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"You go first, I'll follow"
on October 25, 2012
I suppose I should start off by saying that I began my career in a residential school somewhat like the fictional "Roaring Orchards" portrayed in this book, so this book held a special draw for me. There were plenty of differences between where I used to work and Roaring Orchards. We worked with kids of all ages, not just teenagers. We were in an urban rather than rural environment. We had a much bigger staff and much more supervision.
But there were enough similarities that Dan Josefson's portrayal not only rang true, but packed a wallop. My school too was a rarefied, nearly incestuous environment that, despite being in a major city and affiliated with a major university, was oddly isolated from the outside world. I too was one of those staff barely older/more mature (and definitely less streetwise) than many of the students I worked with. I too struggled to understand and implement the therapeutic "process" and be part of the daily therapeutic "milieu". And I too saw the pathos and tragedy that ensue when so many severely damaged kids are isolated with only each other and staff with their own issues. I often found myself wondering if Josefson's portrayal of Benjamin were perhaps autobiographical - how else could he paint such an unbelievable, yet utterly accurate, picture of such a place?
Not only does Josefson's novel work on a psychological level, it works on a literary level. Our narrator, Benjamin, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. His story is ostensibly a first person narrative, but it shifts frequently to a third person omniscient point of view, including many events, conversations and even thoughts, feelings and dreams, which Benjamin could not possibly know. He tells us early on that everything came from what he later learned or was told, but it seems improbable, at best, that head master Aubrey would have told him his dreams, for instance.
Benjamin is brought to Roaring Orchards ostensibly just for a tour, but his parents leave him behind and hurry out without so much as a goodbye, apparently on the advice of Aubrey. But even that is suspect, because Benjamin must have known that it was more than a tour, or else why would he have kicked out the window on his parents' car? Benjamin is initially placed into "Alternative Boys" dorm, the mid-level dorm for somewhat higher functioning kids. He is thrown into a world of unfathomable rules and a whole new language of allegedly therapeutic terms - mostly developed by Aubrey. Students in the dorm have to stay grouped within arm's length or else the entire group gets "hand held". Problems are addressed in "candor meetings" where everyone might have to write their "fibs" - functional intimacy blockers. Students who run or get violent may get put in a "wiggle" (another acronym, although I can't remember and can't find exactly what it stands for), get "cornered", "sheeted" or "roomed".
Benjamin makes it clear, without stating it directly, that no one at Roaring Orchards, staff or student, can be trusted. In a therapeutic milieu founded on the healing benefits of honesty, everyone exaggerates, distorts and/or outright lies. Often those lies are taken as the truth and the ordinary truth is rejected as "dishonest". Benjamin himself is (was, as he's telling us the story) a student at Roaring Orchards, so he is telling us that he can't be trusted either. Yet somehow underneath the lies and the distortions, a kind of truth emerges - a truth of enmeshed relationships, human nature and the intentional and unintentional damage we do to each other, particularly those to whom we are closest - either physically or emotionally.
Roaring Orchards is a place intended to be glorious and magical. Most of the dorms are located in the Mansion. There's also an "Enchanted Forest", a fountain, a garden and a farm on the premises. All of these elements are intended to have symbolic meaning in the students' healing process. But even in the time Benjamin is telling us about, the school is worn, shabby, almost tawdry. The carpet is fraying, additions have been added on haphazardly, the farm consists of a goat, a pig and a handful of chickens that only the maintenance man ever tends to. These faded elements too have symbolic importance.
Benjamin is telling us this story many years after he himself left the school and several years after the school was closed down completely. The buildings are still standing, but only just. The Mansion is a barren shell, so rotten that Benjamin can't even make it up the stairs safely. The Classroom Building is still nearly the way it was left, if dustier. It is there that Benjamin - now an adult - encounters some reminders and begins writing his narrative of his youth at Roaring Orchards. To whom he is writing or why is left as vague and misty as all the other senseless, tragi-comic events in the book.
This book left me feeling both pensive and wistful, but it is not a sentimental book. The book is deeply sarcastic, ironic and contemptuous of humanity, its cruelty and the possibility of healing. Yet somehow there is also something redeeming and hopeful about it. It is a book to be mulled over and peeled away in layers. It is a frustrating book, one that defies explanation, one that may leave you feeling left out of the joke. Highly recommended for those who can tolerate ambiguity and lack of resolution. 4.5 stars.