Gatsby in the millennial high school: A review of The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Goodreads average rating: 3.55 / 5

My rating: 4 / 5

Debut author, Lindsey Lee Johnson, has given us a fascinating, and enthrThe Most Dangerous Place on Earthalling look at the modern day high school student. In The Most Dangerous Place On Earth, we are taken inside a upper class high school, taking turns exploring the minds of eight different students, as well as one of their teachers. Not only did I feel like this book was a book about high school students and their drama, but I also saw it as an observation of the American dream, and possibly how it has failed us. In one of the first chapters, Ms. Nicolls, high school English teacher, assigns the students The Great Gatsby. Upon assigning the novel she asks her students “What is the American dream?” This question sets the stage for the rest of the novel, as we watch each teen try to achieve happiness and seek their own dreams. An over-achiever with ivy league ambitions. A delinquent who just wants his parents approval. A high school party girl, who dreams of being a classically trained ballerina. The beautiful girl, who wishes to be seen for more than her physical beauty. An Asian-American, not living up to his parents dreams for him. A schemer who just can’t wait to get away from his town. The jock who only seeks a good time. And the hippie, trying always to escape her guilt. Each of these teens has all the material possessions a person could want; fancy cars, credit cards with unlimited balances, designer clothes, party drugs, and plenty of booze. They lead lives of wealth and abundance, but just like the characters in Gatsby, none of them seem truly happy. They each are looking for more from life than money can buy.

The Good

  • The plot is fast paced and reads easily. The writing in this novel is incredibly readable. Johnson keeps the pacing fast, packing in plenty of drama. I have read some people who felt like too much happened in these kids lives to make it realistic and that it was too dramatic. I would beg differ. As a high school teacher, I can vouch for the fact that high school is dramatic. Weekly there seems to be a new scandal. Therefore, I felt like the pacing, and the plot were perfect. This would make a great book club book, because there would be plenty to talk about and it isn’t a difficult book to conquer.
  • Successful multi-perspective narrative. Often times when I read multi-perspective novels, I feel like the author fails to differentiate the voice between characters and all the characters start to blend together. That is not the case in Johnson’s novel. Each character has a distinct voice, from the language and slang they use, to the way they view the world and the people around them. One thing I found very successful about the multi-perspective narrative, was how each character saw the same events. Much of the story revolves around a party that took place the end of their junior year. We see the party through five of the student’s eyes, and the aftermath of it through the teacher’s eyes. This gave the party so many different layers, and again it helped to give each character a unique voice.
  • The portrayal of high school feels raw and honest. The students speak like high school students. They use slang. They curse. Their hormones are raging. Many books set in high school, the characters feel like watered down caricatures of teenagers.  The teenagers are incredibly real in this book – to the point it may make some uncomfortable. I also felt like her depiction of the teacher world was incredibly realistic. The nerves you feel as a first year teacher. That desire to connect and break through to your students. The need to be liked by your students. The office politics (trust me, teacher cliques are just as bad as high school cliques.)  There is a moment where Ms. Nicoll’s observes that all the girls seem so sure of themselves, and so unlike the awkward teen she remembers being. I find this to be so true. As a teenager I constantly felt awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin. But I watch some of my students who seem to carry themselves with so much confidence and swagger and it amazes me. I found Ms. Nicoll’s insecurities as a young teacher, incredibly easy to relate to, especially as I thought back to my first year teaching.

The Bad

  • No one is particularly easy to like. On the surface the teens all seem to be utterly selfish, with absolutely no concern for how they hurt those around them. To an extent this is true. They each do horrible things, and they each seem to have pretty gray morality throughout the story. However, I felt as you dove into each of their individual stories, the reader understands them better and why they behave the way they do. In all but one of the teens I was able to find redeeming qualities, despite the terrible things they had done. The characters I was less quick to forgive were the teachers. The teachers are acting as immaturely as the students in this novel, each thinking about their own desires over the common good of the school. We have one teacher who initiates an inappropriate relationship with one of his students. Many of the teachers seem to thrive off gossip, and none seem willing to help guide or lead the new teacher. Ms. Nicolls for me grew increasingly frustrating throughout the novel. Her desire to be liked becomes so powerful, it becomes more important to her than actually teaching her students. Her investment in her students quickly goes from endearing to inappropriate.
  • Lots of triggers. There are many difficult topics and situations in this story that may make people uncomfortable. This book deals with suicide, teen sexuality, teacher-student relationships, and teen drinking and drug abuse. There is also an abundant amount of cursing and sexually explicit language. All of this lends to the raw feel of the book, but can also be unsettling at times. I found certain parts of this book difficult and uncomfortable to read. In fact, as much as a I enjoyed this book, I would be wary of recommending it to others because of the amount of triggers in it.
  • The timeline can be confusing at times. This may just be me personally, but with the changing perspectives, I sometimes found it was hard to tell when the events were taking place. Generally stories are told chronologically, but since this one retells the same events from different perspectives, it wasn’t a perfectly chronological tale. It didn’t take long to figure this out but there were points it confused me. I also felt like there should have been some indication of how much time in the school year had passed. It felt like summer break creeps up all of a sudden. There was never any talk of how many weeks or months Ms. Nicolls had been in her new class, which would have helped to put the story into perspective.

Overall, I find this an incredibly interesting read. I have seen some people referring to this book as YA but I definitely would not categorize it that way. Although it has teen protagonists, the writing and the content felt like that of an adult novel. Her style, and the type of story, will appeal to fans of Megan Abbott. I don’t think I would recommend this book for teens still in high school because I fear they would glorify and glamorize the actions of the teens in this book, despite the consequences they each suffer. I think every high school teacher, or aspiring teacher, could get something out of reading this book.

xo,

Nikki

 

 

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