The Good Citizen's Handbook: A Guide to Proper Behavior
by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz
Published by Chronicle Books
140 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Truth, Justice and Good Penmanship
Reviewed by David Middleton
Are you a good citizen? A pillar of your community? A shining beacon of virtue and moral righteousness? Do you pay your taxes, cut your grass regularly and return the tools you borrowed from your neighbor? Promptly pay any parking tickets? Though, heaven forbid, you would ever park your car illegally.
OK, so you cover your mouth when you cough, know how to vote properly and how to polish the old handgun. Well, good for you. Surely there can't be much more to being a model member of society than good personal hygiene and knowing not to play with matches, right?
Well think again, bub. Writer and designer Jennifer McKnight-Trontz (who according to her bio never crosses against a red light -- gold star for you Jen) has come up with a small but important book made for those of us whose penmanship is slipping and just can't remember appropriate bake sale etiquette. The Good Citizen's Handbook: A Guide to Proper Behavior is a throwback to a time when Boy Scouts with brush cuts helped the elderly cross the street and a clean, starched white apron was mom's uniform of choice; when every apple-cheeked school kid put hand over heart while pledging allegiance to the flag and the only sidearm ever seen inside a school was on the hip of Officer Bob when he visited during "The Policeman is Our Friend Week." Rap music was at least 40 years in the future and road rage was when, during the Sunday drive, dad's hat blew off (doggonnit!).
According to McKnight-Trontz, a Good Citizen is:
...well groomed and fun to be around, She's trustworthy, helpful, courteous, and kind. He's loyal, thrifty, clean, and brave. Good Citizens beware delinquency and obey even minor laws. They tend their yards, brush their teeth in a circular motion, vote in every election, and always try their best.
Pocketbook sized and soft covered, The Good Citizen's Handbook is as hokey, jingoistic and naive as they come; and that is its charm. From something called It's Fun to Plan Your Vacation to the Junior Rifle Handbook, The Good Citizen's Handbook culls illustrations, text and ideas -- as well as ideals -- from sources spanning from 1928 to 1972 and packages them up in a sort of tongue-in-cheek and well-intentioned textbook on how to do everything from planting a tree, learning correct firearm safety and just generally being an all 'round keen-o person. Though I'm still not convinced -- as depicted on page 83 -- why any really good citizen needs to know all the working parts of a typical target rifle. But then I'm a Canadian: we use guns about as often as rapid transit uses sled dogs.
The Good Citizen's Handbook is not really about those kinds of things: the us against them attitude that plagued much of America's Cold War era. And though it's very America-centric -- as in learning about the Constitution of the United States, the Star Spangled Banner, the Pledge of Allegiance and how to properly display Old Glory -- it's really more about the refocusing of our moral compass. It's not saying we should return to those simpler times when cars had more chrome than paint, women wore pillbox hats and there was no Internet, but instead comments that being good and being conscientious is perhaps more important now than it ever was. We live in a complex society full of stress, temptation and high expectations, so what's wrong with being an upstanding, friendly and law-abiding human being; even once and a while? Like my parents were always telling me "It doesn't cost anything to be polite."
The illustrations have a straightforward, generic, Dick and Jane quality to them: happy, clean, no nonsense. From the cover bearing the image of a tousle-haired, dungaree-wearing young man, with hand over heart and eyes starward to the last image of Liberty Enlightening the World, The Good Citizen's Handbook is chock-full of people spending their time doing good for their fellow humans and learning skills that perhaps will earn them a lifetime of excellent karma.
As complete as it may be, The Good Citizen's Handbook still lacks some advice in certain areas. Such as what to do when every weekend your screwball, beatnik neighbor plays his Perry Como music too loud, has drunken, naked poetry readings in the back yard, lobs flaming engine blocks over your fence, and tries to teach your kids the subtle differences between Jack Daniels and Old Grand Dad. But hey, you can't be prepared for everything now, can you? | April 2001
David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and when he is not saving kittens from trees he can usually be found whitewashing the fence with Tom and Huck.