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The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson

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Published by HarperAcademic
Note To Teacher
Morris Bird III is a nine-year-old Brain with a capital B. He supports the re-election of President Roosevelt, resignedly suffers the attentions of his devoted little sister, Sandra, and occupies himself with gauzy fantasies of Veronica Lake and his next-door neighbor, Suzanne Wysocki. Morris holds little Sandra’s hand on their way to school every day, where he tries to fit in with the rest of his fourth-grade class, and occasionally daydreams about the O Gauge trains in his best
Note To Teacher
Morris Bird III is a nine-year-old Brain with a capital B. He supports the re-election of President Roosevelt, resignedly suffers the attentions of his devoted little sister, Sandra, and occupies himself with gauzy fantasies of Veronica Lake and his next-door neighbor, Suzanne Wysocki. Morris holds little Sandra’s hand on their way to school every day, where he tries to fit in with the rest of his fourth-grade class, and occasionally daydreams about the O Gauge trains in his best

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Published by: HarperAcademic on Mar 16, 2011
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Note To Teacher
 
Morris Bird III is a nine-year-old Brain with a capital B. He supports the re-election of President Roosevelt, resignedly suffers the attentions of hisdevoted little sister, Sandra, and occupies himself with gauzy fantasies of Veronica Lake and his next-door neighbor, Suzanne Wysocki. Morrisholds little Sandra’s hand on their way to school every day, where he tries to fit in with the rest of his fourth-grade class, and occasionallydaydreams about the O Gauge trains in his best friend’s basement.
 
But when his best friend moves to the other side of Cleveland, Morris Bird decides he must act decisively. Emboldened by his grandmother and histeacher’s speeches about bravery, Morris maps out a trip to visit his friend. On a Friday afternoon in October of 1944, Morris makes his incrediblepilgrimage across town and out of childhood. Here is the story of that journey and a small boy’s courage in the face of a sudden and overwhelmingterror.
 
About the Author
 
Don Robertson published 18 books in his lifetime including two others that featured Morris Bird III
The Sum and Total of Now
(1966), and
TheGreatest Thing That Almost Happened 
(1970), which was made into a movie starring James Earl Jones and Jimmy Walker. He is also author of thehighly-acclaimed novel
Praise the Human Season
. He was born in 1929 and spent much of his life working at Cleveland newspapers. StephenKing counts him as one of his greatest influences and published Robertson’s book
The Ideal, Genuine Man
in 1987. Don Robertson died in 1999.
 
For more about Don Robertson, visit the followingCleveland Arts Prize.
 
Questions For Class Discussion
1.
“The name of the city was Cleveland, and there was a war being fought, and Cleveland was a busy and smoky place, what with all the WarPlants. This was some war. It had to do with President Roosevelt” (p. 8). How does the spirit of wartime inform the consciousness of 
TheGreatest Thing Since Sliced Bread 
? More specifically, how does the fact of the country’s being at war affect Morris Bird III, and hisimmediate family?
2.
How does the arrival of Mrs. Elizabeth Jones, Morris’s grandmother, alter Morris’s sense of his everyday obligations as a little boy? Towhat extent does Grandma serve as the primary moral compass in Morris’s world? How does his desire to please her come into conflictwith his desire to accomplish something heroic?
3.
How does the narration of 
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread 
reveal the ordinary (and extraordinary) preoccupations of a nine-year-oldboy? Why did the author Don Robertson choose to convey the bulk of his novel from the point-of-view of a young boy? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of this narrative perspective, given the aims of this novel?
4.
“The friendship of Morris Bird III and Stanley Chaloupka had more going for it than simply Stanley’s superb O Gauge layout. A great dealmore” (p. 44). How would you describe Morris Bird’s friendship with Stanley Chaloupka? To what extent is their relationship borne out of their mutual disenchantment with their fellow classmates? How does Stanley’s move to another part of Cleveland set in motion theclimactic event of 
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread 
?
5.
How does national politicsincluding some of the racism and anti-Semitism of the eraintrude on Morris Bird III’s awareness as a nine-year-old? Why does he support President Roosevelt, despite the fact that he is unable to vote? What does his self-identification as aDemocrat and Roosevelt supporter mean, in a larger sense, to this novel?
6.
“This thing, this
responsible
businesswas inflicted on him every school day. On weekends, Sandra more or less had to fend for herself,but five days a week Morris Bird III was charged with looking after her” (p. 60) How does Morris’s relationship with his sister, Sandra,reveal some of the agonies of childhood when it comes to siblings? How does Sandra’s behavior on the day of the gas explosion suggest herown maturation over the course of this novel?
7.
“The idea was just as clear as clear could be. He would visit his friend Stanley Chaloupka” (p. 66). To what extent is Mrs. Dallas, MorrisBird III’s fourth-grade teacher, responsible for inspiring his decision to seek out his friend, Stanley Chaloupka, on the other side of town?How does his understanding of the word, self-respect, play into that decision? Why is Morris Bird so eager to do something that he feelsrequires personal bravery? 
8.
How would you characterize the Cleveland of 1944, as depicted in
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread?
How does Don Robertson’s
 
decision to include specific details about the city and its inhabitants bring this novel to life for you? What details did you find especiallycompelling or memorable, and why? 
9.
“Friday, October 20, 1944, was, as dates go, rather an important one” (p. 76). Why does Don Robertson, the author of 
The Greatest ThingSince Sliced Bread,
change the narration at this point in the novel from the first-person perspective of Morris Bird, III, to a combination of third-person narration and first-person narration by multiple characters not previously seen in the book? How does this shift affect yourappreciation of the work as a whole? How does this shift impact the novel’s depictions of the explosion and your response to it as a reader? 
10.
“He wished June Weed would stop calling attention to them. Any minute now someone would ask why he and Sandra weren’t in school,”(p. 106). When Morris and Sandra see June Weed, their disgraced former babysitter, waiting in line to buy cigarettes, their encounter seemspurely coincidental. Why do you think the author chose to include this scene in the novel? What does it reveal about Morris and Sandra’snaiveté and their vulnerability, as they leave the neighborhood they know so well?
11.
“They looked quite ominous, those five tanks, but they were not (with the exception of the “holder” tank and its partial load of gas in itsnatural state) dangerous. Liquified natural gas is notrepeat:
not
combustible” (p. 115). How does the narrator’s detailed description of the East Ohio Gas Co.’s liquefication plant foreshadow the disaster about to unfold? Why do you think the author felt it was necessary toincorporate such details into the narrative? 
12.
“Morris Bird III grinned. He ran toward good old Stanley Chaloupka, and he heard birds, and then up jumped a huge hot orange ball, agreat big fat whoosh of a” (p. 152). How does the author use this incomplete sentence to represent the dramatic events of the novel? Howdid you react to this interruptive moment in the narrative? How do Morris, Sandra, and Stanley each experience the explosion individually? 
13.
“I told him you’re a great boy….I said: “Officer, this boy is the greatest thing since sliced bread. This boy is going to grow into a real man”(p. 181). How does the legless man’s description of Morris Bird III’s actions as heroic enable Morris to acknowledge his bravery? Howmight helping strangers to survive a catastrophe of this magnitude leave its mark on Morris’s sense of self? 
14.
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread 
was published in 1965, in the midst of the American conflict in Vietnam. To what extent mightsuch a political climate have influenced the book’s author, Don Robertson, to examine everyday life during World War II? How does thecontext in which the book was written change your appreciation of the work’s major themes? 
Topics For Research And Writing Projects
1.
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread 
is set in Cleveland during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 bid for reelection againstThomas E. Dewey. Research the history of Roosevelt’s campaign, examining the social context for the phrase, “Clear it with Sidney,” andprepare an essay in which you analyze Roosevelt’s positions and political strategies and how they relate to the election’s outcome.
2.
Don Robertson followed
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread 
with two more books about Morris Bird III:
The Sum and Total of Now,
and
The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened.
Read the rest of the trilogy, and prepare a report in which you analyze the trajectory of Morris Bird III’s character. In what respects does his impression of the world around him change over the course of the trilogy?
3.
How does
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread 
function as an example of the
Bildungsroman
or “Coming of Age”
novel? Prepare anessay in which you examine Morris Bird III’s growth as a character in the course of this work. You may want to research or read otherworks in this genre to compare their depiction of a character’s maturation against that of Morris Bird III.
4.
Prepare an essay in which you research the cause of the liquid natural gas explosion at the East Ohio Gas Company in Cleveland, whichkilled more than 200 people. How did that catastrophe affect the liquid natural gas industry as a whole? How did the explosion impact thewider Cleveland community? How closely does Don Robertson’s account of the event in
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread 
follow thereal-life occurrence?
5.
Write an essay in which you examine the narration of 
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread.
Why do you think the author, DonRobertson, chose to have his protagonist, Morris Bird III, narrate the bulk of the novel? How does Morris’s perspective illumine a uniqueaspect of life in Cleveland in 1944? How does the author’s decision to modify the narration mid-way through the novel impact yourimpressions of the novel?
 
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