He finds that Mr. Levine's village had been given first prize from the city for being the best work of art and was going to be put on display at the town hall. Mr Levine invites Henry to the ceremony, practicing his English so he could ask Henry in person, instead of it being translated, like in every other conversation they had, and Henry accepts. Further into the week, Mr. Hairston tells Henry that he will let him keep the job and the headstone at one condition he must destroy Mr. Levine's model village. He also says he had close relationships with Henry's principal and his mother's boss and threatens to have his mother fired and his school reputation collapse if he was not to do what Mr. Hairston wants. The reward, if Henry destroys the replica village, would be a raise of his mom's pay and get her a promotion, him keeping his job, and giving him the head stone. Henry tells no one of his situation, even his mother, to avoid stressing her out more, and has to decide what to do on his own. Not knowing what he should do, he hides in the storage room at the art center and finds a mallet just in case he wants to destroy the village, as he is still unable to make up him mind. Henry falls asleep in the storage room and when he wakes up, he finds the art center deserted. Henry then finds the mallet and brings it above his head ready to smash the village when he decides not to do it.

Just then a rat startles him and he drops the tool on the village, destroying part of it. On his way home, Mr. Hairston waits for him at a closed furniture store in the rain and explains why he wanted the village destroyed: "Because he is a Jew" and to give the old man something to do. Henry then says that he does not want the rewards Mr. Hairston offers. Mr. Hairston insist for Henry to take the rewards saying that they were as important to the deal as Henry smashing the village. This shows that Mr. Hairston had not wanted Henry to smash Mr. the village just because he was a Jew, but to make Henry lose his innocence. Mr. Hairston had been planning this since he hired Henry, which is proven in the quote, "you must obey all orders, even if you do not like them". Henry, now knowing why Mr Hairston so desperately wants him to take the rewards, refuses and quits his job because of this, Henry keeps his innocence, even though he had destroyed the village.

Henry later visits the art center, where Mr. Levine, unfazed by his village being destroyed, continues to work on the village. The ceremony date is changed. George, a man who works at the art center and translates for Henry and Mr. Levine, thinks it was just troublemakers who broke into the craft center to destroy everyone's art but had enough time to destroy only Mr. Levine's before they were scared off. Henry does not tell anyone that he was the one who really destroyed the village. Mr. Levine presents Henry with a carving of him, like the ones he made for all the people that had lived in his village.

Henry later runs into Doris and tells her that she needs to stand up to him and not let him push her or her mother around anymore.

A few weeks afterwards, Henry and his family move back to Frenchtown their old town. Henry puts Eddie's old bat and ball on his grave as a replacement for the stone.


The theme is that good overcomes evil. Henry is the good, and Mr. Hairston is the evil. The good (Henry) must pass up temptation, such as the gravestone, his job, and his mother's job, given by the evil (Mr. Hairston). He refers to the quote at the beginning of the story, "Deliver us from evil." Mr. Hairston is also described as a snake, like in the story of Adam and Eve in which a snake motivated Eve to eat an apple form the fruit of knowledge. Mr. Levine's village is also representative of survival and good overcoming evil because it shows how people can endure situations, like the Holocaust, and the evil will eventually be conquered. Eddie's hit-and-run death is also evil, and the family finally overcoming the death is good.


Book: Tunes For Bears To Dance To by Robert Cormier