Monday, August 13

A Field Guide to High School


by Marissa Walsh
Delacorte/Random House 2007

On the day her older sister Claire takes off for college incoming 9th grader Andie finds a notebook deliberately left behind, a field guide to high school. The guide her over-achieving sister had compiled is written into an older Peterson's nature guide (a family joke, their last name is Petersen) and uses for it's headings those in the guide. Occasionally the headings relate to the subjects at hand, though more often than not that connection is forced at best.

Claire's guide is specifically to the private high school she (and soon her younger sister) will be attending. When she finds the book Andie calls her best friend Beth over to share the wisdom and puzzle over it's entries. Beth is going to attend a Catholic school in the fall and appears to exist mainly to act as Andie's sidekick for comments and to provide the occasional contrast. Despite the focus on non-public schools most of what Claire (and author Walsh by extension) portrays is equally applicable in that all the information within the book conforms to the most most basic of stereotypes.

The book launches straight in with various lessons on how to be driven to school, where to sit and eat in the cafeteria, the usual collection of rules-of-conformity that are often experienced and learned first hand. Toward the end of the book is where Claire breaks down all the different classes of people -- the nerds are called Hawkings, the rich girls are Miffy's or Heather's, et cetera ad nauseum -- though this would have made more sense at the beginning of a true field guide but would have ruined what narrative flow exists. Each section of information followed by a brief conversation by Andie and Beth to show their reaction, or to point out contradictions in Claire's depiction of herself, or just to worry about what high school is going to be like.

After they finish the book Claire calls from college to tell Andie that there's a final chapter in an envelope under her bed. When Beth leaves Andie takes it out and reads what is essentially the punchline: "The truth is, there is no field guide to high school. I made it all up." She goes on to reassure her younger sister that she'll do fine, and that she's a pretty cool person and won't have any problems.

The author, we then discover in her little biographical paragraph, does not have a sister and she did not like high school. It shows. It shows in that she thinks that an older sister giving kindly advice would spend all that time and energy pulling her sister's leg only to give her a wink and virtual hug and say "you'll be fine" when in reality that same kindly sister wouldn't have needed to write a field guide because she'd actually talk to her sibling. Or, if she wasn't a sister of the kindly nature, she'd write the field guide to freak her sister out and never let on that it was all one big joke. And if the author had actually liked high school she'd have never written a book so incredibly shallow, a book that goes out of it's way to promote stereotypes and sheer nastiness and then say, on the last page "Just kidding! Ha ha!", a book that didn't waste a reader's time. You don't (or didn't) have to like high school to write about it, but you also don't have to go around promoting it as a negative experience for the sake of a protracted "joke."

The book makes repeated references to movies, television shows and other media as shorthand for supporting the stereotypes and as an attempt at verisimilitude. The references imply a certain shared teen experience across time (The OC, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but at the same time feel more late-1980's and early 1990's-based in a way that makes them feel dated (Heathers, Ferris Bueller's Day Off). "Claire" includes an essential list of movies and songs as a sort of primer for understanding high school but, as she says, there is no real field guide to high school making these references are meaningless filler.

The entire exercise feels like a prolonged hate fantasy, a revenge-of-the-preppy-nerd with a clever title, somewhat clever format, and little humor to support it. Clearly a book only a vapid, conceited eighth grade queen bee would love... and use as a field-ops manual. Though I hate to promote books over movies, two hours with a Brat Pack film is a better use of time than reading this book. Or, if you only have three minutes, try the Bowling for Soup song High School Never Ends.

Check in tomorrow where I'll hit a graphic novel that doesn't insult its readers.
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