Title: The Wave
Author: Morton Rhue/Todd Strasser
Genre: Young Adult
Publication Date: 2016 (original publication date 1981)
Hardcover: 138 Pages
The Wave is based on a true incident that occured in a high school history class in Palo Alto, California, in 1969.
The powerful forces of group pressure that pervaded many historic movements such as Nazism are recreated in the classroom when history teacher Burt Ross introduces a “new” system to his students. And before long The Wave, with its rules of “strength through discipline, community, and action”, The Wave sweeps from the classroom through the entire school. And as most of the students join the movement, Laurie Saunders and David Collins recognize the frightening momentum of The Wave and realize they must stop it before it’s too late.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: copy from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Paperback
So this was interesting. I am not sure I am able to pick another word for the experience of reading The Wave. It’s an interesting book, based on a real-life experiment – but I didn’t find it a particularly good, well-written book.
But let me retrace my steps.
I got this novel as part of a marketing campaign from Penguin UK. The publishers are relaunching a collection of older YA novels, rebranded as “The Originals” i.e. the “first and the best in the YA genre”. The collection include gems such as I Capture the Castle as well as a couple of novels I had never heard about but which I am curious to read – for example, The Twelfth Day of July by Joan Lingard, set in Northern Ireland.
Curiosity is what prompted me to pick The Wave to read first. The novel was originally published in 1981 as a novelisation of a teleplay, itself a fictionalised account of The Third Wave, a teaching experiment that took place in a high school history class in the 60s in which a history teacher tried to replicate the conditions in which Germany “allowed” Hitler’s ascension to power. It is said that the experiment lasted five days and that it spiralled out of control with over 200 students becoming little Nazis pretty much as soon as the teacher taught them the concept of power through discipline and turning the school into a police state until the teacher called it quits five days later.
It all sounds extremely far-fetched. But I will get back to this in a moment.
The Wave takes place in Gordon High School in 1969. Ben Ross is a history teacher who becomes troubled by his inability to answer his students’ questions about Nazi Germany and how the Germans could have “allowed” Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party to rise to power. Ben, known for his outside-the-box teaching method, devises an experiment to show them how it is all possible – how one can act against their own moral values in the “right” circumstances. He starts one day to indoctrinate the class by teaching them the concept of “strength through discipline”. The students embrace this new discipline – in which they must stand up and address their teacher formally, if they wish to ask a question – enthusiastically. Two new slogans are introduced the next day about strength through action and through community. Like fire, these conceits spread around the school and even students from other classes start to embrace The Wave movement as something that is good and wholesome. Until a couple of students, including the ostensibly main character and star student Laurie Sanders, start questioning what feels like brainwashing and are bullied/threatened into compliance. Things snowball into an atmosphere of fear and Mr Ross sees no way out but to cancel the experiment – which, regardless of its demerits and dangers is at the end of the day deemed a “success” in proving the point. It all happens within 5 days.
It’s impossible to read this book and not think about the original “experiment”. The book is said to be a play-by-play replication of it which is all the more baffling to me. Even if I don’t dwell too much on the fact that this “social experiment” was devised without ground rules and any semblance of a controlled environment, the fact that there are not even notes or proper recording of it and that the original teacher only wrote about it 9 years after the fact, undermines the veracity of the account. But ok, let us buy that this actually happened as described. What does the experiment – as it happened – tell us? Does it tell us about the very specific conditions of Nazi Germany in any shape or form? I don’t think so.
One of the problems I have with it, especially with its usage as a “valid” experiment about Nazi Germany, is that this social “experiment” is simplistic and naïve and even dangerous in its simplicity. Nazi Germany did not happen in a vacuum and without understanding the economical, ethnical, political, historical environment that took decades and a World War in its making, getting a bunch of kids to behave in a disciplined way for 5 days is barely touching the surface, much less serving as an example of anything other than irresponsible teaching.
But going back to the novel, the validation of the experiment as is at the heart of the novel. Regardless of the fact that Mr Ross is portrayed as a noob who becomes addicted to power, the end result is that the experiment does work. I already talked about that the conceit in itself is farfetched but other novels have taken farfetched conceits and made it work through good storyline, writing and characterisation. Sadly, this is not the case here as The Wave reads super heavy-handed – it reads less as a piece of fiction and more as a cautionary tale about power (and corruption) and about history repeating itself.
From a writing YA perspective, it is interesting to note that adult Mr Ross is one of the viewpoint narrators and that there is a lot of third-person head-hoping even though Laurie Sanders is ostensibly the heroine of the novel – which is sort of cool. But the characters are barely developed, the story develops without much depth and I was left feeling baffled by the whole thing.
Like I said: reading it as an “original” YA novel was an interesting (this word again!) experiment (hehe).
Rating: 4 – Bad but not without some merit