A wry teacher creates controlled chaos in her high school classroom in this tragicomic novel set in Texas.
Ellie Warden is a perfectly named character. As a teacher in a high school behavior-modification unit, her responsibilities lean more toward prison guard than educator. Ellie’s students in the New Pathways unit (or, as she has dubbed them, the Narcissistic Praise-Junkies) are a group of troubled kids with learning and behavioral problems, including OCD and Asperger’s syndrome. Ellie is full of patience and tough love. She copes with the stresses of her job with a hearty dose of black humor: She privately nicknames the kids based on their disorders (Becca, who suffers from OCD, is The Count; Trevor, who has Tourette’s syndrome, is Twitch) and talks about their various disabilities with a faux insensitivity that masks her compassion. But in many ways, Ellie is just as much of a misfit as her students. She’s a single, 32-year-old virgin who still lives at home with her cat and her religious mother, who raised Ellie to be mistrustful of relationships and marriage. Her monotonous life changes instantly when a horrific school shooting involves one of her students—an event that leaves Ellie shattered, although it pushes her toward an unlikely love interest, Dr. Peter Harmon. Peter, the uncle of one of Ellie’s students, is a smart, successful veterinarian—and he has Asperger’s syndrome. It’s a joy to watch their relationship blossom in the aftermath of the shooting and in spite of the complications associated with his condition. Bennett beautifully portrays Ellie’s quick wit, sharp sense of humor and deep vulnerability, and she provides an exquisitely rendered look at living with Asperger’s. Heavy themes suffuse the novel—sexuality, religion, prejudice and death—yet Bennett artfully provides moments of levity and humor. Her characters are realistic, heroic and flawed. Don’t let the tough talk fool you; Bennett’s book has heart.
This gritty novel about the pain others can inflict provides an unexpected sense of hope.