In an epigraph to her new novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Lindsey Lee Johnson quotes Jim Stark: “Nobody talks to children.” The central character of the novel, young first-year high-school teacher Miss Molly Nicoll, is an exception to Stark’s rule. She desperately tries to talk to her students, to enter into their world, and to be a help to them. The novel poses the question whether such an admirable moral undertaking is, in the end, actually worthwhile.
The novel is beautifully written and inventively arranged. The opening chapter tells of a tragedy that befalls a group of eighth-grade students in an affluent California junior high. Obese, gifted, misfit Tristan finds the courage to write a love note to the girl he adores from a distance. Though Calista Broderick is pretty, and on the fringes of the popular crowd, Tristan believes there is something different about her. “You might not think that anyone in this School sees you but I do. I mean sees you really,” Tristan writes.
Tristan is not entirely wrong about Calista. She is different from the rest of the girls. We come to see that had he waited, perhaps until high school, they might have been friends. Instead, in eighth grade, when Cally reads the letter to her best-friend Abigail Cress, and when Abigail says it is “nasty” and “gross,” and when they decide to show the letter to the beautiful Ryan Harbinger, and when Ryan and his best pal Damon Flintov decide to expose and bully Tristan on Facebook…we know that Tristan’s fate is sealed.
The rest of the book explores, in turn, the high school lives of each actor in the tragedy. It is a display of moral luck, of how our futures are taken captive by decisions we made when we did not know what we were doing. The feeling is of a star exploding: in eighth grade the characters are tightly entangled; by graduation they have drifted beyond one another’s reach.
Interspersed between each chapter on a different student—The Striver, The Dancer, The Pretty Boy, etc.—are interludes depicting the first years of young Miss Nicoll’s teaching life. The feeling in these chapters is the opposite of a star exploding; Molly is trying to burrow deeper and deeper, straining to discover the core of brokenness and desperation she senses in her students’ lives. As a teacher, Molly’s story reminded me of my own youthful idealism, and also of the many reasons such idealism is hard to maintain. Despite her care and effort, Molly mostly fails to make the profound connections and dramatic interventions that fill her daydreams and her journals.
Late in the novel a veteran teacher named Beth interrupts Molly’s futile efforts to save her students from the futures already contained in their pasts. “Molly, listen to me now,” Beth says. “These are not your kids. These are your students.” “But isn’t our job to care?” Molly asks. “Beth smiled pityingly. ‘Of course not. It’s our job to teach.’” Part of what makes The Most Dangerous Place on Earth an honest novel is that we are left not knowing who to pity, Molly or Beth. I can only say that, pitiful or not, I love Molly, and Lindsey Lee Johnson loves her too.
Kent Dunnington is the author of Addiction and Virtue.