Title: The Most Dangerous Place On Earth
Author: Lindsey Lee Johnson
Publisher: Random House
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is Middle School in America.
You would think that they are mere children, with childish desires and likes, but as thousands of bullied and victimized children know, it is a minefield filled with dangerous adults-in-training, a battleground where the influential, the good-looking and the powerful pick and prey on the loners and the outcasts,
When the book begins, in a privileged community set in a small town in California, Calista ‘Cally’ Broderick is Best Friends Forever with Abigail Cress. She has a crush on Ryan Harbinger who flirts with her. Together they all revel in their own popularity, intentionally or otherwise, taunting and teasing Tristan Bloch, who has no friends at all.
Tristan, who has a crush on Cally, pours his heart out into a letter. Unfortunately, for him, Cally, who is uncomfortable with breaking the status quo, shows the letter to Abby who, in turn, shares it with Ryan. Within hours, Tristan is bullied and taunted on Facebook, prompting him to throw himself off the Golden Gate bridge just a week before the end of eighth grade.
Years later, they are in Junior High, we receive the stories of all the kids. New teacher, 23-year-old Molly Nicoll, is just seven years older than her students. She is filled with a deep compassion for them, and is eager to be a friend to them, and steer them through the turbulence of teenage. But the seven-year gap seems to wide to bridge.
As Molly perceives, They betrayed no hints of the awkward vulnerability, the blushing, blemished, essential discomfort with self, that had plagued her own teenage years.
Through her own experience, Molly knows what Tristan discovered in his final days. That when you are a victim, the only thing worse than being ignored…was being a target.
Molly, who is single, begins a friendship with Doug Ellison, another teacher. She deludes herself into thinking that this friendship could grow into something bigger. But Doug is already in a relationship with a student, Abby, who doesn’t realize that Doug is a predator.
Molly wants to make a difference in the lives of the children, to protect them from predators like Doug, the expectations of their parents, from the pressures imposed by their peers.
It appears as if the administration and the teachers have absolutely no control over the students, something that is unheard of in the average Indian school. As Algebra teacher Gwen says, The inmates are running the institution. The children text and chat in class, initiating greater relationships with their phones than with their teacher.
The book is written from the third person point of view of a number of characters. Each of the chapters tells us the story of the character most affected as the story progresses.
We hear about Abigail and Doug’s illicit affair, of David Chu (The Striver), a student of Asian origin who is mediocre at studies and can’t meet the expectations of his Berkeley alumni parents.
David pays the eternal hustler (The Artist) Nick Brixton to take the SAT on his behalf. Meanwhile, Doug, faced with exposure, leaves school, and Molly is left bereft of an awkward friendship.
When Elizabeth, who also appears for the SAT, does not speak about the fraud committed by Nick, he offers to pay her hush money, a share of his earnings from Dave. When she refuses the money, claiming that she has nowhere to spend it, he asks her to use it to host a party at her home.
This party quickly degenerates and it is here that we see all the characters at their worst.
Returning from the party, there is an accident in which Emma, a talented ballet dancer, is left battered, ending her dancing career.
The cruelty of the kids and the havoc they can play with a weapon like social media is seen through the stories of Tristan and Emma.
It is only through the course of the book that the drama in the lives of these privileged kids from a small town becomes evident. At the beginning, they seem so innocent, so childlike, yet there is so much perversity in them, such a keen desire to take advantage of others to further their own selfish ends.
The only two people who are outside this sphere are Tristan and Elizabeth. Tristan escapes it by ending his life, and Elizabeth spends her childhood and teenage years in isolation.
Cally’s story serves as both the Prologue and the Epilogue.
The multiple stories make it hard for us to relate to any one person. The only story that touched me was that of Elizabeth Avarine; all the others left me unmoved.
This book contains far too much drama for 13-year-olds, and I don't know if that's an expression of reality or just fiction. My school life was a picnic in comparison. I just hope my kids are spared such excitement when they are old enough.
Here the author touches upon so many subjects that cause tumult in the lives of youngsters. Sex, drugs, exams, teachers, dysfunctional home lives, alcohol, too many expectations, predatory relationships, bullying, suicide, social media -- everything has potential for creating trouble.
I liked Molly because she loved to read aloud, the way the words pronounced, surrounded and sheltered her. I was also touched by her eagerness to make a difference in the lives of her students.
I found the description of Emma’s ballet dream very beautiful. I was equally saddened by Ryan’s story, by the choice he made, to enter a world which preys upon the young, and also by his decision not to seek forgiveness and redemption in the arms of his mother. I was struck by the pathos in that line, Given the slightest clue, she would never stop looking for the little boy he had once been.
That tragic line summed up the lives of all the characters, the loss of innocence from their childhood to their teenage years. So much of it lost irrevocably.
(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).