Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Review: The Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter


The Blackboard Jungle is a novel that is best remembered for its film adaption (starring Glen Ford and Sidney Poitier in his breakout role,) that started riots in various parts of the world were it was shown, while author Evan Hunter would later find fame writing crime novels under the alias Ed McBain. (Evan Hunter was the novelists name after he changed it legally from Salvatore Albert Lombino. Throughout his long career he would also use several other aliases.) But what is surprising about this book, first published in the early 1950s, is just how relevant some of the themes of teenage delinquency are today and what little has changed.

The novel tells the story of Richard Dadier, a World War Two Veteran who has recently qualified as a secondary school teacher and now must spend a year teaching at a vocational school in New York. The boys at the school are rough, tough and basically illiterate and most of the teachers are just trying to survive their day job. Initially Dadier wins the respect of his students, but this is soon lost when he steps in and prevents a student from raping a female teacher. From that moment on, Dadier, known disrespectfully as Daddy-oh by his students, must suffer all kinds of shocking moments--a brutal beating after school, anonymous letters being sent to his wife, until eventually the year culminates in a shocking incident where he is stabbed by a student and Miller, the one student that Dadier holds out all hope for, must decide whether he is one of the boys, or if he can stand up and be a man.



There are parts of this novel that may as well be set in modern day. The author taps in, and nails, some of the most shocking parts of what makes some teenagers turn bad--most notably, the inability to think independently and outside of the confines of the group. Through Miller's character, we see the importance of bystander intervention and just how difficult it is for that one person who could make all the difference in the world to stand up. The way that some of the teachers are portrayed is as shocking as it is realistic, there is the ironically named Manners who wants nothing more than to be transferred to an all-girls school so that he can perve on, and perhaps have affairs with, the students there, and Solly who has resigned himself to the fact that things are never going to change so it seems pointless to keep trying. And then there is Josh, another graduate teacher who wants nothing more than to teach his students and to share his love of music, but whose dreams are left shattered when the boys in his class break his entire record collection, seemingly because they cannot comprehend its value but understand completely how it would hurt and upset their teacher. And then, of course, there is the troubling portrayal of Miss Havisham, the teacher who is almost raped. When she is introduced, the author notes: Solly wondered if she would wear that blouse on Monday, because if she did there would surely be a rape. Either from the students or the teachers or maybe both. Obviously, this is foreshadowing, seeing as an attempted rape later takes place. But as a contemporary reader, I found it troubling, just as I found her character troubling. Following her sexual assualt, Miss Havisham flirts with Dadier regularly, conveniently ignoring the fact that he is devoted to his pregnant wife Anne. She is, essentially, portrayed as a woman who is 'asking for it' while Dadier seems to be the only male character who is able to sufficiently control himself around her. There is basically no getting around the fact that the character and her part of the story is extremely condescending and sexist.

Despite a few flaws, this one is (mostly) a well written and interesting read. Recommended.

PS Just for fun, I'm including a link to the dramatic stabbing scene from the film. View it here.