An underachieving sixth-grader plots to “murderlate” a bullying nun in this darkly comic semiautobiographical novel.
The author claims it all happened, and he hasn’t changed any of the names either. Joining his 61 overwhelmingly white New Jersey classmates on the first day, Jim is singled out by Sister Angelica Rose, who treats his academic efforts with scorn and his every action with suspicion. Fueled also by the way she repeatedly puts his friend Philip, who stutters, on the spot in class, Jim’s anger swells to rage, and with a group of classmates he concocts an elaborate get-back prank. Meanwhile, the 1958-59 school year carries on through memories of school food (“The first item offered was always the brown soup”), a memorable visit from a black Sister of Charity who works with lepers in Hawaii, and a stage production in which Jim wears a banana suit and leads a dancing corps of similarly clad second-graders. Though the author puts his putative self in a good light at the end with a last-moment change of heart about the prank and, thanks to determined volunteer tutelage from a female classmate, improved study habits, sudden belated efforts to give Sister Angelica a few redeeming qualities come off as perfunctory at best.
Wry commentary and schoolboy machinations lighten but don’t mask the sour tone, and Sister Angelica’s free pass will likely leave readers feeling cheated. (Historical fiction. 11-13)