Geography Club - Brent Hartinger
This is a deceptively simply tale of first love in High School. I say itís deceptive because itís written in the first person narrative of a sixteen old boy, and his voice is wonderfully true throughout. However, what he says carries a profound message, and I recommend that you try to get hold of this book and read it.
Russell, the hero of the story, likens High School to a world full of different countries. Itís a clever analogy, and the more you work at it, the more you can pry out of it. Russell is gay, but heís definitely not out, and in the first line of the book he says heís an under cover operative in the land of the popular: the jock changing room. Heís a spy: being taken for one thing when heís actually another. The borders between the countries are blurred and dangerous, and the ground shifts beneath his feet as he tries to negotiate the path of least resistance.
One night, in a gay chatroom, Russell contacts another High School student from his own school. It must be like listening your whole life for a voice from outer space only to hear one night a whispered: weíre here. That thereís another gay teen in his school had never occurred to Russell. Tentatively they agree to meet, and armed with the courage of comradeship they extend their fragile alliance to other gay students. They begin to meet at a pizza place, but soon decide they need somewhere safer and hit on the idea of forming a club at school. Coming up with a club that sounds so boring no one else wants to join, they form the Geography Club.
This whole books rings too true not to be true. I think itís a book everyone can relate to, because cleverly, the author shows that not only gay students feel isolated at school: once they form the Geography Club, other outsiders want to join, too.
Itís a book about alienation and loneliness and the truly frightening things that children can do to avoid both these things. In the fight to be popular, or just accepted, it is like a war out there. And in a world where the boundaries between the enemy factions are blurred, anyone can become a victim at any time.
The author works with gay teen groups. I canít think of anything better he could have written to help them. I wouldnít hesitate to give this book to any teen who felt an outsider at school. †
I loved this book.† A painfully honest account of the Hell thatís high school, from the POV of a smart and articulate 16 year old, Russel Middlebrook whose problems and concerns will be familiar to anyone either going through the process of growing up or who remembers just how hard that was (i.e. everyone).† They say we middle-aged folk envy the young and try to pretend weíre still at that stage, but this book reminds me why Iím glad to be where I am now.
Written for Young Adults, thereís nothing to cause offence (mild language and sexual situations).†
Itís a perfect book to give a teenager.† It ought to be placed in every library.† Indeed Iíd go further and put it on the school curriculum.
What happens when an entire school colludes in a climate of fear so all pervasive a child is subject to shocking abuse because heís different and no one dares stand up against the bullies?† A boy whose life is such total misery he accepts his fate because he has to concentrate on surviving.† Itís not what youíd expect.† The victim isnít gay.† The characters, even the baddies, arenít black & white.† And the book has a positive conclusion.
Russel knows heís gay though he keeps that to himself.† Not even his best friends are aware of his secret.† He isnít one of the popular kids, but Borderline Respectable so no one picks on him.† This is the geography of high school, the metaphor Hartinger uses to great effect to drive home the reality of a separate place with its own rules and orthodoxies rigidly enforced by those in control.† Russel navigates this dangerous territory by concealing his true identity, under cover behind enemy lines.
Russelís closest friends are like himself.† Low profile.† Min is Chinese American, the school egghead.† Gunnar, his best friend since 4th grade, has never had a girlfriend and would do anything to change that.
Russel is tired of being lonely so he takes a chance.† Visiting a Gay Chatroom (nice touch) he discovers heís not the only gay kid at Robert L Goodkind Junior High.† When they arrange a meeting, his mysterious classmate turns out to be Kevin Land, baseball jock and all American hunk, one of the most popular boys in the school.†
Russel has a crush on Kevin so he canít believe his luck.† To make it real, he plucks up courage and reveals all to Min.† Whereupon she admits to being bisexual, that she has a girlfriend, Terese, whoís a lesbian.† Itís the first step on a journey that leads to self-acceptance.† We canít expect others to respect who we are if we donít feel it ourselves.† Having to hide who you are doesnít make it easy to be proud.
A bonding session over pizza leads to setting up a support group, a place where they can slip off their masks and be themselves.† They come up with the Geography Club, something so boring no one else would think to join, so theyíre safe.†† Theyíre understandably paranoid about the consequences of being found out.† Hartinger unrelentingly shows the cruel treatment of exiles like Brian Bund, the social misfit no one wants to know in case they end up like him, cast out by the pack, tormented and abused.†
Russel likes guys. Heís happy with it and thatís good.† But he wants to take it further, to experiment with sex and relationships, like the straight kids.† Contemporary societyís openness about sexuality means young people know about sexual preferences at an earlier age.† Russel isnít struggling to come to terms with being gay but he has to pretend to be something heís not because attitudes, particularly in high school with its pressure to conform, arenít so advanced.† There are no adults in the story.† Young people find talking about sex with parents just as hard as earlier generations.† Peer support counters peer pressure.† Itís important that there are groups where likeminded teens can go to share experience and knowledge.† I wondered how the situation in UK schools compares with America.
Russel and other main characters arenít perfect, which makes them real. Russel does the wrong thing for love of Kevin.† Gunnar takes revenge on Russel when he lets him down.† But they learn to forgive, themselves and each other.† Russel is a totally convincing narrator, likeable, funny and honest even when it goes against him.† As a story of first love itís beautiful, sweet and tender but with an edge that reflects reality.† When the book ended I wanted to know what happened next, so Iím delighted a sequel comes out in February.
(after note: the sequel is called "Order of the Poison Oak" and is available in Hardback from Amazon now. We'll be reviewing it soon.)
Buy in the States from Lambda Rising Booksellers