Book Review: The Headmaster’s Darlings

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Had I not listened to the author speak at my college, I probably would’ve never picked up this book.  Books about teachers who live to teach (what I call “vocational novels”) aren’t generally my thing, simply because I learn a little something from every teacher (good and bad, but never online), rather than a lot from one.  I prefer books about relationships, be they friendships, love stories, etc.  All of the relationships in this book are superficial, at best, nonexistent, at worst.

Before I continue, I will say that Ms. Clark’s “book talk” was fantastic.  The way she described her childhood home of Mountain Brook, Alabama, painted an intriguing picture; I was also riveted with the second part of her talk on her friendship with Pat Conroy (author of “The Prince of Tides”).  Though I’m the type of person who is impressed with credentials (Ms. Clark graduated from Harvard and has a Ph.D), I will say I’ve never found that the more academic or educated one is, the better writer they are; Ms. Clark is no exception.  Creativity and imagination can be nurtured, but I don’t believe they can be taught.

Though Ms. Clark is an engaging speaker, and this book is based on what she knew—real life high school teacher, Martin Hames, who changed her life (though I’m not quite sure how, judging from this book) and was, literally, larger than life (i.e. not fun-sized)—it stirred absolutely no emotion in me.  I did not care about any of the characters, including the one I was supposed to care for.

In her talk, Ms. Clark mentioned how it was important that even heroes have their flaws, but there was one thing Norman Laney (i.e. Martin Hames) was a party to that I found reprehensible (75).  Laney never seemed to care about helping his students grow as human beings, but only getting them into an Ivy League school (219).  That’s impressive, but there’s a whole big world out there that isn’t concentrated in the Northeast.  Rather than help students find the college/university that would be a good fit for them, his “one-size-fits-all” solution was to push them into the Ivy League.  I never saw him guiding his students to pursue their passions or help them choose a major.

I remember at the talk, when Ms. Clark was talking about Mountain Brook being an elitist bubble, one of the ladies spoke up and said, “Kinda interesting you went from set of elites to another?” (referring to Harvard).  I could tell Ms. Clark didn’t like that very much, but the woman was right:  the “Hah-vahd” types may promote diversity of race, gender, etc., but not diversity of thought (Christianity or conservatism, I imagine, isn’t very popular there).  I can read an author by his/her book, and it is clear that this author has a disdain for the blue-collar worker—those who don’t get a prestigious education and who prefer to work with their hands in a non-artsy way.

One interesting analysis occurs with the “dull” Midwestern doctor who tells Laney “…the South clings to the worst things about itself simply because it’s afraid it will lose what makes it unique if it changes” (222).  I can see this translated to food; the South is knowing for frying everything edible in existence, and our region, in particular, is weighed down with an obesity epidemic.  One of the missionaries I knew who served here (she was from British Columbia) gained 15 pounds while on her mission.

This book had so many different characters flitting in and out, I felt they were mere names in an obituary, for all I got to know any of them.  I think this would have been a stronger book had the author focused on one (perhaps herself in character form), or just a few students, whose lives were transformed by this particular teacher.  I believe it would’ve been even better had it been told with the immediacy of the first-person point-of-view (even if it was told through several viewpoints).  Moreover, the reader is never privy to Mr. Laney’s classroom lectures, but, I suppose, like plays, the real action happens behind the scenes (or, in this case, in his office).

If I was Martin Hames, I wouldn’t have appreciated this shady portrayal.  There was a bizarre chapter where he suffers from paranoia, thinking people believe he’s a pedophile (162), which was never mentioned before, and it’s never mentioned again, by him or anyone else.  Because of his morbid obesity, he is stereotyped as having no sexual feelings, because what would be the use?  (Lots of obese individuals still get married and have families—they’re just like anyone else, except bigger.)  I can understand his size making it extremely hard to get a date, but to never struggle with such feelings at all made him seem less realistic.

The “shrugging of shoulders”, “nodding of heads”, and “hung up the phone” were annoying.  He shrugged/she nodded/he hung up is sufficient.  The phrase “allowed for a pregnant pause to gestate (105) I thought an odd choice of words, though I understood the play-on nature of them.  I think many well-placed metaphors might have improved the book.  We see, we hear, but we don’t touch, taste, or smell.  Overall, the book was well-written, but it lacked any kind of warmth, levity, or humanness.  Though I did finish it, it was a task, because I was craving to feel something; I’ve read nonfiction books about business that have evoked more feeling in me than this book.  I don’t like to write a negative review about a local author, but it did win a Southern fiction award, so what do I know?  I simply know how the book made me feel (or didn’t feel); though I’d checked out her other Mountain Brook novels, I traded them in for something else.  I’d had enough of the secular deification of Norman Laney.  He just wasn’t all that inspiring to me, but I guess I had to have been there.

Ms. Clark was quite vocal about her upbringing, but her portrayal of Mountain Brook seemed very one-dimensional.  It strained my credibility to believe that “Brookies” thought everyone from New York was a Jew—never Irish, never Italian, but always Jewish.  That type of ignorance in the eighties (and yes, even in the Deep South) was hard for me to believe, though she lived there, I did not.

What rubbed me the wrong way about Norman Laney was referring to someone as a barbarian because they liked to hunt, fish, and watch Alabama football (and I say this as someone who hates spectator sports) is an elitist attitude.  One could say people who enjoy such things are uncultured, yes, but not a barbarian, however polite (130).  If there weren’t farmers, Norman wouldn’t eat.  Moreover, he talks about how this certain barbarian would never once go to Europe (lots of people can’t afford it), and they’re not going to fill their homes with fine art when they need that money to feed their families.

Part of society’s problem (in my opinion) is when we squirrel ourselves away in academia too long, we lose our spirituality (I’m not talking about religion, but just communing with nature).  “You’ll never catch me gazing at mountains or wildflowers…I want to see paintings and sculptures!  Don’t give me what God can do.  I want to see what man can do,” quoth Laney (124).  How unfortunate that someone would prefer to see a painting of a flower than a real one, but maybe, this is one of those character flaws the author was talking about.  Perhaps it is in this way that Laney is a bit hedonistic, as he is in his eating habits.  A piece of fine art goes up in value, whereas flowers die, so perhaps this was his thinking.  It was interesting how Laney made his glorious fat work for him, but for him to think that his outward appearance was what made him special was sad.  He was a one-man body-acceptance slow movement (131), though he did choose to get bariatric surgery in the end.  Laney was the type of academic who was only focused on his mind, and not his body, but if the body dies, the mind dies with it.

I know it sounds like I hated this book, but there were a few gems, such as Laney’s philosophy that Arts and Culture were integral to personal growth, even if one was majoring in one of the STEM fields (though the term STEM wasn’t used), or going to MIT.  “…his long-held belief that those who lived for Art and Culture had the greatest chance of fulfilling the best part of themselves” (74), as reading and writing strengthen empathy and critical thinking skills.

There was also an interesting quote at the bottom of page 97 I thought quite profound (about the interconnectedness of all things).  I won’t cite it, but if you ever come across the book, look it up.

One of the best quotes of the book was by one of the female colleagues of Laney’s: “…the need for future mothers to have an education worthy of their most important task of raising the world’s children” (141).  A well-rounded education is good for all moms—whether stay-at-home or working-outside-the-home.  Even Latter-day Saints are big on higher education for both genders, per their belief that “the glory of God is intelligence”.

One of the worst (three) parts of the book is when, towards the end, Laney starts spouting spurious, uncontested claims about Ronald Reagan having Alzheimer’s while in office.  My take:  the author wanted to get her dig in by “speaking through her character”.  These were the final sour notes in the book, and added nothing to the story.  The ending didn’t pack a punch, and seemed a bit rushed, after such laborious reading.

Though this was definitely a comedy of manners, there wasn’t much funny about it.

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