In this novel, a veteran teacher faces ethical boundaries as she invests in the academic and personal lives of her students.
Jane Frost has been teaching in the English as a Second Language program at McBee University in Iowa for more than 20 years. This tale primarily examines the triumphs and struggles of the international students enrolled in Jane’s ESL Low Intermediate Grammar/Writing class. Jane goes above and beyond to teach her students the intricacies of English so they can pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam in order to move on and enroll in American universities. She encourages her students of varying ages and cultural backgrounds to come together and find rapport. In particular, Jane takes an interest in her two Japanese students for very different reasons: Chika Yamamoto, an uninterested young woman with flunking grades, and 60-something Yumi Murata, an affable, hardworking woman and stellar student with some secrets of her own. When the usually gleeful Yumi begins withdrawing and her grades start to slip, Jane tussles with getting involved; in the past, she has been chastised by Kaye Bibber, the program director, for her liberal boundaries when it comes to the affairs of her students. Additionally, Jane is challenged by her new mentee, first-year teacher Donna Bittner, whose provocative clothing and odd, lackadaisical teaching style rattle McBee’s ESL department. In this finely constructed novel, Kasten (Wildwood, 2013, etc.) deftly focuses on Jane’s lessons, including teachings and conversations in class about dialogue, diction, grammar, and idioms of American vernacular. But the “twist” at the end of the tale is abrupt; a more thorough explanation would have been helpful. Jane is a strong character but she would have benefited from a more in-depth back story. Although there are a few anecdotes about her childhood memories and brief mentions of siblings, Jane also fleetingly alludes to her raucous time in the 1960s and her early adulthood “living communally and holding up hostile signs in front of certain corporate headquarters and military installations.” Fully explored, this would have added a nice layer to the narrative.
A well-crafted university story that speaks to the human spirit.