Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Review: Chain Gang Elementary

Chain Gang Elementary
Chain Gang Elementary by Jonathan Grant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review can also be seen on my blog, Now is Gone.

Book Info: Genre: Satiric Literary Fiction Reading Level: Adult

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this eBook from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis: In the first place, God created idiots. This was for practice. Then he created School Boards. – Mark Twain

After a murder at Bonaire Elementary, Richard and Anna Lee Gray seek a good school for their son Nick in a safe neighborhood. Their search leads them to Malliford, a "school of excellence." When redistricting sends scores of minority students to Malliford, iron-willed Principal Estelle Rutherford declares war on kids to raise test scores and save her reputation. Dissident parents revolt, electing Richard to head the Parent-Teacher Organization, and tensions explode. Welcome to Chain Gang Elementary, home to vast right-wing conspiracies, 3rd-grade gangsters, and bake-sale embezzlers – where toxic childhood secrets boil over, reformers go stark raving mad, and culture wars escalate into armed conflict. A tale of war that is poignant, timely, and brutally funny, Chain Gang Elementary is a One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest for the K-6 world.

First Sentence: In the twelfth year of his marriage, sixteen months before the shooting, twenty-one shopping days until Christmas, and eight hours before he reckoned for the tenth time that his wife didn't love him, Richard Gray met a woman who would have roughly the same effect on his life a tornado has on a trailer park.

My Thoughts: Mr. Grant offered this book to me in addition to his excellent Brambleman, which I reviewed just a couple days ago. Since I like to read more than one book by an author, if possible, to be able to understand the full range of his or her skills, I was happy to oblige.

I found it interesting that Grant has the same basic family structure in this story – a stay-at-home father who is a writer, a mother who works long hours and shows her “devotion” to her husband in high levels of snarkiness, close father-son relationship, etc. However, I have no idea what state this is set in – the father of the piece is originally from Missouri, same as Brambleman, but I have no basis for their location, other than it is not Missouri, but is farther south. For some reason that bothered me; I guess it doesn’t really matter, though.

I’ll tell you one thing; this book has made me very happy I do not have any children so I don’t have to deal with any of this type of nonsense. I’d probably be just like Ricky in this case – boiling mad pretty much constantly if I had to deal with the modern-day bureaucratic mess that has been made of our public schools (they were bad enough back in the day when I was attending). I have no idea if the small-town school I attended at a PTA (or PTO, like this one, for that matter), because my parents worked together to run a ranch, and since I rarely caused any sort of trouble (except for occasionally correcting teachers when they would give information incorrectly – which didn’t exactly endear me to most of them), most of the interaction with my parents was fairly cordial, but I can really see my dad acting like Ricky in these sorts of situations – only much more violent, of course. To watch the train wreck in progress by reading the book was bad enough; imaging myself in any of the roles was enough to raise my own blood pressure! At any rate, I have incredible sympathy for the good teachers left to try to slog their way through this stuff, and it has only raised my own respect for the terrific teachers I had when I was in grade school – well, mostly. Like all people, I had a few duds, but I will be eternally grateful to them for doing their best to keep us focused and challenged. Especially Mrs. Johannes, our third-grade teacher, who had us again in fifth grade and basically had to start over when our fourth-grade teacher wasn’t able to handle us (there were a high number of very intelligent kids in my class), and dear Mr. Capp (now deceased), who had my class in sixth grade, straight out of college, and whom we about drove mad. My hat’s off to anyone willing to do this, and dedicate themselves to the task, like the undervalued Mrs. Little in this story.

I’m not sure why, but the last 100 pages of this book really dragged for me, which is ironic considering how much happens during that section. It’s very fast-paced, but it didn’t hold my interest. I really cannot evaluate why – it’s written well enough, with only a few misused, missing or extra words, there’s no lag with the characters and, in fact, we learn a lot during this section, but I had to really push myself to finish the book. Maybe it is just because I don’t have children and part of the tension here is over issues of having children, so I just didn’t connect with it. At any rate, don’t let that stop you from checking this book out, especially if you have younger children. The characters are done well, the writing is smooth and flows along nicely, and the plotting is excellent, with lots of twists and turns and surprises – especially at the end.

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