Sunday, February 22, 2009

You think you got Problems

There's a whole genre of kids' fiction -- mostly aimed at pre-teens and teens -- called "problem novels." It's a relatively recent genre, novels in which kids face realistic modern problems: death, crime, drugs. This was kind of revolutionary and was rightly applauded, engaging some readers who insist on acknowledgment that Dick/Jane/Sally suburbs and families just are not everyone's experience.

Publishing and awards have gone overboard with these books, though, and that's a whole post by itself, but before I offer that one I'm going to serve dessert first and tell you about the ultimate Problem Novel.

I got a "newsletter" (read: ad) from abebooks a couple days ago, which mentioned a list voted by British readers as the 10 funniest books of all time. No way does this one belong with that largely modern classic group, but it popped into my head immediately. The Grounding of Group 6 is one of my guilty pleasures, ridiculous but funny as all get-out and seems (judging by its amazon reviews) to have a little cult following, enough to have gotten it reprinted at least once. That's notable since, with some exceptions, hot teen novels have short self-lives.

In The Grounding of Group 6, a new school year opens at hip, elite Coldbrook boarding school. Orientation consists of a wilderness hike for all the new students, who are divided into small groups and sent out, each with a faculty advisor, for bonding, trust-forming, resource-testing, yadda yadda.

Only... this school offers parents a special service. If you have problem teens, you can arrange to have them assigned to Group Six. This is the group that ... does not come back. Ever. Part of the quite black humor here derives from the implication that unwanted-child disposal -- no, I mean real disposal -- is one of the raisons d'ĂȘtre of boarding schools:
Arn had said that there'd been lots of Coldbrook-sorts-of-schools, for years and years and years. "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" How many times had someone said that to a friend? And gotten back the answer "Oh she or he went away to school and I lost track of her or him." Oh, yeah.

To present these kids, with the various ways in which they've teed off or disappointed their utterly coldhearted parents, to make it a biting comedy and still touch on the heartbreak at least some of them would feel, is hard. Thompson is remarkably successful at balancing the reality and the campiness. The evil adults pretty much are caricatures, and that works, since it reduces the painful-reality problem a reader might have, and lets the humor be nice and dark, while the more believable kids of Group 6 made me genuinely care. It skewers preppie culture nicely, and has some sharp things to say about education, fads, and conformity.

It's got flaws. To make the plot work, these kids have to get over this emotional trauma way too quickly, though black comedy allows some license. The romantic pairups among them work out too neatly. And the pairing-up of the 22-year-old leader with one of the girls, an impossibly wise and mature 16-year-old, is probably why it's gone out of print, though they resist unprotected sex. And the circumstances under which they manage that make it not terribly plausible. The resolution is idealistic, though I can be over-tolerant of happy endings because, blast it, I like them. The absence of cell phones and computers (it was published in 1983) is conspicuous, but, heck, just set it in 1983 instead of in "the present."

Basically, the story tells how the group -- including their leader, who was hired to off them -- faces the truth and turns the tables on the school, taking it over. They form a real Family Of Choice, and make a plan. The scene in which they go through the items in the evil headmaster's office was what sent me into a fit of laughter. He's a Mary Worth fan and that's all I'm sayin'.

Thompson wrote other books that were maybe less flawed, but just didn't have the bite that this one has.

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