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Review of "After"

By Francine Prose
Joanna Cotler, 2003
Review by Su Terry on Apr 28th 2003

After by Francine Prose is a well-written suspense filled tale about a high school in the aftermath of a shooting at a neighboring high school. This novel explores the issues of personal freedom, political control, and the common good of society. This novel will definitely generate discussion among students, teachers, and readers in general.

After by Francine Prose is set at the beginning of another school year in an unnamed fictional town in Western Massachusetts. As the novel opens, a shooting at neighboring Pleasant Valley High School is in progress. Before killing themselves, the three students shoot and kill five students and three teachers. Fourteen more students are critically wounded. For fifteen-year old, Tom Bishop and his friends ? good-looking Brian, bright Avery, and stoner Silas - the "Smart Jocks", it is hard to imagine that they have experienced their last normal school day. When they return to school the next day, the students are called to an assembly where they are introduced to Dr. Henry Willner, a grief and crisis counselor. It is announced that Dr. Willner will be in-residence at the school for the next three months in order to help the students through their time of crisis. Dr. Willner, however, does not offer any empathic counseling, but instead begins to introduce strict rules and new procedures. First, he installs metal detectors and institutes random backpack and purse checks. Any forbidden items are seized and the student is given a mandatory two-day suspension. Next, he institutes a strict dress code. Violators are immediately sent home and given a mandatory two-day suspension. When popular Stephanie Tyrone does not return to school after refusing to remove her red AIDS ribbon worn in memory of her brother, (wearing red is strictly forbidden) it becomes apparent to the other students that Dr. Willner means serious business and did not play favorites. Next, Dr. Willner institutes random drug testing for participants in extracurricular activities. Then, Dr. Willner installs loud televisions on the buses that air "Great Moments in History." While on the surface the new rules, procedures, and innovations "for the protection of the students" did not seem all that abnormal, the students knew that there was something much more sinister happening. Every day the rules changed, the list of forbidden items grew, and new forms of search instituted often without the students being informed. Even the teachers and administrators began acting in a very guarded manner. It was not long before Tom and his friends were caught in Dr. Willner's web. First, a copy of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and a Rap CD are found in Tom's locker during an unannounced random locker search. Next, he is caught with a cell-phone - an item he did not know was forbidden. Finally, his friend Silas is caught in the random drug testing of athletes. While Tom's items are simply seized Silas is sent to "Operation Turnaround" a facility with an unusually high death rate. The finally straw comes when Tom, Brian, and Avery, the remaining "smart jocks" are informed by Dr. Willner that they will throw the basketball game against Pleasant Valley. While initially the loss is couched in terms of helping to lift the sagging spirits of Pleasant Valley ? a number of the basketball team were killed or wounded in the shooting ? finally Dr. Willner informs the three that "bad things, very bad things will happen" if the team does not lose. Will the three throw the game? What "bad things" is Dr. Willner talking about? Will Silas ever return from Operation Turnaround or will he become another statistic?

The students of Central High are well drawn and realistic. Tom Bishop describes himself and his friends as "smart jocks". "Smart jocks" are definitely not your average teen novel stereotype and neither are these characters. Tom worries about his widowed dad, struggles to reconcile his conflicted feelings about his father's girlfriend, Clare, and desires to go out with the bright and popular Becca Sawyer. Silas while also "a smart jock" smokes marijuana sometimes to excess. His parents are former hippies and drug experimentation was not as major an issue while growing up in his household as consuming sweets, eating meat, and watching television. Since the Wilmer regime, Silas, however, is smoking marijuana more than usual and definitely more than he should given the random searches and drug testing. While at fist his conspiracy theories about Stalinist control and Invasion of the Body Snatchers takeovers sounded like the paranoid ramblings of a drug abuser after Willner's changes they begin to sound rational. Avery is another "smart jock." His parents are lawyers and he is one of the few African Americans in the school. His racist attitude makes him suspect that "he and his kind" might be next, but unlike Silas, he has learned to control his behavior and curb his tongue. Finally, there is Brian, the last of the clique of "smart jocks." He is enviably popular with the girls but too quick with sarcastic remarks. Mrs. Ridley is delightful as the sympathetic social studies teacher who is obviously scared, but willing to bend the rules in order to protect a student's best interest. Finally there is Dr. Willner. His is cold and manipulative with the students, but has a sickeningly sweet fake veneer for parents. He is evil incarnate at its insipid best.

After is a wonderful exploration of personal freedom versus societal protection. The book is a wonderful springboard for a number of topics to discuss with young people, including the limits of personal freedom, political control, societal repression, and public good. While students can discuss the relationship of these issues to a school environment, many adults may find the book analogous to life in general in post September 11th America. In fact Francine Prose wrote the book after it occurred to her that following September 11th "the problematic aspects of our new lives?baggage searches, metal detectors, incursions on our privacy?were already part of our children's lives, and had been for some time."

Francine Prose is an author of adult fiction. Prose grew up in Brooklyn and was educated at Harvard. She has published ten adult novels, including, Household Saints (1981), Hungry Hearts (1983), Bigfoot Dreams (1986), Women and Children First (1988), Primitive People (1992), The Peaceable Kingdom (1993), Guided Tours of Hell (1997) and Blue Angel (2000). In addition, she has published two collection of short stories and a recent non-fiction study of contemporary women authors, entitled, The Lives of the Muses : Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired (2002). She has received a Guggenheim fellowship, a Fulbright grant, and a Pushcart Prize. She has taught at Harvard, Sarah Lawrence, the Breadloaf Writer's Conference, and the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Prose's feature stories have appeared in many major newspapers and magazines, and she reviews books regularly for The New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post. She has also written the screenplay for an upcoming film on the life of singer Janis Joplin. Prose lives in New York City. After is her first novel for young adults.

After by Francine Prose is a tense and gripping novel ripped from today's headlines. The issues of personal freedom, civil rights, and institutional/governmental control should provoke a strong reaction in most readers. It is a must read for young people in schools after Columbine and adults living in America after September 11th. The book is recommended for ages 9 years through 12 years, but will definitely hold an adult's interest. I highly recommend this book.

 © 2003 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.

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