The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
After reading some thought-provoking comments/reviews on what I'd found to be a powerful, highly entertaining debut novel, I began to notice that most of the comments were from readers who either have children, educate children, or both; many of them seemed to suggest that Ms. Johnson's story was a little overblown, exaggerated, and only relevant to the type of rich kid, private school society that is portrayed in the novel. Others were "shocked" and "unable to imagine that this is what goes on in high school these days!" I had to take a step back and think about my own experiences and how they contribute to my view, which is exactly the opposite.
Please indulge me this bit of contextual information: I grew up in a small town (population 7,400) with one high school, no private schools, and the only "rich" kids were the ones whose family had money passed down to them from previous generations...and there were two of them. Our parents were a little less "Tiger Mom" and little more community-oriented (most parents knew the other parents, they all attended community functions together, church, etc.); there wasn't as much pressure to "succeed" as students because the competition seemed a little less fierce back then (this was in the early '90s). Our parents thought that they knew what we were up to and, of course, they had no idea.
None of the situations that are described in this novel shocked or surprised me; with the exception of social media, which had not yet been conceived during my high school years, all of these things were going on while I was in high school: the cool kids bullied the not-so-cool-kids (in some pretty horrific ways, as I remember it); most students drank to excess and many were enjoying their discovery of illicit drugs; kids were having sex - everywhere; teachers were having affairs with other teachers (married or not); and we were all trying to make sense of these things as best we could.
Sadly, many years have passed and, even though the novel is new, the stories are not; they are simply different. I don't have children and I'm not planning to have any in the future; my experience with teenagers is limited to the work I've done with youth groups, the teens I encounter in my work as a hospital chaplain and the stories I hear from friends. I am not qualified to fall back on time-honored clichés about "the way we're raising our children these days."
As I reflect on the stories from this novel, though, one thing really stands out: these kids, and the ones I grew up with, are all experiencing tragedy, grief and loss, very emotional events, with no knowledge of how to incorporate them into their lives. Parents certainly care about what their children are experiencing, but are unable to comprehend/acknowledge the magnitude of what's happening behind the scenes; their kids aren't sharing all of the story.
While The Most Dangerous Place on Earth may not be a hit with parents and teachers (it's tough when the truth smacks you in the face and you're not prepared for the sting), Johnson eloquently describes the chaos of adolescence and illuminates the raw emotion that, left unchecked, can prove deadly. A remarkable debut novel that I will certainly recommend to many readers; even the ones with teenagers.