There are few people who look back on high school as the best years of their life and, quite frankly, I don’t trust them. These two novels encapsulate what may or may not be the truth of high school life in America today. Is it accurate? Dear God, I hope not, but I’m so far removed from that time that all I can do is share my thoughts on them as novels. Mostly, they made me glad I made it through and have been mercifully able to forget most of it.
Author Lindsey Lee Johnson is making a big statement with a title like The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. That the novel is about high school life in an affluent community north of San Francisco makes the claim feel even more dubious and left me conflicted after finishing the novel. Is the terrain of high school as deadly as truly dangerous places like Syria? No, but is Johnson trying to make a point about how perilous teenage life has become in a time of social media, online bullying and ever blurring boundaries of age appropriate behavior? That seems to be the case in this segmented novel that begins with a cohort of 8th graders and revisits them at various points in their high school careers.
Cally, Tristan, Ryan, Emma, Nick, Abby, David, Damon and Elisabeth are all students that fit neatly into their expected slots: jock, artist, athlete, smart rebel, misfit, beautiful girl. They’re taught by the popular Mr. Ellison and the newly licensed, young Miss Nicoll. In 8th grade the awkward Tristan writes Cally a letter confessing his love. This goes as badly as possible with Cally giving the letter to Ryan, a boy she likes, and Ryan planting it in Facebook, watering it with mockery and watching it spread. Tristan is unable to get past the bullying and kills himself.
Johnson feeds into the high school feel of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by letting each of the characters narrate a chapter. As chapters shift perspective different bits of conversations and actions show up, highlighting the unreliability of each narrator. It is a fictional game of telephone where the original message is lost the further down the line it travels. Johnson also lets new teacher Molly speak, but her voice is tempered by her own insecurities and desire to be the ‘cool’ teacher which only leads to not-unexpected problems.
On the surface, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth reads like a contemporary teen life trope. It’s only when Johnson goes underneath the surface of primping, posing, boredom and excess that there are flashes of disquieting insight into why these teens act as they do:
Some hidden chord within him strummed, sending low vibrations through his body. These things were sometimes as simple as this: he wanted to see what would happen.
Is this rationale enough to explain away the destructive tendencies of bored, wealthy teens who are given everything they want without earning anything? Or more importantly, to make the reader feel that their lives take place in the most dangerous place on earth? For me, no. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is good fiction about very real young adult issues but the title, in today’s world, is so tone deaf it’s hard to ignore.
Hattie Hoffman is one more pretty high schooler stuck in small town America who believes herself to be destined for bigger things. In fact, she’s already got a plan to head to NYC from her tiny town in Minnesota after she graduates. Not too surprisingly, because Everything You Want Me to Be is a murder mystery: Hattie doesn’t make it to NYC. Instead, she’s found dead and with such a small town the list of suspects contains only her boyfriend who was supposedly the last person to see her alive.
Author Mindy Mejia flips back and forth through the last year of Mindy’s life to expose the necessary secrets to provide tension. The problem is, they weren’t that surprising and so, did not contribute to a building of suspense. Almost everything you need to know about this novel is found in the dewy, nubile countenance on the book’s cover. Everything You Want Me to Be is worth a look if you’re addicted to light, fast, dead-high-school-good-girls-who-may-not-be-all-that-good mysteries.
The first and most important lesson in acting is to read your audience. Know what they want and give it to them…You knew you were playing it right when your audience was happy. They smiled and praised you and told each other how wonderful you were.