Monday, September 13

Killing Mr. Griffin

by Lois Duncan 
Dial 1978 

A group of high school kids decide to teach their hard nosed English teacher a lesson in humility by kidnapping him and threatening to kill him.  Hilarity ensues. (Not!) 

As a "light reading" choice among the other required reading for one of my daughters this summer I decided she might enjoy Killing Mr. Griffin.  She has an odd sense of taste and humor, and my recollection was that this story would be a nice respite from some of the heavier reading she was doing (i.e. The Book Thief, her new favorite book of all time).  When the book came home from camp at the end of summer with a bookmark a third of the way in I was confused.  Did she not have time to read it?  Was it too dark?  "I just didn't like it," said the girl who finished practically everything she picks up.  So I decided to reread for the first time in maybe decades.  

I understand now what happened. 

Though this sort of story has proven to be popular over time – the movie Heathers probably owes some debt of gratitude to Duncan, as does Michael Northrop's Gentlemen – what probably kills this book for a contemporary reader is the language.  I can't tell if it's a question of style, a book of it's day, or if Duncan was trying for something Gothic in tone, but all throughout she uses words and phrases that would strike a modern reader to be stale as opposed to of an era.  There were words that nicked and jabbed at me as I read, then on page 30 I was stopped dead.

      He put a pan of water onto the stove to boil and opened the cabinet where his mother stored foodstuff.  There were two boxes of Jell-o, cherry and banana.
     "Good old mom," he muttered resignedly.

The word "foodstuff," the stiffness of "Good old mom" and the tortured dialog tag "he muttered resignedly," these didn't just tumble clumsily in my head, they were actually hard to read aloud without stumbling. I probably should have sensed it coming from the beginning when a character Susan "told herself vehemently" and "thought wryly."  I could accept that the English teacher in question, a pompous ass who gave up college level teaching in order to show the high school world how it's done right, would speak formally and in drawn out, stilted phrasing, but to have a teen thinking (much less speaking) in such obvious SAT adjectives should have tipped me off.

At the story level, coming out in the late 70's as it did, I'm not surprised by the troubled-kid-leads-the-others-astray morality summation.  I don't think it would have been possible to write this as the lark of well-intentioned kids gone haywire back then; books for teens still needed to justify themselves beyond entertainment.  The problem is that it takes an unsympathetic character like Mr. Griffin and tries to get us to like him by making him a victim when, in fact, he was a terrible instructor with no interpersonal skills and should never have been teaching in the first place. 

My daughter never got to figure that out, though.  She gave up on it possibly because of the language and possibly because there were no characters she could identify with.  The good characters are weak, the bad characters are whiny, and the title character is a jerk.  A lesson here on making sure you fully remember (or reread) older books before handing them off to younger readers today.
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