Harper Teen, 2008, 419 pages
In this lyrical, absorbing, award-winning novel, nothing is as it seems, and every clue leads to more questions.
At age eleven, Taylor Markham was abandoned by her mother. At fourteen, she ran away from boarding school, only to be tracked down and brought back by a mysterious stranger. Now seventeen, Taylor's the reluctant leader of her school's underground community, whose annual territory war with the Townies and visiting Cadets has just begun. This year, though, the Cadets are led by Jonah Griggs, and Taylor can't avoid his intense gaze for long. To make matters worse, Hannah, the one adult Taylor trusts, has disappeared. But if Taylor can piece together the clues Hannah left behind, the truth she uncovers might not just settle her past, but also change her future.
Here is my one-line summary of On the Jellicoe Road: ANGSTY ANGSTY AGNSTORRIFIC ANGST ANGST sex ANGSTY ANGSTAPOLOOZA!
I understand that Melina Marchetta is hugely popular with YA fans, so this review won't make me any new fans, but when has that ever stopped me? :D On the Jellicoe Road is prettily written (you always know that pretty writing is a book's main selling point when it's described as "lyrical") and it's got a fairly intricate if predictable story (the "mysteries" the intelligent reader will figure out very early), but mostly it's high-grade angst centered around a girl named Taylor who was abandoned by her manic drug-addict mother and raised at the Jellicoe School, a boarding house for troubled/orphaned kids, with haphazard mentorship by a woman named Hannah who found Taylor after her mother abandoned her. At the beginning of the book, Hannah disappears, which obviously triggers some serious issues for the twice-abandoned Taylor (or thrice, if you count the father she doesn't even really remember).
Much of the first part of the book is taken up with the "territory wars" between three factions of kids: the Jellicoe School students, the Townies, and the Cadets, who camp out in the woods along the Jellicoe Road every summer as part of their cadet thing. These three groups conduct a very involved two-month campaign of war games every year, fighting over territory, taking captives, and generally behaving like overgrown Lost Boys (and girls, though it seems to be mostly the boys who tussle while the girls kind of stand around snarking at them when they aren't being taken captive). Although this is all strictly unofficial and conducted without any knowledge of any adults, they actually have an entire book of rules that everyone follows, so it's all rather civilized even if people do get beaten up sometimes.
While this is all entertaining, it turns out to have little to do with the main plot. Taylor has become, almost in spite of herself, the leader of the Jellicoe students, which means she's responsible for strategizing, negotiating, etc. She turns out to be a pretty shitty general, and in fact, is generally kind of a shitty person, being preoccupied with her own problems, not really wanting the job but keeping it out of stubbornness because her rivals want to take it from her. She neglects her friends to the point that I wonder why she has any and terrifies the younger students who look up to her, at which point my thought was that if she didn't want the job she should just step down and deal with her issues on her own.
As the story proceeds, we learn that Taylor has a history with Jonah Griggs, the "tank-like" leader of the Cadets. This expands into a complicated three-way "frenemies" relationship with the leader of the Townies as well, which echoes the story Taylor has found written in a journal Hannah left behind, about a group of students who began the territory wars years ago.
As I said, unraveling the mysteries is not challenging, and On the Jellicoe Road doesn't try to be a suspenseful page-turner, but a lyrical engine of constant angst. Taylor has asthma, so whenever she's not hyper-ventilating on pure emotion, she winds up breathless because of her asthma. Jonah Griggs first appears as a bully and a brute, but of course we learn he's actually got a soft cuddly center, and plenty of angsty-angst fuel in his own background.
This is a book whose appeal to teenagers is easy to see. It's all squeeze-you-by-the-throat breathless drama and angst and trauma and tragedy as only teenagers can experience it, a constant high-pitched melodramatic whine that had me clenching my teeth and rolling my eyes by the end.
Despite all the negative comments, I'll admit that it's probably not meant to appeal to a jaded cynic like me. It's meant to appeal to readers who either really have that much drama in their lives, or think they do, or wish they did, or just want to empathize with someone who does. Readers who will read with breathless excitement about some emo girl's First Time and who haven't read widely enough to recognize blindingly obvious clues. It's not genius, it's not for me, but it's definitely a teen book.
Have you read On the Jellicoe Road?
Verdict: On the Jellicoe Road is a roller coaster of dramatic teen tragedy and breathless bittersweet emotions. It's fast-paced and a quick and easy read, but unless you are a fan of all things Young Adult and occupy the emotional head-space of a teenager, grown-ups may have a hard time savoring the angst in this critically-acclaimed YA novel.
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