"You thought you were so special!" Ross told them. "Better than everyone outside of this room. You traded your freedom for what you said was equality. But you turned your equality into superiority over non-Wave members. You accepted the group's will over your own convictions, no matter who you had to hurt to do it. Oh, some of you thought you were just going along for the ride, that you could walk away at any moment. But did you? Did any of you try it?
The Wave by Todd Strasser is a creepy little book I found while browsing in the young adult section of the library. For such a short book which can be read in a couple of hours, it struck me as deep and meaningful, and very well resisting to the tests of time (considering it was first published more than thirty years ago). It is the novelization of a real episode occurred in a Californian high school in the late Sixties.
The Wave is set at Gordon High School in Palo Alto, California, in 1969. During a lesson about Nazism, history teacher Ben Ross is trying to make his students understand why so many people might have followed Hitler. He founds a new system, a pseudo-military group called "The Wave", whose principles are based on "strength through discipline; strength through community; and strength through action".
Students in Ross's class start to feel like a whole, instead of divided into many different cliques. Soon The Wave is spreading throughout the whole school. Not everyone supports it, though. Laurie, the editor of the school newspaper, tries to make a stand against the movement with her editorials. Her boyfriend David, the quarterback in the football team, after some intial enthusiasm, realizes it is dangerous. But have things progressed too far for The Wave to be stopped?
This book hooked me in from the first few pages. We are introduced to History teacher Ben Ross, who is generally well-liked by all his students because he's young and passionate. After showing his students a video about WWII and concentration camps, Mr Ross finds it difficult to answer their questions about why Germans didn't rebel to Hitler. He decides to make an "experiment" and introduces the kids to military-style lessons. Soon "The Wave" expands to slogans, chants, banners, and recruiting. Eventually, supporters of The Wave resort to the use of violence against their fellow students.
It is stated that Mr Ross only wanted to teach his students a valuable lesson, and that his experiment got out of hand (see the cover: "The classroom experiment that went too far"). While experiencing things first-hand usually makes lessons difficult to forget, I have the feeling that Mr Ross manipulated his students. If I had been one of them, I would have felt cheated by a teacher I admired, because he obviously failed to stop The Wave before any damage was done.
Yet, The Wave makes a very good point. It's easy to say that Germans should have rebelled to Hitler in the 1930s, instead of obeying like good soldiers. It's also easy to think that such a thing could never happen again. Mr Ross shows both beliefs are wrong, and in this, he's teaching his students a very important lesson.
What flounders Ross, as well as the reader, is that in the beginning The Wave seems to be a positive factor. In a short time, kids are more disciplined and attentive during the lessons, thus allowing the teacher to progress with his program faster. They walk with better posture. They start feeling like a whole. This is particularly significant when the class slacker, who is often ridiculized and kept at a distance by other students, is accepted as a member of the group.
I also feel this novel might also be a cautionary tale against the dangers of letting power go to your head. At first, Mr Ross believes he has total control over his little experiment. Later, he realizes his following has grown, and that students - many of whom are not even in his class - look up at him as their leader, their general. One teen self-appoints himself as Mr Ross's bodyguard (it is not clear from whom he should be protected). The teacher is obviously pleased by this, so much that his wife has to force his hand and demand that he stop the experiment immediately.
I found this book very interesting and engaging. I wasn't a big fan of the dialogue, which often felt a bit stilted. But the ideas behind the narration gripped me. There might be some over-simplification of history, in that I'm sure that Nazism stemmed from the specific socio-political situation of Germany after WWI; these couldn't easily be reproduced nowadays or in a different historical period. Also, events in The Wave escalate into violence after only a few days, a week or so. This doesn't feel completely realistic to me. Either these students react a lot faster than I did when I was a teenager, or the novel timeline should have been extended to at least a couple of months.Cover appreciation:
the cover I posted at the top is, I think, the original cover used for the book in the Eighties and early Nineties. I find it quite effective and striking in its use of very few colours. I also posted the cover used in the early 2000. I don't like the red-orange background, and I think the representation of teens in a soldier uniform on the cover might be too explicit. On the left, you can see the cover for a new edition of The Wave to be published in January 2013. It is not very different from the original cover - it still depicts a close-up face and the wave logo - but it gives me a distinct dystopia feeling. I don't know if it just me, or that this cover reminds me other covers of dystopian young adult novels featuring some sort of symbol on the eye pupil, to indicate mind control. Moreover, this is a wide-open, vacant stare. Dystopia has very little, if anything, to do with The Wave, so I think it would have been better to put the wave logo on the boy's cheek, or close to the eye, but not inside the eye.