Thursday, May 12, 2016

Book Review: "The Most Dangerous Place on Earth" by Lindsey Lee Johnson

This was a tremendously intriguing book, but not what I expected based on its description. At some point would it be possible for the marketing departments of publishers to spend more time understanding what its books are about, instead of comparing them to any other popular title?

I digress.

In Mill Valley, California, there's an eighth-grade boy who always seems to be the target of abuse and ridicule from his fellow students. He's desperate to feel understood, to belong, to find a friend. But his one bold gesture goes very, very wrong, causing him more humiliation at the hands of his peers. And then one incident changes everything.

Several years later, many of these same students are in high school. They've mastered all of the cruelty, disdain, and casual nonchalance that children raised among privilege often possess. Yet even as their lives move forward, the incident is always in the back of their minds, affecting them in different ways—pushing them to achieve more, motivating them to care less, sending them on a self-destructive path.

When young teacher Molly Nicoll begins work in Mill Valley, she hasn't lost her idealism, her faith that she's going to connect with her students, break through their shells, and inspire them with a love of learning and a love of reading that she found as a student. But what she finds are overachievers and underachievers, drug addicts and students who wish they were anywhere but in school, and yet want to make their mark on their fellow students. Molly thinks her students need her, though, so she finds herself crossing lines to win their trust, their faith, perhaps even their friendship.

The students she tries to reach are unique in their own ways, but share many of the same characteristics. There's Dave, pushed by his parents to be the best, to make something of himself, to not settle for anything but perfection (it doesn't really matter if he wants the same things); Elisabeth, the beautiful and seemingly untouchable one who actually just wants someone to notice her for who she is; Emma, the talented dancer and self-destructive party girl; Nick, who uses his intelligence only when it suits his purposes; and Cally, who changed her name to Calista after eighth grade, and spends most of her days high and daydreaming with her friends.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth takes an unflinching look at the culture of privilege that many wealthy students grow up in, and how this privilege actually puts them at a disadvantage unless they're willing to take control of their own lives. Most of these students are unsympathetic, flawed characters, although you understand how they got that way. This is a book that leaves you wondering how true-to-life these behaviors are, and how many students really act this way—and how many teachers get caught up in the need to be part of their students' lives.

Lindsey Lee Johnson is a really talented storyteller. There's nothing particularly shocking, plot-wise, but you get engrossed in the story, even as you may feel at least a bit disgusted. This book reminded me of a bunch of other similar books, but in good ways. All I know is, if high school is really like this now, I'm glad I'm far away from it!!

NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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